Literary Review

Women, unbound

Women Without Men; A Novel Of Modern Iran; Shahrnush Parsipur, Women Unlimited, Rs.350.  

Let’s start at the end, instead of at the very beginning. The reason is the delightful Author’s Note with which Shahrnush Parsipur chooses to close her novella. Written with humour, irony and a flair for the absurd — elements that also feature in this series of mystifying, somewhat disjointed, even disturbing interconnected tales that make up Women without Men — it not only offers vital clues to some of the characters, but rare insights as well into the kind of Iranian family the author herself was born into. The most compelling is a cameo of her mother, a descendant of the Qajar dynasty, who, while living in abject poverty, taught her children to address her as “Dear Princess”.

What emerges from this note and from the narratives it follows is a telling portrait of women living in an oppressive society bound by strict religious tradition. Except that in Parsipur’s fictional world, her female protagonists make an effort to transcend their restrictive circumstances. In doing so, some evolve in startling ways. Mahdokht, for example, escapes a life of ennui and repressed sexual longing by finding fulfilment as a tree. Setting down roots in an allegorical garden – a metaphor, perhaps, for an Eden-like refuge where one is allowed to bloom and grow naturally — on the outskirts of Tehran, she is nurtured by a man known as the “Kind Gardener”. The other women protagonists eventually gather in the same garden, but Parsipur makes it clear that fairy-tale endings are not for everyone.

Farrokhlaqa, for instance, a middle-aged aristocrat of considerable means, submits to the sexual demands of a husband she despises, while lusting for another man. On being widowed, she tries in vain to overcome her restlessness, but ultimately surrenders to a marriage of convenience that is “not torrid by any means, but not frigid either”. After much scheming, Fa’iza eventually gets the man she has been hankering after, but not in quite the way she had envisioned. Munis must die twice to be resurrected and reborn. Yet, her “journey toward humanity” leaves her “fatigued and aged, devoid of hope and vision”.

Zarrinkolah is more fortunate. A prostitute, whose daily sessions with unknown men are so mechanical that she ends up in a perennial hallucinatory state, where all men appear headless, shorn of identity and, therefore, indistinguishable, she finds her way to the magical garden, marries the Kind Gardener and conceives. Giving birth to a flower, she nurtures Mahdokht’s arboreal avatar with her breast milk. Ironically, she is the only one who finds fulfilment in marriage.

In following the trajectory of these women, we travel through different worlds, one of aspiration, the other of difficulties in its realisation, one of dreams, the other of grim reality, one replete with violence and bloodshed — both at the political level (set in Iran of the 1950s, these narratives have as their backdrop a Tehran in the grip of civil unrest following the CIA-orchestrated coup of 1953) and at the personal (rape, suicide, murder, accidents) — the other suffused with fantasy. But neither is complete in itself.

Extraordinary though its premise is and unusual its treatment, with generous doses of magical realism producing some beautiful lyrical passages, a sense of déjà vu persists as the novella draws to an end; why, we wonder, does it remind us of those New Wave European films of yore with their eerily nebulous worlds, their angst-ridden protagonists and the never-unveiled mysteries that drive their compulsions?

One can’t help admiring the author’s courage, though, and not merely for giving expression to her vision. Although she now lives in exile like some of her fellow Iranian women writers, Azar Nafisi and Kamin Mohammadi, Parsipur stands out for daring to publish the Persian version of her novella (in 1989) while still living in Iran. She was arrested and jailed by the authorities for her “defiant portrayal of women’s sexuality” and her book is still banned in the country of her birth, where, incidentally, it had become a best-seller. Parsipur, however, has had the last laugh: inspiring an award-winning film by Shirin Neshat (who wrote the Foreword to this novella), Women without Men is destined to live on despite the best efforts of its detractors.

Women Without Men; A Novel Of Modern Iran; Shahrnush Parsipur, Women Unlimited, Rs.350.

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Printable version | Jul 27, 2021 9:30:18 PM |

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