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Words Not Swords

Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom Movement

Farzaneh Milani

Publication Year: 2011

A woman not only needs a room of her own, as Virginia Woolf wrote, but also the freedom to leave it and return to it at will; for a room without that right becomes a prison cell. The privilege of self-directed movement, the power to pick up and go as one pleases, has not been a traditional "right" of Iranian women. This prerogative has been denied them in the name of piety, anatomy, chastity, class, safety, and even beauty. It is only during the last 160 years that the spell has been broken and Iranian women have emerged as a moderating, modernizing force. Women writers have been at the forefront of this desegregating movement and renegotiation of boundaries. Words, Not Swords explores the legacy of sex segregation and its manifestations in Iranian literature and film and in notions of beauty and the erotics of passivity. Milani expands her argument beyond Iranian culture, arguing that freedom of movement is a theme that crosses frontiers and dissolves conventional distinctions of geography, history, and religion. She makes bold connections between veiling and foot binding, between Cinderella and Barbie, between the figures of the female Gypsy and the witch. In so doing, she challenges cultural hierarchies that divert attention from key issues in the control of women across the globe.

Published by: Syracuse University Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, About the Author

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pp. iii-vi


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiii

Some of the finest expressions of Iranian artistic talent do not carry the name of a creator. There is great wisdom behind this deliberate refusal to credit a single artist for an artifact. Scheherazade, the ultimate storyteller, inserted with infinite acumen a disclaimer at the very threshold of each story. Following the enigmatic “There was one, and there wasn’t one,” she added: “Other than God, there wasn’t anyone.” The framing sentence, the paradox, and proviso at that magical moment of creation,...

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Prologue: “Yeki Bud, Yeki Nabud”

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pp. xv-xxiv

“Yeki bud, yeki nabud”: Iranian stories always begin with this paradoxical phrase, which simply means, “Th ere was one, and there wasn’t one.”1 Throughout my childhood, this phrase was my passport to an enchanted world of wonder and mystery. Like the word abracadabra, it had incantatory powers: now you see it, now you don’t. It is so, and it is not so. Maybe, and then maybe not. Like dreams, like the unconscious, like nature in its infinite glory, “yeki bud, yeki nabud” was...

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Introduction: Keeping Women in Their Place

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pp. 1-26

In the political history of contemporary Iran, doubts about modernity, change, and relations with the West have oft en been projected upon women’s bodies and the space they occupy. Muslim clerics, revolutionaries, royalists, rightists, and leftists all have at times considered the “public display” of a female body a flag, a badge of national honor, at other times an emblem of collective shame—now a shortcut to modernity, then the symbol of a lost order. Th e 1979 Islamic Revolution in...

Part One: A Legacy of Containment

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1. Enclosed Bodies, Trapped Voices, Framed Images: The Poetics of Sex Segregation

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pp. 29-49

Sex segregation has had a powerful impact on Iranian literature. It has shaped the language, the themes, the plots, and the systems of literary representation used by men and women over the centuries. While the veil, a portable wall, concealed women’s bodies, silence and erasure, which are literary veils, disguised women’s voices and images in the great works of literature in Iran. Rules of modesty not only minimized physical contact between the sexes but also forbade aural...

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2. The Bonds of Beauty: Immobilizing the Ideal Woman in Iranian Literature

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pp. 50-73

In the sweltering heat of a summer day in Tehran in 1989, a female member of the morality police stopped me even though my hair was covered by a large head scarf and my body was cloaked in a long, loose tunic. Having returned home for the first time after the revolution, I did not fully grasp the strictness with which the new dress code was imposed on women, nor did I understand the power wielded by these arbiters of women’s behavior and appearance. I did not know...

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3. Pardeh Neshin, or “She Who Sits Behind the Screen”: The Spatial Politics of Iranian Cinema

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pp. 74-102

A synonym for the word woman in the Persian language is pardeh neshin: “she who sits behind the screen.”1 Th e expression perpetuates, even linguistically, the cultural ideal of feminine modesty and woman’s absence in public.2 Although Persian is not gender marked, the term pardeh neshin is understood to refer to a woman. It implies enclosure, invisibility, and immobility, all associations that are inseparable from conventional definitions of femininity. Traditional propriety...

Part Two:

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4. Badasht and Seneca Falls: Tahirih Qurratul‘Ayn and Elizabeth Cady Stanton

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pp. 105-127

Th ere are no photographs of Tahirih Qurratul‘Ayn (1817–52), the Iranian poet who publicly unveiled herself in 1848 and was executed at the age of thirty-six in 1852, aft er almost four years of imprisonment in the city of Tehran. In mid-nineteenth-century Iran, the newly introduced art of photography was reserved for the court, and no official prisons existed for women anywhere in the country.1 There was no need for them, really. Women were virtual prisoners, anyway, circumscribed...

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5. Icarus Reborn: Captivity and Flight in the Work of Forugh Farrokhzad

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pp. 128-154

Thee gods and goddesses of the Greeks understood it well: prisoners learn how to fly. According to the myth, Icarus was the son of Daedalus, the architect of the first labyrinth, the space of dead ends, winding roads with no beginning and no ends. In due course, though, the builder of the first prison became a prisoner himself. He was incarcerated with his son on Crete Island. To escape the waves, Daedalus created human wings for the two of them and counseled his son to...

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6. The Gypsy Poet: Fluidity and Flux in the Poetry of Simin Behbahani

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pp. 155-179

A woman in her eighties, who gleefully calls herself “a seductive Eve” and brandishes a cup of wine in one hand and a red apple in the other, might not be the first image that comes to mind when we think about Iran today. But to understand the work of Iranian poet Simin Behbahani (1927–) is to understand better the paradoxical nature of contemporary Iran. Indeed, if Emily Dickinson so much identified with her community that she occasionally signed her letters...

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7. Women on the Road: Shahrnush Parsipur and the Conference of Female Birds

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pp. 180-200

I could not believe my eyes or my ears. Th e band was playing lively Persian music, and it was accompanied by the melodious voice of a woman. Rowdy customers had turned their glasses and plates into drums, their knives and forks into drumsticks. A sea of torsos swayed to and fro in harmony with the seductive rhythms. “Welcome to Shab Sara [House of Night] Restaurant,” said the headwaiter, directing my friends and me to our reserved table. Th e House of Night would indeed...

Part Three: Prisoners Awaiting Liberation

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8. Reading and Misreading Iranian Women in the United States: On Abducted Daughters, Incarcerated Girls, and Invisible Women

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pp. 203-234

One spring day in 1994, a day like any other, I was taken hostage by an image. Wanting to strip the veil of its symbolic stigma, I had decided to teach my class at the University of Virginia covered in a chador. Th e distance between my office and the classroom seemed endless, and the familiar grounds of Thomas Jefferson’s academical village felt like burning coals under my restless feet. I looked forward with great anticipation to a provocative discussion. I wanted to make a...

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Epilogue: Words as Ambassadors of Peace and Beacons of Hope

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pp. 235-245

Th ere is a well-known Iranian proverb that recommends, “Kill a cat in the nuptial chamber.” Why murder and mayhem in a space of love and romance? I pondered for years. How is the slaying of a cat related to wedding rituals? I wanted to know. Why bloodshed at the threshold of matrimony? I knew the message of violence in this adage, even if targeted at a cat, was justified as a necessary form of intervention, a piece of advice to the newlyweds. But, then, what kind of a heterosexual relationship...


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pp. 249-302

Works Cited

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pp. 303-321


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pp. 323-345

E-ISBN-13: 9780815651604
E-ISBN-10: 0815651600
Print-ISBN-13: 9780815632788
Print-ISBN-10: 0815632789

Page Count: 312
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 759924628
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Words Not Swords

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Muslim women in literature.
  • Women authors, Iranian.
  • Feminism and literature -- Iran.
  • Women in literature.
  • Persian literature -- History and criticism.
  • Purdah in literature.
  • Social control in literature.
  • Women and literature -- Iran.
  • Women in motion pictures.
  • Persian literature -- Women authors -- History and criticism.
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