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SHAHRNUSH PARSIPUR’S novel, Tuba va Mana-ye Shab (Tuba and the Meaning of the Night) (1989), begins with series of interesting images. It opens at the end of the Qajar dynasty, at a time when Western thought and new ways of living directly begin to influence and change the traditional closed society of Iran. The heroine ’s father is an adib, a poet-scholar, a simple man who is preoccupied with philosophy and poetry. One day as he walks the streets immersed in his thoughts, a foreigner on horseback runs him down. The insolent foreigner whips the adib across the face. Later he is forced to go to the adib’s house to apologize. This incident is the adib’s first and last direct encounter with the Western world. The seemingly incongruous but most important result of the meeting is his startling discovery that the earth is round. Before, he had been vaguely aware of the earth’s roundness, but had preferred to ignore it. For several days the adib contemplates what the roundness of the earth means for him. He instinctively realizes the connection between the foreigner’s presence, the roundness of the earth, and all the changes and upheavals yet to come. After several days he announces his conclusion: “Yes, the earth is round; the women will start to think; and as soon as they begin to think they will become shameless” (Parsipur, 1989). Parsipur’s novel, published 10 years after the success of the Islamic revolution in Iran, demonstrates the degree to which Iran’s past dilemmas are still very much alive within its present historical and political context. The adib’s painful epiphany imagiSOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 3 (Fall 2003) The Quest for the “Real” Woman in the Iranian Novel AZAR NAFISI natively reconstructs the importance of women’s social and political consciousness and the role played by what he calls their shamelessness in the changing relations between the public and private spaces in Iran’s modern history. It is important that this conclusion is reached through the destabilizing and humiliating presence of the foreigner and the discovery of the roundness of the earth. How is that past still alive in this present? In what ways have the social, cultural and political issues centered on women become essential to an understanding of the relation between private and public spaces in the present-day Iran? This paper is a preliminary attempt to respond to these questions by tracing the changing images of women in contemporary Iranian literature, mainly fiction . I will study these images with a discussion of the ways through which works of imagination represent as well as rearticulate the tensions created by the confrontations between the public and private spheres. The adib’s conclusions stem from the destabilizing and humiliating intervention of the foreigner in his life, not unlike the first encounters of Iranian society with what is commonly called “the West.” This encounter, while humiliating, is also enlightening, for it simultaneously points to Iranian society’s backwardness as well as the road to its movement forward, a road that can only be paved by a radical transformation in the traditional perceptions and reinterpretation of reality and its re-creation through works of imagination. * The movement for change in Iran, as in many other countries we call Muslim, began in mid-1900s as a homegrown struggle for a modern nation-state. It was the result of a deep political, social, and cultural crisis, leading to a basic questioning of the tenets of 982 SOCIAL RESEARCH both the celestial (orthodox religion) and terrestrial (political despotism) absolutes that ruled Iran. As Iran began to have increasing contact with the West, many sectors of the population—especially intellectuals, minorities, clerics and women—became increasingly aware of their nation’s problems. From the mid-nineteenth century these forces continually struggled with Iran’s rulers over the degree to which Iran should close the gap with the West by modernizing itself. The result was the 1906 Constitutional Revolution. The movement that culminated in the Constitutional Revolution was not confined to the revolutionary demands for more political openness and social rights for women and minorities, but was accompanied and...


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pp. 981-1000
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