Women of Letters Key Players in Iran’s Social Revolution

By Noah Bricker

Words, Not Swords
By Farzaneh Milani
Syracuse University Press 2011

The condition of women in Iran is paradoxical. Iranian women can vote and run for elected office, but they must adhere to a strict dress code. They drive cars and even taxis, but are forbidden to operate bicycles. While Iranian women are oppressed at times by restrictive laws and customs, Farzaneh Milani is careful to point out that the popular Western “hostage narrative,” which depicts Iranian women as hopeless victims, is clearly not true. Upon finishing “Words, Not Swords,” the reader has no choice but to agree. 

Milani’s book traces the importance of women as writers and literary figures within the present social revolution that is taking Iran by storm. This revolution, not to be confused with the type of revolution we have seen in Tunisia or Egypt, is one that is transforming the role women play in society, especially in the public sphere. The author provides compelling evidence that the traditional walls and barriers that for so long relegated women to the confines of the home are collapsing under their own weight. She also suggests that the increasingly mobile and intelligent female literati of Iran are the major impetus behind not just a change in gender relations, but also a much broader social change. She argues that the freedom of movement now available to women is making it increasingly hard for Iranians to avoid difficult questions about the role women play in society.

Appropriately, Milani shows a strong appreciation for the deep history behind the Persian female literary movement and details the gradual progression of female literary figures from fictional characters like Scheherazade to influential writers like Tahirih Qurratul’Ayn and Forugh Farrokhzad.  Her prose is exacting but sensitive, and Milani spends ample time analyzing the poetry and writings of famous female figures, making her book particularly appealing to aficionados of Persian verse.

Although she claims the veil is not a main barrier to change, she examines the history of the veil and other restrictive measures found in both Persian society and certain interpretations of Islam. The final section of her book is undoubtedly the most controversial because it contains an emphatic dismissal of a number of best-selling books that claim to reveal the plight of trapped Iranian women. She dismisses Azar Nafisi’s now famous “Reading Lolita in Tehran” and Ayan Hirsi Ali’s “The Caged Virgin,” both best sellers, with a critique as unsparing as it is fair. Milani’s perspective counterbalances the narratives presented by Ali and Nafisi, which makes it a must read for all aware readers.

The book’s only real flaw comes from Milani’s attempt to expand her thesis beyond the contemporary circumstances of Iranian women to include the plight of women across the world. While this is an admirable goal, it feels forced, but this idealism should not distract the reader from the author’s main contention – that Iranian women have, with the help of literature, outgrown the stifling aspects of tradition, and have done so in such a way that there seems to be no turning back.

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 17, no. 65

© Copyright 2014  AL JADID MAGAZINE