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Words, Not Swords

Farzaneh Milani

mardi 29 mars 2011, par Collectif LP

Farzaneh Milani is professor of Persian Literature and Studies in Women and Gender at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Veils and Words : The Emerging Voice of Iranian Women Writers and the coeditor and translator of A Cup of Sin : Selected Poems by Simin Behbahani.

Words, Not Swords

Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement

Farzaneh Milani


"The breadth and depth of her work is astounding, expansive, and extensive—a tour de force." —Shahla Haeri, author of No Shame for the Sun : Lives of Professional Pakistani Women

"Helps us understand how today’s Iranian women occupy a far greater space than ever in their changing society. This is a rare, complex and much needed discourse that should help transform the perpetual Western gaze which continues to define Iranian women as pure victims." —Shirin Neshat, artist and filmmaker

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.

Farzaneh Milani

Born and raised in Teheran, Iran, Farzaneh Milani attended French primary and secondary schools. She earned her BA in French Literature in 1970 from California State University at Hayward. Transferring to the University of California in Los Angeles, she completed her graduate studies in Comparative Literature in 1979. Her dissertation, Forugh Farrokhzad : A Feminist Perspective, was a critical study of the poetry of a pioneering Iranian woman poet. Milani taught Persian Language and Literature at UCLA for four years before coming to the University of Virginia in 1986. Past president of the Association of Middle Eastern Women Studies in America, Milani was the recipient of Alumni Teaching Award in 1998. She is the author of "Veils and Words : The Emerging Voice of Iranian Women Writers," " A Cup of Sin : Selected Poems of Simin Behbahani" (with Kaveh Safa), She has served as the guest editor of "Nimeye Digar" "IranNameh", and "Journal of Iranian Studies". Milani has written some 100 articles, book chapters, introductions, and afterwards in Persian and English and lectured at over 150 colleges and universities nationally and internationally. Her poems have been published in "Nimeye Digar," "Par," "Barrayand," "Daneshju," "Omid," and "Avaye Portland." Milani teaches courses in Persian literature and cinema, Women and Islam, and cross-cultural studies of women.

Commentaires :


Words, Not Swords by Farzaneh Milani ✰✰✰✰

Quick Version :

A brief survey of women in the arts, writing in particular, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and how their political climate affects their portrayal and their voice.

Long Version :

I was drawn to review this book for two reasons. First among them, political Islam is an area I studied, and second, women in Islamic societies intrigue me. Initially I thought that the book would discuss the works of Iranian female writers and the restrictions which their government places upon their work. This book was quite a bit more complex.

Ms. Milani lays out some background information for her book in a rather repetitive introduction. It does not state on the galley I read whether or not it has been edited as of yet, so perhaps a final, tighter copy will emerge. Even as is, her points are interesting enough to keep me moving through the text. A good deal of background information is given regarding the history of veiling, not just in the Muslim world, but in other cultures and faiths as well ; she also discusses issues of men and the turban. In the author’s opinion, the veil is not the issue so much as the confinement of women, their inability to move freely through their society, and not just physically. It is their voice, as much as their body, which is suppressed.

Iranian tales are discussed in the first section of the book. It is fascinating to see these tales through the lens of a Persian woman and understand how a people’s stories can reflect the minutia of a culture. Ms. Milani does not expect her reader to be up on their Middle Eastern folk literature and gives enough background of each for you to follow her points illustrating the immobilization of women. She moves forward chronologically to show the reader what has changed, and what has not, in more modern works.

One of the most fascinating parts of the book, for me, was the section on Iranian cinema. The ways in which directors navigate the sticky issue of portraying female characters on screen range from clever to outright ludicrous (to my western eyes). She also discusses the politics of women in the audience.

In the second section of the book four women and their works were specifically examined. Their stories are told with such passion and admiration that I was saddened, not for the first time, by how little of the Middle Eastern canon has been translated into English.

The concluding section of the book addresses the author’s frustration with the “hostage auto-biography” which forms most western readers’ opinions of Middle Eastern women as invisible, timid, and voiceless. There are two sides to every story, and Ms. Milani wants us to celebrate the valiant women who spread their wings to expand their physical and vocal space.

Commentaires des lecteurs :

Another Netgalley selection, I found this irresistable with the publisher’s promise of an intersection of feminism, multiculturalism (Milani is Iranian), and literary criticism. Every page delivered that and more ! Milani made so many fascinating, well constructed arguments that either extended my own feminism or had me mentally fist pumping in the air in solidarity that I was in agonies waiting for it to be published so I could gush to y’all. Despite Milani’s obvious erudition, this book is completely accessible to an intelligent lay reader ; as someone with no background in literary theory I never felt lost. And while Milani doesn’t sugarcoat the problems of a patriarchal society, her tone is fundamentally hopeful, which made the reading even more delightful. She has the special gift for combining specific analysis (the subtitle is Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement and she mentions lots of Iranian authors-and films-for your wishlist) with a look at the broader picture that characterises my favourite type of nonfiction. And her writing style is consistently engaging. If I could type more, I’d be sharing many notable passages, but you’ll just have to take my word for it. This was my perfect type of nonfiction, and I’m already contemplating a reread. Definitely one to get your hands on, particularly if you’re at all interested in women’s studies, cultural exchanges, Orientalism, or literary theory !

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