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Words, Not Swords : Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement

Farzaneh Milani

mardi 2 août 2011, par Collectif LP

Words, Not Swords : Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement

June 01, 2011 // 12:00pm — 1:15pm


Farzaneh Milani, Professor of Persian Literature and Women’s Studies and Chair of the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia, discussed the connections between gender, space, and physical mobility against the backdrop of the Arab Spring and demonstrations in Iran.

On June 1, the Middle East Program hosted a book talk, Words, Not Swords : Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement, with Milani. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event.

Milani introduced her talk by positing that women’s bodies and women’s voices are interrelated and that prohibiting movement analogously stifles expression. She cautioned against "fetishizing" the veil and noted the paradox that the veil can be a sign and symbol of segregation as well as a means of desegregation. Gender apartheid, she said, is a function of space and control of women’s freedom of movement, not of the veil.

Regarding the role of women in the recent demonstrations and revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa, Milani praised the desegregated nature of the protests. Women, young and old, veiled and unveiled, walked shoulder to shoulder with men in unprecedented numbers. The significant and highly visible role that women have played in these protests is a "revolution within revolutions." Women are indeed at the forefront of these moderating, modernizing movements. In particular, Milani commented on the case of Saudi women pursuing the right to drive as a reflection of the connections between mobility and power, and the desire of women to gain access to the public sphere.

Milani discussed the history of ideal femininity as stationary and silent. She emphasized that restricting women’s mobility is not the monopoly of any single faith, culture, or country. Milani observed that for instance feminine ideals of beauty often emphasized tiny feet. By contrast, perceptions of flawed femininity have drawn on images of women in motion, those who "walk the streets" or, like witches, ride broomsticks or bicycles. Milani stated that "freedom of movement is central to gender equity." Segregation, through the control of space and women’s freedom of movement, impacts women’s lives in several ways. It curtails their access to education and centers of power ; it impedes their participation in the public forms of art and the labor force.

Addressing the realms of art and literature in Iran, Milani noted that although women have long "ruled supreme" in the production of private art forms, such as lullabies, stories, carpet weaving, cooking, knitting, and embroidery, they have only recently become major producers of public forms of art. In focusing on Iranian history, Milani related that although there have been many individual women poets in the Pantheon of Persian literature, the establishment of a tradition of women writers is a more recent development that she traces back to Tahirih Qurratul’Ayn, a poet and women’s activist in the mid-19th century. Milani contends that in spite of all obstacles or perhaps because of them, there is a "renaissance of women writing." Unprecedented numbers of women write poetry, novels, and short stories. More than two thousand women work in the publishing industry. Several women win prestigious literary awards.

Iranian women, said Milani, have invaded previously all-male territory.

By Laura Rostad, Middle East Program

Music & Arts : Farzaneh Milani’s Latest Book, Words, Not Swords

Washington Report Archives (2011-2015) - 2011 August

August 2011, Page 48

Music & Arts

Farzaneh Milani’s Latest Book, Words, Not Swords

Iranian author Farzaneh Milani. (Staff photo M. O’Sullivan)

Iranian author and scholar Farzaneh Milani spoke at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC on June 1 in conjunction with the publication of her new book, Words, Not Swords. Dr. Milani discussed the issue of women’s rights, focusing on Iranian women writers and freedom of movement for all women. She sought to frame feminist activism in the wider context of current events, specifically with regard to the Iranian Green Movement of 2009 and the 2011 Arab Spring.

Emphasizing the "desegregated nature of the demonstrations," Milani described them as unprecedented "revolutions within revolutions." While many women in the region have been previously denied such liberties as freedom of movement, higher education, and an equitable role in governance and culture, she noted, their voices are now expressed and supported alongside general calls for democratic principles, signaling the importance of gender equality as a fundamental human right. The feminist movement is not drawing support from isolated groups, she added, but is advocated by both young men and women united in their pursuit of an egalitarian society.

Milani cited recent efforts in Saudi Arabia to ensure women’s right to drive cars, which has drawn significant support from both genders there and throughout the Arab world. Calling freedom of movement an essential element of the fight for gender equality, she discussed at length how the immobilization of women is a principal element of gender discrimination around the world.

On the issue of the veil in Muslim society, Milani argued that while "the veil can be a sign, a symbol, and a means of segregation…it can also do the opposite." Iranian women have been writing more in the period since the Islamic Revolution, when the hijab became a much more prevalent accessory, she pointed out. Regarding current discourse on the veil, Milani cautioned that "we have fetishized the veil to the point that it has veiled us."

With these thoughts in mind, Milani explained that her book explores how women have used the written word as a means of escaping demobilizing restraints enforced by society. Commenting on the universal nature of this struggle, she drew parallels between feminist movements and sentiments in the West—including the work of Susan B. Anthony and the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848—and in the East, highlighting the poetry of Simin Behbahani, whose work served as the inspiration for the title of Milani’s new book. Elaborating, Milani explained how the "renaissance of women’s writing in Iran" throughout the post-revolutionary period has given rise to a generation of feminist activists in the country. She expressed optimism that the feminist movement will be strengthened as protests continue throughout the Middle East.

—Mathew O’Sullivan

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