It is a dreamy and nightmarish tale of women for various reasons abandoning men in their lives. Set in Iran in 1953, during the coup d’etat that rages around them in Tehran, the book still manages to bring an eerie sense of calm and isolation.
I got this book from my mum for Easter. She recently decided to energetically support my exploration of literature in translation and outside of the Anglo-Saxon culture. This is great because each of those books pushes me out of the comfort zone of the English-speaking cultural circle in which I recently got a bit stuck.
Shahrnush Parsipur is an Iranian writer and translator, who for years now lived outside of her country. While still in Iran she has been imprisoned multiple times and those experiences fuelled some of her writing. Women Without Men has been banned on its publication in 1989. Parsipur published the short story forming the first part of the novella in 1974 and it already brought her some unwanted government attention. She has been pressured to desist from this type of writing. But instead, she chose to leave Iran.
It is interesting that the book caused such an upheaval, because it really describes what one expects to see in terms of how women were treated in Iran. It is the story of several women in various living situations. All of them at one point decide to abandon their lives. We have here a teacher that decides to become a tree, a prostitute who at one point sees all her customers headless, a middle-aged housewife sick and tired of her husband’s hate and incompetence, a young woman whose life is controlled by her brother and a friend of hers who is dead set on marrying the said brother, despite him showing no interest in her.
The book is realistic in its descriptions of relations between people, especially how women are treated by men. But women’s reaction when it hits the extreme becomes one of the magic realm. We have the teacher actually turning into a tree, another woman turning into sheer light, the third one dies multiple times and yet keeps coming back. Those magical elements for me served to show the breaking point when the reality is just too much to bear and one divorces oneself from it.
The novella is composed of several short stories, but they all do converge when all the women meet in a garden in Karaj. For a while, they all settle there, with a good gardener, who never reveals his name. They live in this enclave without men. But this is where Parsipur’s book becomes so realistic. Some may end the book there, the women finding their safe heaven seem like an appropriate point. But for Parsipur that misses the point. Abandoning the world is no solution at all. She uses the garden just as a short stop on the way where the women can reenergize and move one. And each of them moves on in a different way.
Parsipur manages to make each of the characters a distinctive individual. Their reactions and motivations clear to us. It is not a surprise that they change their direction and after a while, they scatter to four winds.
What I found amazing about this book is how Parsipur in very few words describes the various forms of oppression women meet with. We have the obvious things like beatings and honor killings. But there’s also the constant controlling of one’s behavior and looks. And then another layer formed by how women, conditioned by men and patriarchy, start controlling other women. In very sparse prose and almost by chance Parsipur shows us the intricate system that binds the women like the web. They crave safety, love, and happiness, but all of this is conditional on fulfilling society’s expectations, which precludes happiness. A vicious loop.
I loved how those women took action, some of them made a choice others were forced to do so. But they all decided the status quo cannot stand. They abandoned their lives and foud at least a temporary asylum. To regroup, gather strength, think about what they want to do next. It may feel crazy, but it felt luxuriant to even be granted this short respite.
It is a beautiful book with a distinctive style, romantic at items and deadpan and almost brutal at others. There is clarity to the writing, that brings a sharp focus on what is most important.
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska