In the News

The Justice (October 17, 2006)

When the going gets tough, Iranian women pick up their pens

by Kate Roller

"What can literature really do?"

In a world often plagued with racism, sexism and narrow minds, "is there any way in which art can give us some of these answers?"

These were the questions posed by Prof. Harleen Singh (GRALL) last Thursday at a panel, "Women and Literature in Iran," the opening event of this semester's MusicUnitesUS intercultural residency, in which two musicians from Turkey and Iran will share their unique perspectives on the Middle East's culture and art with the Brandeis community.

The panel brought a lively audience of about 20 people, ready with questions about the differences between the Iran portrayed in bestsellers like Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran-which paints a bleak portrait of unrelenting, stifling and often violent oppression-and the reality of Iranian daily life today. Many attendees seemed surprised to learn that, according to the New York Times, there are 13 times as many female novelists in Iran as there were a decade ago, and that there are now more women enrolling in universities in Iran than men.

Singh, who moderated the panel, was joined by two Brandeis graduate students of Iranian extraction: Negar Mortazavi, who lived in Tehran until four years ago and who is now studying sustainable international development at the Heller School, and Naghmeh Sohrabi, a postdoctoral fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies whose father left Iran for Los Angeles in 1979.

Sohrabi, who teaches the "Modern Middle East History through the Arts and Popular Culture" course, blamed much of Western misunderstanding of Iran on the Iranian diaspora, of which she is a part. "We have not written," she said with a self-deprecating shrug. "I don't blame it on anybody else if there was a lot more [literature about Iran], then I think it would have a different meaning."

Mortazavi agreed, saying that books like Reading Lolita in Tehran succeed because they fill a gap in Americans' knowledge of Iran, even though they may not be politically current and the author sometimes only "flirts with the truth."

Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis and Persepolis 2 were the subjects of a much less heated discussion; Sohrabi and Mortazavi agreed that the two graphic novels met a much warmer reaction from members of the Iranian diaspora, an outcome which they attributed to the books' less mainstream and less overtly political reception and to "her Persian humor that's a very big part of Persian culture."

All three panelists agreed that literature by Iranian women actually living in Iran-while slightly harder to come by than works from the diaspora-could provide American readers with a more complete picture of life in Iran, suggesting Shahrnoush Parsipour's Touba and the Meaning of Night and Women Without Men. With American political rhetoric growing increasingly aggressive toward Iran, and Iran responding in kind, they seemed to suggest even the barest chance that literature can create greater understanding between Americans and Iranians will provide a worthy answer to the question: "What can literature really do?"

Original at: