Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Women Without Men by Shahrnush Parsipur

Shortly after the 1989 publication of Women Without Men in her native Iran, Shahrnush Parsipur was arrested and jailed for her frank and defiant portrayal of women’s sexuality. Now banned in Iran, this small masterpiece was eventually translated into several languages and introduces U.S. readers to the work of a brilliant Persian writer. With a tone that is stark, and bold, Women Without Men creates an evocative allegory of life for contemporary Iranian women. In the interwoven -destinies of five women, simple situations—such as walking down a road or leaving the house—become, in the tumult of post-WW II Iran, horrific and defiant as women escape the narrow confines of family and society—only to face daunting new challenges.
Goodreads description

What the description above does not say is just how beautiful this novella is. Women Without Men does tackle the issues facing Iranian women, but it does so in a magical and poetic way. Magic realism is used to make bearable and visible the oppression these women face and to give voice to their dreams. 

I am not surprised this book so shocked the Iranian establishment. We see behind the veil into the lives, hopes and disappointments of the five woman. One is murdered by her brother for dishonouring the family, although all she did was to leave the family home for a few days. She rises from the dead, able to read the thoughts of those around her. Another, in her desire and need to be loved by a man, acts as an accomplice to the murderer only to be betrayed by him. One turns into a tree in order to protect her virginity while expressing her sexual desire. Another, a prostitute, leaves the brothel when she starts seeing men as having no heads. The fifth is a beautiful wife, who kills her controlling husband by accident, and buys the garden that becomes the refuge for the other women and herself. 

Women's sexuality, its suppression and indeed the denial of its existence by the patriarchal Iranian society is at the heart of the book. Parsipur shows that this denial is destructive of the relationship between men and women. Men are shown to suffer by their failure to see the truth about women. For example, the murderer marries a girl who is outwardly everything a good Iranian girl should be: very beautiful, soft and quiet, modest, shy, diligent, hard-working, dignified, chaste, and neat. She wears a chador, always looks down when she is in the street and blushes constantly. But he has been deceived.  

Interestingly there is a sixth occupant of the garden - a man known only as the Good Gardener. His behaviour is shown in contrast to that of other men. He is a nurturer and lover of women. He enables the tree to bear fruit and marries the former prostitute and fathers a child by her, but the child is not a baby but a lily. The garden he creates changes the women in  different ways; not all are magically transformed, two simply are able to reconsider and reset their relationship with men. A key point is that none of the women, including the tree, stay in the garden once it has worked its magic. The long-term answer is not for women to live separate from the man's world. 

I recommend this book to you. It may be short but it holds far more than many books four times its length.

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