Writing Women's Lives in Iran

When walls surround houses, taqiyeh protects faith, ta'arof plunges the addressee and the addresser into factual suspense, feelings get disjointed in zaheri/bateni, when abstractions supplant concreteness, generalities replace the specific, and indirection is a common practice, autobiographies become a rare commodity in the literary arena. The rather rare attempts at autobiography found among Iranians, until recently, are the logical literary extensions of a culture that creates, expects, and values a certain separation between the inner and the outer, the private and the public.

Women who have been deliberately kept away from the arena of public life and discourse have had a still more restrained relation to public self-representation. Erased from the public scene and privatized, they were, for long, without autobiographical possibilities. Indeed, the emergence of women's autobiographies, in Iran, can be traced to no earlier than the mid-twentieth century.

However limited in number--twenty four in all--these autobiographies constitute a highly heterogeneous body of works. Although the overwhelming majority of them follow in their delineation of relationships a conventional pattern and they are ambivalent about self-exposure and self-attention, still the choice of an autobiographical format attests to the singularity of the enterprise. It bears the individual and individualized imprint of a female voice. By textualizing personal experience, by saying "I" in a written and public text, this choice shows a reverence for and fascination with the individual. It bespeaks the development of a literature of a woman-self in which woman becomes both the object and the subject of scrutiny. It testifies to a search by women for autonomy and public self-expression.

Farzaneh Milani
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