Censorship and Iranian Women Writing in Exile

Censorship and Iranian Women Writing in Exile

We live in a world in which freedom of expression remains theoretically and practically unstable. As annabell Patterson says and I quote,’ it is by no means clear that the “Free World” has solved the problem areas as freedom of information in relation to national security, intellectual liberty, the right of the public and freedom from censorship for its citizens.” End of quote. If this so-called free world has failed to solve these problems, the developing world is far behind the whole notion. The effect of censorship as a cultural and social experience of limitation and threat on writerly psyche and its products cannot be limited or eliminated by issuing decrees by the establishment of censorship. Censorship as a genre is not limited to the state. It is a genre that is manifested in socio-culture of nations and at a personal level the psyche of the individuals, who have lived under protective conventions for generations.

When the eastern European countries emerged as nations in the 1990, they engaged in a struggle for self-definition as well as physical territory, and as a consequence, freedom of expression was not taken for granted but was a major subject of political and intellectual concern. The experience of censorship and its threat has been the subject of theatrical performances as well as memoirs. Valcav Havel, the Czeck writer who later became president of Czeck Republic writes of his experiences with the prison guards:

‘I wrote my requests in a way that enabled me to outwit the prison censorship. Prison conditions compelled him to function as an artist and so he could complete, Letters to Olga’.

I would argue that there is always an unstable relationship between the censorship and holders of power. But does that change when the artist moves away from the power and begins her work outside the geographical territory of censorship? Experience shows that not much changes, at least in the short term. To be free, to practice freedom and to be rid of fear that is imbedded in the psyche of the individual requires a long period of time. Besides, when one moves to different geographical location, the lack of knowledge of the extent to which one is free to express his/her thoughts adds to the already imbedded fear. Censorship and the threat or fear in the public domain is easier to remove than the cultural and social censorship elements. Areas such as religion, sexuality, sexual desires, cultural and social taboos and all non-conformist trends are much harder to be broken and removed.

To relate the issue of censorship to the Iranian women writers I have to go back in brief to the history of Iranian women in the 20th century. Iranian women as the most modern group in the Middle East have been the subject of much writing and research in recent decades.

Iran had a constitutional revolution even before the Russian revolution in the early 20th century, where women participated in it in large numbers and some were killed in the battlefields. They had entered the workforce since 1934 when they were forcibly unveiled by Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi Dynasty. Nevertheless there were a number of women and men feminists who welcomed the unveiling. In the first three decades of the century and before World War II, women had 53 magazines and journals in circulation. In a city of Rasht in north of the country the first theatre opened years before the war, where women played in public. Women gained the right to vote and be voted in 1963 and there were a number of women senators and MPs and in the government as well as judges and lawyers. When the 1979 revolution was in the making, Iranian women were the most active group in the revolution. They rightly believed at the time that the Shah was a dictator and had to be removed. When the revolution occurred hundreds of political prisoners who were freed from prisons were women. When the new Islamic regime took to power and issued its first decree regarding the forced veiling of women, the very same women participated in street demonstrations and strikes and other acts of defiance. It is now 3 decades since that date and Iranian women are still struggling against limitations, censorship and male dominance. Today, more than 60 per cent of university students are women and Iran has the biggest number of women film-makers and on-line journalists and bloggers in the region. On the other hand, more women are under persecution, detained and sent to prison than ever for resisting the state conventions.

Against this backdrop, in the decades after the Islamic revolution, thousands of Iranian women decided to leave the country and reside in the so-called free countries. But this has not freed them from their past. Like all the Middle Eastern countries, Iran is a deeply patriarchal, male-dominated society. Over the past 1200 years, against 8000 men, we have had only 400 women poets. Why don,t I take writers or play-writes? It’s because Iran is the country of poets. Prose in the form of novels and memoirs are a fairly new in the country. From the 400 or so poets not much record has remained. However, with all the advantages that women gained in the last century and lost most of them during the present Islamic regime, Iran is a country where women are not free to express themselves. 

In 13 century AD, an Iranian philosopher and poet, Ohad Ed-Din Ohadi, frightened of women gaining access to writing, wrote,

‘The shroud her paper,

The grave her inkpot.

These should suffice, if they insist on knowledge.’

And Forough Farokhzad, the acclaimed Iranian feminist poet, wrote in 1955, of her sense of limitations:

‘I think about it and yet I know

I’ll never be able to leave this cage.

Even if the warden should let me go,

I’ve lost the strength to fly away.’

In scent of Saffron in 1997 I wrote,

‘I have lived this life which is divided into parts. Had it not been for the necessity of hiding and keeping appearances and holding secrets and veiling the private and glossing the public, I might have written the full account of an unfinished business.’

There are indeed these limitations and considerations either in the personal domain or public, which force women writers to self-censorship. Ambiguity and the use of metaphor is another common practice to bypass the censor. This is a practice that can be seen in the work of almost all poets and philosophers in the past 1200 years. Today in Iran, when a writer, poet, film-maker, or play-write presents her product to the ministry of guidance, whose main function is to censor and cut and harmonize according to its own conventions, that product had already gone through the censor of its creator. It seems that the same process has carried itself in the psyche of the writer who lives outside. If one writes in Persian, the readers are fellow countrymen and so one has to be considerate. Women do not have access to the mainstream market and even if they write in the language of the host country, they still find their readers to be Iranians who are curious to know what has been written in a foreign language. Memoirs are deemed to be self-censored and even the work of fiction finds the same fate. Among the works published outside of Iran few can be found free from self-censorship. One has to read between the lines in order to get to the depth. We are experts at the use of metaphoric language, at the art of not saying what we mean and yet meaning exactly what we don’t say. Censors and writers have fought each other for a long time. Would there be a time when the mind is free of fear and threat? That in my view depends to a large extent on the individual’s understanding of the warfare between censor and freedom.   

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