Middle East Studies Center Lunch & Learn: Women Writers of Iran: Past & Present
Thursday, February 14, 2013 - 12:00pm
Middle East Studies Center Lunch & Learn: Women Writers of Iran: Past & Present

East Hall, room 109, 632 SW Hall


A number of major Iranian Women Writers have emerged since the Islamic Revolution of 1979; what is less well known is that there has been a tradition of Iranian women's writing since the early middle ages, existing in the shadows of the country's predominantly male literature, but nevertheless persistent. Dick Davis's talk will look at some of the continuities and connections between earlier and contemporary Iranian Women's writing.


Dick Davis was born in Portsmouth, England and educated at the universities of Cambridge (B.A. and M.A. in English Literature) and Manchester (PhD. in Medieval Persian Literature). He is currently Professor of Persian and Chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Ohio State University. As author, translator or editor, he has produced over 20 books; as well as academic works he has published translations from Italian (prose) and Persian (prose and verse) and books of his own poetry.


Despite popular notions about women’s empowerment in Iran, the Persian culture has a long history of powerful female poets and authors. Dick Davis, visiting professor at Portland State, shared his passion for the subject and gave an historical overview of the notable female Persian poets, reading translated poems from his book Faces of Love: Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz. The book contains the recently discovered work of a lesser-known but highly talented poet, Jahan Malek Khatun, a princess who lived in Shiraz in the 14th century and, as Davis argues, may have known Hafez personally.

While Europe was still living in the shadow of the Dark Ages, some of the greatest poetry and literature was being penned across the Persian-speaking world. Records of classical Persian literature from as early as the seventh century survive. Women’s writing is not as well preserved as that of men, but translators like Davis work to uncover and publish lesser-known works. Davis’s lecture began with Rabe’eh Qozdari, the first female poet of note who wrote in the late 10th century from the city of Balkh, Afghanistan, and concluded with Fattaneh Haj-Seyed-Javadi, a best-selling contemporary author in Iran.

Rabe’eh Qozdari’s poetry centered around imprisonment and suffering, Davis explained, and often carried a bitter yet humorous tone. In contrast to men’s poetry of the time, which was often light and joyful, Qozdari’s work was uniquely personal, witty and full of anger. Qozdari’s style marks the beginning of a trend amongst female literary figures that continues to this day. The symbol of a noose, often referred to both literally and figuratively, is found throughout women’s writing until the 14th century. It even returns in the 19th and 20th centuries when women’s writing in Iran experienced a revival. Jahan Malek Khatun’s poetry carried on in that tradition in the 1300s. She wrote love poems that were feisty and flippant. The quality of her work marks her as one of the greatest classical Persian poets. Jahan’s poetry employed a playful eroticism that was unique amongst women’s writing and she often toyed with gender in her work, at times writing as a man speaking to a woman.

Jahan’s manuscripts, only published in 1995, are the most complete works of any pre-modern female poet to survive to modernity. Unlike many of her predecessors, Jahan was somewhat well-known during her lifetime and was mentioned in poetry biographies written shortly after her death only to be forgotten a few centuries later.

Persian literary arts as a whole sharply declined from the 14th - 19th centuries and there is no record of any women’s writing during that period. Davis shared some explanations for the artistic silence. Iran became Shi’a in the 16th century and developed a distinct culture which was less sympathetic to medieval Sunni poetry. Many of the poets moved to Northern India where Persian was still spoken and there survived some funding for the arts.

‘Alam Taj, born in 1880, was the first Iranian feminist author. Considered a prodigy but never published because of her gender, she was married to an older man who forbade her from writing. Although he burnt all her early poems, ‘Alam continued her passion by hiding poems all around her house. Her work was not discovered until after her death, when her son found the poems and published her collected works. Her writing was always addressed to women, Davis said, and was rife with anger towards men.

Forough Farrokhzad set another milestone for women’s poetry in Iran, becoming the first free-verse female poet. She was bold andcontroversial in her lifetime, marrying a man below her class with whom she was madly in love. The marriage immediately went sour and they divorced, leaving Forough to follow a thoroughly modern path. She had many affairs, wrote extremely sexual and erotic poems, and became an activist for victims of leprosy. Forough directed the acclaimed documentary “The House is Black” about a leper colony in 1962, and later adopted a child suffering from leprosy. The women who wrote in medieval Iran led remarkable lives, Davis explained. They largely hailed from wealthy, powerful families and were privileged with rare educational opportunities. Pre-Shi’a Iranian society was pluralistic and there was little pressure to conform to orthodoxy, creating space for privileged women to blur the lines of gender roles and taboos. The move for modernization in the 19th century, coupled with western, secular influences, reopened space for women in the arts. Today, women face far fewer artistic barriers than their predecessors. Shirin Ebadi is the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize while Fattaneh Haj-Seyed-Javadi’s novel, The Morning After, has unprecedented circulation in Iran.


The Portland State University Middle East Studies Center Lecture Series podcast features audio recordings from the series, including this event. Download the audio podcast of this lecture or subscribe to the podcase to receive future episodes by clicking here.

Other Resources

From Iran, women’s words sing: Students and faculty gather to remember Iranian women in literature, PSU Vanguard, February 18, 2013


Presented by the Portland State University Library and Middle East Studies Center with support from the U.S. Institute of Peace Public Education for Peacebuilding Support initiative and featuring some of the resources in the  Bridging Cultures Bookshelf: Muslim Journeys, a project of the National Endowment for the Humanities, conducted in cooperation with the American Library Association. Support was provided by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. Additional support for the arts and media components was provided by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.

The Portland State University Library is at the heart of the Portland State community, and is committed to providing excellence and innovation in research, teaching, and learning support. Along with its diverse collection of information resources, the University Library offers special collections and archives that feature unique materials of regional and scholarly interest; produces an extensive array of user-centered information services; and delivers a strong instruction program dedicated to improving students’ academic success. Located in an iconic building in the beautiful South Park Blocks, the Portland State University Library serves the largest student body in the Oregon University System, providing collaborative study spaces and technology-enabled environments designed to enhance students’ learning experiences. | | 503-725-5874

The Middle East Studies Center at Portland State University promotes understanding of the people, cultures, languages and religions of the Middle East. As a National Resource Center for Middle East Studies under the U.S. Department of Education’s Title VI program, the Center serves as a resource on issues pertaining to the Middle East through activities that reach students and scholars, as well as businesses, educators, and the media. The Middle East Studies Center supports academic conferences, workshops, cultural events, lectures, and a resource library.

The Middle East Studies Center’s monthly brownbag Lunch & Learn series provides an opportunity for the campus community to learn more about the Middle East through informal presentations and discussions with scholars and experts. Speakers address topical themes chosen to provide context for contemporary events in the region. These conversations provide a forum for the community to engage in thoughtful dialogue about the region, ask questions, and share their opinions. | | 503-725-4074