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Parvīn Iʿtisāmī’s Eloquent Response to Patriarchy


Parvīn Iʿtisāmī’s Eloquent Response to Patriarchy


Parvīn Iʿtisāmī’s Dīvān contains a short poem in which she explicitly states that “Parvīn is not a man”:

The heart must be kept polished from the dust of futile thoughts
so that the demon knows there is no room for dust on this mirror.
How do some endowed with virtue and learning consider Parvīn a man?!
It is better to resolve the mystery by saying that Parvīn is not a man.1Parvīn Iʿtisāmī, Divān, ed. Heshmat Moayyad (Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Special Persian Language Publications, 1987), 268. For the sake of remaining as close as possible to the original text, my translations in this article are literal.

In the first of these two couplets, Iʿtisāmī borrows mystical themes from Persian classical poetry to create a powerful image, and then asserts that she is a woman. The mystical metaphor, the mirror, represents in this poem the heart; dust is used to signify futile thoughts, and the temptations of the demon dim the brightness of the mirror. Parvīn’s metaphoric language, as seen in much of her poetry, produces layers of signification. On first glance, the first couplet reads as a piece of advice from the poet to herself, or to her readers. Iʿtisāmī advises the reader not to give in to futile thoughts, to keep the mirror of the heart pure. In the second couplet, she goes beyond her metaphoric language and openly expresses thoughts about her experience of being a female writer who is masculinised. Sarcastically, she refers to those who think “Parvīn” is a man as barkhī zi ahl-i fazl (some from among those “endowed with virtue and learning”). Mocking them in the second part of the couplet, Iʿtisāmī derides such people for their unearned status as virtuous and learned. She refers to the confusion of those assuming her to be a man as a muʿammā (conundrum). Finally, she gives them the key to the conundrum and resolves it by saying, “Parvīn is not a man.”

Having read the second half of the poem, the deeper layer of the first half emerges. The first couplet sounds like a self-soothing voice in Iʿtisāmī’s creative mind that advises her to stand her ground against the demons—those who doubt her authorship as a woman. Depicting the futile doubts raised about her authorship as “dust,” she encourages herself to keep the mirror of her heart pure. Why did Iʿtisāmī, who is famous for her metaphoric language and, as Moayyad put it, someone who “hides herself under a cover of animate and inanimate creatures to deliver her message,” write such a piece?2Heshmat Moayyad, “Parvin E`tesami’s Niche in the Pantheon of Persian Poetry,” in Once a Dewdrop: Essays on the Poetry of Parvin Eʿtesāmi, ed. Heshmat Moayyad (Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 1994), 163–64. What gave her the courage to confront those bestowed with virtue and learning (all of them men) with such heavy sarcasm?

As a woman writing poetry in the early decades of twentieth-century Iran, Parvīn Iʿtisāmī experienced a paradoxical reception. She wrote and published classical-style poetry in an Iranian-Muslim culture in which writing and publishing were monopolised as masculine endeavours. However, among her female contemporaries who had the rare opportunity of publishing their work, Iʿtisāmī was the one who faced the longest-lasting controversies. Her composition of fine poetry, permeated with mystical themes and motifs, was received with both praise and disbelief. She was even accused of publishing a male Sufi poet’s work under her own name. Iʿtisāmī’s controversial reception, therefore, was not merely an outcome of her transgressive act of writing and publishing as a woman. Let us go back to the commentaries that she received as a poet entering the literary tradition of Persian literature. Let us trace back her experience as a Muslim woman, showing outstanding talent in exploiting classical style to express herself, and showing prowess in conveying her spiritual predilections through poetry.

Iʿtisāmī was introduced to the world of interaction with a public audience through her father, Yūsuf Iʿtisāmī (d. 1938), an intellectual and a man of letters. Iʿtisāmī’s extraordinary poetic talent was recognised and nurtured by her father.3Parvīn Iʿtisāmī, A Nightingale’s Lament: Selections from the Poems and Fables of Parvin Eʿtesāmi (1907–41), trans. Heshmat Moayyad and Alice Margaret Arent Madelung (Lexington, KY.: Mazda, 1985), xi. As the poet laureate Muhammad-Taqī Bahār (d. 1951) recalled, she started writing poems at the age of eight.4Parvīn Iʿtisāmī, A Nightingale’s Lament, xiii. Yūsuf Iʿtisāmī was the founder and publisher of Bahār, a monthly journal for two periods between 1910 and 1922, which published articles on literary, political and social affairs.5Gholām-Hoseyn Yusofī, in Encyclopædia Iranica, s.v. “Bahār.” He first published his daughter’s poems in Bahār when she was only thirteen.6Fereshteh Davaran, “Impersonality in Parvin E`tesami’s Poetry”, in Once a Dewdrop: Essays on the Poetry of Parvin E`tesami, ed. Heshmat Moayyad (Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 1994), 75. This rare opportunity of having access to a large public audience was the beginning of her exposure to paradoxical comments.

Iʿtisāmī was widely praised for her talent in composing poetry in the classical style. Paradoxically however, her readers both applauded the quality of her work and cast doubt on her authorship. Both of these responses happened for the same reason. A woman who could write poetry comparable to that of the most prominent Persian poets was seen as an oddity. For male literary critics and scholars, it was difficult to believe that a woman was the author of such fine classical poetry. One of the earliest messages of patronising admiration was written by Muhammad Qazvīnī (d. 1949), a notable literary historian. In a letter to Iʿtisāmī’s father he praised her poetry, saying that reading more of her Dīvān only increased his astonishment. The reason for Qazvīnī’s amazement was the emergence of a female poet with such great aptitude, whom he called “the queen of women poets.” However, Qazvīnī was not simply awed by the extraordinary talent of this young poet. He was astonished to see a female poet emerge in a time when it seemed that “men of letters and virtue” were long dead.7Abū al-Fath Iʿtisāmī, ed., Majmūʿah-i maqālāt va qataʿāt-i ashʿār kih bi-munāsibat-i darʹguzasht va avvalīn sāl-i vafāt-i Parvīn Iʿtisāmī nivishtah va surūdah shudah ast (Tehran: Chāpkhānah-yi Muhammad-ʿAlī Parvīn, 1974), 19.

Another prominent figure praising Iʿtisāmī while patronising her was the notable poet Bahār. In his introduction to the first edition of Iʿtisāmī’s Dīvān (published in 1935), Bahār expressed his admiration for her. He exclaimed that if he had seen such exceptional poetic talent in a man, he would not have been so astonished. However, a poet of jins-i zan, (lit. ‘female genus’), with such knowledge and capability to compose the finest of poems, was nothing less than extraordinary.8Muhammad-Taqī Bahār, Introduction to Divān-i khānum-i Parvīn Iʿtisāmī (Tehran: Matbʿah-yi majlis, 1935), vii. Bahār was just one of the male authors who thought that Iʿtisāmī’s identity as a poet was questionable because she was a woman. In his commentary, Bahār further praised her poem “Lutf-i haqq” (God’s Grace) because it was composed in a ‘manly’ manner:

… when Parvīn, concerned about motherly duties, gets tired of such worries, she remembers God’s grace and composes this qatʿah in a manly manner and familiarises the reader with more elevated truths and thoughts and meanwhile she does not give up motherly duties and is still a concerned mother …

This comment concerned the following lines:

When Moses’ mother threw him in the Nile
to abide by the glorious God’s orders
She watched from the shore, overwhelmed with grief
she said, ‘O you little innocent child,
If God’s grace forgets you,
how will you be saved from this ship without a shipmaster?
If God does not remember you,
the water will instantly give your dust to the wind.’9Muhammad-Taqī Bahār, Introduction to Dīvān-ī Parvīn Iʿtisāmī, iv–v. In this part of the poem, Parvīn merges her figurative use of the four natural elements (dust, water, fire, and wind) with bar bād dādan—an expression in Persian meaning ‘to destroy’. Here, khāk (dust) represents man’s flesh, and āb (water) refers to the Nile; the combination suggests that the river will destroy the child’s body.
What Bahār meant by using the adverb ‘manly’ in praise of Parvīn’s poetry can be explained by noting the connotations of mard (man), mardānah (manly) and their applications in the Persian language. These words refer to the biological sex of the human male. However, there is another layer of meaning to them. Metaphorically, mard denotes qualities such as brave, bold, heroic and capable of accomplishing things. Similarly, the adverb mardānah describes a courageous or vigorous kind of behaviour.10See Steingass, A Comprehensive Persian-English Dictionary, s.v. “مرد.” In Bahār’s commentary on “God’s Grace,” Iʿtisāmī is identified with Moses’ mother. Then Bahār explains that although Iʿtisāmī grows weary from motherly concerns, she writes the poem in a ‘manly’ manner. What can be inferred from Bahār’s words is that Iʿtisāmī, the concerned mother, is a timid character. However, remembering God’s grace, she becomes a hero; she gains courage and is capable of composing poetry. This collocation of ‘manliness’ with poetry composition shows that for Bahār and his male counterparts, composing poetry was a masculine act, requiring bravery. Women venturing into this masculine realm were acknowledged only if they were masculinised.

Bahār also seemed to need a reminder, both to himself and his audience, that Iʿtisāmī was a woman. By highlighting mihr-i mādarī, (motherly love), he probably meant to offer Iʿtisāmī a compliment. However, he seemed to be putting Iʿtisāmī back where he thought she belonged.

Situating Iʿtisāmī within the conventional boundaries of femininity, he absolved her for crossing the gender limit on writing mystical poetry. Furthermore, when Bahār wrote about Iʿtisāmī’s treatment of the “more elevated truths and thoughts,” he used the modifier ‘manly’. Bahār’s word choice implied that in the world of classical Persian poetry, masculinity was the ideal. His emphasis on Iʿtisāmī “not giving up motherly duties and still being a concerned mother” showed his opinion of Iʿtisāmī: she was a woman, engaged in motherly duties and concerns. Her endeavours were adorned with the epithet ‘manly’ only when she was talking to her audience, to familiarise them with her thoughts and truths. As a woman, however, she was shackled to her main duties: being engaged in the worries of a mother. Both Qazvīnī and Bahār, the earliest scholars and men of letters to write about Iʿtisāmī, implied she was not recognisable as a female poet. For them, Iʿtisāmī was an intruder in the ‘manly’ arena of classical poetry. For her literary talent to be acknowledged, she needed to be metamorphosed into a ‘manly’ woman.

Bahār was not the only male author attempting to explain the anomaly of Iʿtisāmī’s presence in the realm of mystical poetry. Within a few years of Iʿtisāmī’s death, ʿAbd al-Husayn Āyatī (d. 1953), an author-poet himself,11Iraj Afshar, in Encyclopædia Iranica, s.v. “Āyatī, ʿAbd al-Ḥosayn.” claimed that Iʿtisāmī’s poems were actually written by a male Sufi poet, Muhammad Husayn Rawnaq-i Kirmānī (d. 1889).12ʿAbd al-Husayn Āyatī. Kashf al-hiyal, 3rd ed. (Tehran: n.p., 1947), 2: 68n1. Later, Shaykh Muhammad-Muhsin Āqā Buzurg Tihrānī (d. 1970) refuted this accusation.13Moayyad, “Bih yād-i hashtsadumīn sālgard-i tavallud-i Parvīn Iʿtisāmī,” Iran Nameh: A Journal of Iranian Studies 6, no. 1 (Fall 1987): 118. Attempts to deauthorize Iʿtisāmī reached a climax in 1977 with the publication of Tuhmat-i shāʿirī (Accusation of Being a Poet), by Fazl-Allāh Gurgānī. In this book, Gurgānī gave many reasons why he thought that a young woman like Iʿtisāmī could not have written such magnificent poetry.14Fazl-AllāhGurgānī, Tuhmat-i shāʿirī: tahqīqī dar ahvāl va pazhūhishī dar dīvān-i ashʿār-i Parvīn Iʿtisāmī (Tehran: Intishar̄at̄-i Rawzanah, 1977). Later, Gurgānī, who was a renowned author himself, apologised for publishing such a book.15Sayyid Muhammad Dabīr Siyāqī, “Parvīn Iʿtisāmī va kitāb-i Tuhmat-i shāʿirī bih mā mapasand,” Kilk 85–86 (1997), 189.

Almost half a century later, the epithet ‘manly’ resurfaced in an article by ʿAbd al-Husayn Zarrīnkūb, an admirer of Iʿtisāmī’s work. Zarrīnkūb wrote a chapter titled “Parvīn: Zan-i mardānah dar qalamraw-yi shiʿr u ʿirfān” (Parvin: A Manly Woman in the Arena of Poetry and Sufism).16ʿAbd al-Husayn Zarrīnkūb, “Parvīn: Zan-i mardānah dar qalamraw-yi shiʿr va ʿirfān,” in Daftar-i ayyām 1986. (Tehran: Intishārāt-i ʿIlmī, 1995), 53–62. Another such comment was Ghulām Husayn Yūsufī’s attempt to express admiration for Iʿtisāmī’s extraordinary poetic talent: ‘… Parvīn’s status in poetry is even more elevated than that of many male poets’.17Ghulām Husayn Yūsufī, “Shawq-i rahāʾī,” in Chashmah-yi rawshan: Dīdāri bā shā‘irān 1993. (Tehran: Intishārāt-i ʿIlmī, 1995), 413. As Milani explains, writing poetry was ‘a masculine act’.18Farzaneh Milani, ‘Revealing and Concealing: Parvin E‘tesami, in Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers, 1st ed. (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1992), 108. The language used by Iʿtisāmī’s admirers was ‘far from being intended as a slight’,19Milani, ‘Judith Shakespear and Parviz E`tesami’, in Once a Dewdrop: Essays on the Poetry of Parvin E‘tesāmi, ed. Heshmat Moayyad (Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda, 1994), 145. but it was strongly gender-biased. These authors and scholars repeatedly asserted the proper place of a woman, and reminded their audiences of the transgression committed. But composing poetry was not Iʿtisāmī’s only transgression. In addition, she used her exceptional talent to express her own spiritual inclinations.

Little is known about Iʿtisāmī’s religious beliefs and affiliations, due to the paucity of information about her personal life. However, among scholars writing on her, Moayyad has expressed noteworthy opinions about Iʿtisāmī’s spiritual predilections. In the introduction he wrote to a translation of selected poems by Iʿtisāmī, Moayyad mentioned that ‘there is no evidence in her Dīvān to suggest that she had any faith in Islam or in the Shiʿite doctrine of Islam’.20Parvīn Iʿtisāmī, A Nightingale’s Lament, xxv. He further postulated that Iʿtisāmī and her father were probably sincere Muslims in their hearts, but they differed from the majority of Iranians in religiosity. The reason Moayyad believed this was that Iʿtisāmī never referred to the Prophet or his descendants. She did not allude to any hadiths or Islamic holidays, nor did she mention the Qurʾān in her poetry. Moayyad further argued that Iʿtisāmī referred to the hajj in only one of her poems, in which she juxtaposed the Kaʿbah with the heart. Moayyad believed that Iʿtisāmī had faith in an unknowable creator, whom she loved and referred to in poems such as “Zarrah” (Particle).21See Moayyad’s discussion on Parvīn Iʿtisāmī, A Nightingale’s Lament, xxv–xxvi. I use ‘Particle’ as an equivalent for the title of the poem, “Zarrah”; Moayyad’s translation is ‘Atom’. The poem to which Moayyad referred is “Kaʿbah-yi dil” (Kaʿbah of Heart). For his translation of the poem, see A Nightingale’s Lament, 200–202. For the Persian version of the poem, see Parvīn Iʿtisāmī, Dīvān, 141–142. However, she dispensed with the custom of using Islamic tenets copiously, a tradition that was widely observed by classical Persian poets. Instead, she borrowed mystical themes and motifs, and used them to express the esoteric aspects of a personal religion.

“Kaʿbah-yi dil” (Kaʿbah of Heart) is one of Iʿtisāmī’s poems that is permeated with mystical themes and motifs. This poem is a masnavi (rhyming poem) of forty-eight couplets, and it is composed in the genre of debate poetry. The story takes place on QurbānʿĪd, the festival of sacrifices in Mecca during ihrām (‘the state of temporary consecration of someone who is performing the hajj and ʿumrah’).22For details about ihrām, see A.J. Wensinck and J. Jomier, in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, s.v. “iḥrām.” Kaʿbah and the heart are the main participants, and the narrator, who starts the poem by giving the first couplet, is probably Iʿtisāmī herself. Then the Kaʿbah, personified as a veiled bride, opens the debate by praising itself as the desired beloved of Muslims on the pilgrimage of hajj:

At ihrām, on the day of celebrating Qurbān,
the Kaʿbah was telling itself,
‘I am the mirror reflecting the light of the Glorious;
I am the veiled bride in the assembly of the union.
The hand of God’s friend (Abraham) erected me.
God has held me venerable and renowned.’

The Kaʿbah continues its boastful self-praise for twenty-two couplets. Then in the next twenty couplets, the heart rejects the Kaʿbah’s claims. A few of the couplets that convey the heart’s refutations are as follows:

The heart laughed at it, (saying) o friend!
From the virtuous, self-praise is not pleasant
You speak of this mass of mud
As if you are unaware of the Kaʿbah of the heart

Moayyad believed that in this poem, Iʿtisāmī challenged the sanctity of the Kaʿbah.23Parvīn Iʿtisāmī, A Nightingale’s Lament, xxv–xxvi. Actually however, it is a poem that showcases Iʿtisāmī’s religious predilections. In this debate poem, she personifies the heart and the Kaʿbah as opponents, and juxtaposes the esoteric with the exoteric dimensions of Islam. The heart represents the inward piety adopted from Sufi doctrine, while the Kaʿbah is a metaphor for the orthodox face of Islam. The following couplets, giving the heart’s refutations of the Kaʿbah’s boastful claims, show the dichotomy:

You are made of dark matter, while we are luminous;
you are made of dust while we are made of pure soul.
Outwardly, we are the monarch of the realm of body;
inwardly, we are the special house of God.
Here, the secret is the secret of the game of love;
any other image except this is an illusionary image.
Those who keep their Kaʿbah of the heart clean,
how could they be fearful of impurities?
Happy are those, who by way of sincerity and supplication,
perform their prayer in the altar of the heart.24Parvīn Iʿtisāmī, Divān, 200.

The assumption that women are transgressors in spaces monopolised by men (such as classical poetry and mysticism) is deeply ingrained in Iranian-Muslim culture. One example of treating women as outsiders to male-dominated spaces is found in Tazkarat al-awliyāʼ, the hagiography by Farīd al-Dīn ʿAttār (d. c. 1221).25B. Reinert, in Encyclopædia Iranica, s.v. “ʿAṭṭār, Farīd al-Dīn.” In The Ocean of the Soul, Hellmut Ritter’s seminal work, we read ʿAttār’s stories of Rābiʿah al-ʿAdawīyah (d. 801), the revered Sufi female saint.26Hellmut Ritter, The Ocean of the Soul: Men, the World and God in the Stories of Farīd al-Dīn ᶜAṭṭār (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2003). ʿAttār gives an apology for including Rābiʿah in a list of seventy-two ascetics, who are otherwise all male. He explains that he uses a prophetic hadith to justify including her among men. The hadith reads as follows: “God does not look at your outward appearance.”

ʿAttār further elaborates: ‘What counts is not the appearance, but the intention. If a woman is a man on God’s path, one cannot call her a woman’.27Farīd al-Dīn ʿAttār, Tazkirat al-awliyāʼ, ed. Reynold Nicholson and introduction by Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhāb Qazvīnī, 2 vols, 1905. (Tehran: Intishārāt-i Markazī, 1957), 64.

ʿAttār’s radical and subversive spirituality allows him to include the transgressors and the marginalised in his accounts.28Claudia Yaghoobi, Subjectivity in ‘Aṭṭār, Persian Sufism and European Mysticism (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2017), 2. However, when he refers to the prophetic hadith about ‘the triviality of the outward forms’, he symbolically masculinises Rābiʿah.29Yaghoobi, Subjectivity in ʿAṭṭār, 51. We know that ‘man’ and ‘manliness’ are key concepts in classical Sufi texts. ʿAttār and his Sufi counterparts use such words under the prevailing patriarchal system of their times. When we analyse these words on the basis of today’s standards, their misogynistic connotations stand out. We also know that mediaeval Sufi writers probably did not use these words to cast the female gender as inferior.30Michelle Marie Quay, ‘“God Does Not Regard Your Forms”: Gender and Literary Representation in the Works of Farid Al-Din ʿAttār Neyshāpuri’. (PhD diss., University of Cambridge, 2018), 61–66. Qazvīnī, Bahār and Zarrīnkūb probably used the epithet ‘manly’ in their commentaries on Iʿtisāmī in a context similar to that of the Sufi texts. What is noteworthy, however, is that with a gap of almost eight centuries, the male peers of Iʿtisāmī and Rābiʿah treated both of them similarly. In Yaghoobi’s words, Rābiʿah, ‘embodied the masculine traits’ that were revered in the mediaeval Sufi world. Rābiʿah was cleared of her femininity, to maintain the enduring ideals in the male-dominated realm of Sufism. She was seen in the light of her contemporary men, and was depicted as ‘to maintain gender divisions’.31Yaghoobi, Subjectivity in Aṭṭār, 51. Iʿtisāmī experienced the same treatment. Her contemporary male peers attempted to keep gender boundaries in place by disbelieving or patronising her poetic talent. Iʿtisāmī, however, did not submit to this patriarchal control. The two-couplet poem in which Iʿtisāmī openly opposed being masculinised, and insisted on being accepted as female poet, is an unprecedented incident in the history of modern Persian literature. With this short piece, Iʿtisāmī pioneered in breaking with the centuries-long patriarchal gender norms that marginalised women as outsiders to the realm of writing and publishing.

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