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Review of a novella:  “Women without Men” written by Shahrnush Parsipur

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By Somayeh Sadat Makian

Abstract

The article discusses A novella:  Women without Men by Shahrnush Parsipur, an Iranian woman writer (originally published in Persian in 1989) based on the gender-sensitive approach. The novella (56 pages in Farsi) is structured around the motif of the journey. The five female protagonists we encounter in chapters named after them leave Tehran and congregate in a garden in Karaj. They want to stand outside the dominant masculine social conventions.

The first chapter of the analysis focuses on women’s modesty, virginity, and obedience in the relationship between brother and sister. In fact, the article critically examines not only the repression of the post-revolutionary era in Iran but also long-standing and unchanged cultural assumptions that had been created and continue to maintain fixed and oppressive gender roles. In other words, “Just home is safe” (Ahmed, 2014) and the concept of fear, have a central role in these women encountering others.

In the second section, the “tree” metaphor portrays an eternal metamorphosis and detachment from the patriarchal system and masculine hegemony as a conceptualization of the body (Mahdokht as an unmarried woman). The article presents a content and discourse analysis method, in a qualitative approach, based on analyzing the text as a resistant reader. (Fetterley, 1978).

Story’s summary

On the surface, “Women Without Men”  is merely a story about the life of five unhappy women; Fatti, Faezeh, Munes, Zarinkollah, Farokhlagha, who see each other in a garden in Karaj by coincidence and supernatural occurrences, even some of whom do not know each other. In a wider context, though, the story explores gender stereotypes in society and how those roles influence both men’s and women’s lives and behavior. It is the life they generate in the garden in Karaj that constitutes a women’s community without the man. Farrokhlaqa purchases the garden, a woman whose husband’s sudden death frees her from her “thirty-two-year-old habit of not moving” and provides her with the means to live in Karaj. When Farrokhlaqa arrives in the garden, she discovers that it has an unusual feature: a human tree named Mahdokht, whom we first encounter in the novella’s opening chapter. Mahdokht is a teacher and a single woman, although she perceives herself primarily as an unmarried woman. When we first meet Zarrinkolah, she is a prostitute who suddenly sees all her clients as headless. In her attempt to rectify this visual impairment, she undertakes all manner of cures. Her last is an act of purification of the body and the soul that leads her to abandon her former profession and set out on her own journey. The gardener finds her wandering along the road to Karaj, and together they arrive in Farrokhlaqa’s garden. Faezeh and Munes journey is a heated debate about the precise definition of virginity, followed by supernatural turns of events that place them on the road to Karaj. We, as a reader, face to these five journeys and the events. (Rahimieh,2000).

Virginity Taboo: Girl, trees can make you a woman

Ideologies influence our daily emotions, opinions, and behaviors. Since it is produced and reproduced by those in a position of influence and power, a dominant ideology can more easily present its concepts and ideas as natural and universal. “Ideology is seen as made up of a set of common-sense beliefs, practical knowledge – that is, it forms the basis for action.” (Pamela & Wallace,1997, p.7)

Shahrnush Parsipur consciously tries to hold a position appose to the ideology that maintains the primacy of masculine authority and power in Iran’s patriarchal society. On the other hand, patriarchy’s chief institution is the family. It is both a mirror of the wider community and a bond with it, a patriarchal unit inside a patriarchal whole. “Mediating between the individual and the social structure, the family effects control and conformity where political and other authorities are insufficient.” (Millett, 2016/1969, P.33). In one part of the story, the parents tell Munes, a little girl: “never climb a tree, because you definitely lose your virginity, if you fall and hurt, you are not a girl anymore.” The significant point is that virginity transforms into an obstacle, a huge block that imposes girls to a restricted situation to keep the hymen. Ideology shapes an “imaginary hymen” that can deprive little girls of happiness, play, and freshness, one sort of virginity that trees- as a symbol of nature- can attack that.

Shahrnush Parsipur shows us how gender inequality can provide boys with vastly different play and exploration choices, in contrast with girls who cannot trust nature since it can act as a wild, aggressive, and unpredictable man. In other words, trees can be powerful and invasive as a dominant system. Based on Bourdieu’s argument about Masculine Domination, “domination durably imprints in bodies.” (Bourdieu,2001, p. 39). Munes’s body feels separate from nature because nature can be harmful. Furthermore, Munes chooses to adopt submissive practices. In other words, she can be her worse enemy. Since “symbolic power cannot be exercised without the contribution of those who undergo it and who only undergo it because they construct it as such.” (Bourdieu,2001, p. 40).

The virginity taboo explains in another part of the story; when Munes gets older and at the age of 28 talks with Faezeh about virginity, their conversation’s core concept is: it is a hole or a hymen? Finally, Munes understands that this is a hole in the vagina; at the age of 8, she thought if she is not a virgin girl, God never forgive her, now in 28, she faces a new reality in the conversation with her friend. She feels rage and anger and thinks about all those childhood days looking at the trees with regret and sorrow, wishing to climb one of them, but she never did that because of the fears about losing her virginity.

After the conversation about virginity, Munes and Faezeh left home to find a job and live independently. On the road to Karaj, two drunk drivers bother them and ask: where do you go? Munes says: “we are going to Karaj; we will find a job and never listen to men.”  The driver says: really?! And raped both girls. After that, Munes decided to revenge.

As women’s discrimination, we can see how sexual harassment and rape have an enduring impact on these women’s identity. Shahrnush Parsipur shows us the importance of women’s education. Munes starts reading books, especially this one: how can we know our bodies? “Now she has new images of trees, sun, and earth in her mind, she had grown up.” (p. 16. Persian text) Munes experiences emancipation and free her body from the taboo of virginity, she says to Faezeh: “Don’t cry. One day we were virgin, now we are not, there is no reason for sadness. Fuck the virginity.” In other words, she wants to portray another image of her body, a real body free of oppression.

Based on Cixous’s point of view, “woman without a body, dumb, blind, can’t possibly be a good fighter. She is reduced to being the servant of the militant male, his shadow.” (Cixous,1967, p, 880) and Munes doesn’t want to be a shadow. Munes dies two times. First, she commits suicide, and again she becomes alive (surrealistic), the second, when she came back home from book shopping and walking in the streets, her brother (Amir Khan) kills her. Shahrnush Parsipur creates the Munes’s character as a woman who acts against gender stereotypes, pays attention to wisdom and education, and represents another aspect of women’s lives in Iran’s 1953 Coup society experiences big changes.  In table 1 the number of sexual harassments, discrimination, and insulting (based on the text’s content analysis) summarized for all women protagonists.

Table1

Type of Violence Fatti Faezeh Munes Zarinkollah Farokhlagha
Rape 2 1 1 8 1
Prostitution 3 0 0 8 0
Running away from home 0 1 1 1 0
Feeling insecure 1 1 2 3 1
Deprivation of family 0 0 2 2 1

 

 Issue of Fear: be at home, just home is safe!

Women-killing is another important point in this story. Munes, as an unmarried girl, must obey her brother (Amir khan). Her brother portrays Munes with these concepts:  home, stagnation, and silence. “Amir khan says: Women cannot go out of home! It is nonsense. Home belongs to women and outside belongs to men.” (p. 33, Persian text). He believes the Street is a masculine concept and women should not be out of the home. This is a patriarchal representation of the street and others.

Irigaray illustrates that “human body as always already coded within a network of cultural meaning. There is no way of figuring the female body outside the symbolic order.” (Morris, 1993, p. 131). As a result, women are encouraged to think like men, agree with the male perspective, and accept the male set of beliefs as natural and valid, one of whose main concepts is misogyny. (Fetterley, 1978). Munes tries to escape from this system, with suicide and another time with rising consensuses and education, but her brother puts an end to her utopian escape by killing her.

The affective politics of fear describes how: “fear works to secure the relationship between bodies.” (Ahmed, 2014, p. 63) It is a form of discourse, referring to the past (associations). Fear is a tool to bring closer or apart, to secure the relationship between bodies.  The response of fear is itself dependent on particular dominant (stereotypical) narratives of what and who is fearsome (here in this story based on the stereotypical idea in post-revolutionary Iran: the street is not for women, just for men). Ahmed asserts that fear works as an affective politics; by establishing others as fearsome insofar as they threaten to take the self in. So, fear involves the shrinking of the body.

Based on fear’s spatial politics: the world becomes fearsome, as we don’t know what/whom it is we fear. Fear: “… works to restrict some bodies through the movement or expansion of others.” (Ahmed,2014, p. 69) Popular/stereotypical narratives of feminine vulnerability suggest women must always be on guard when outside the home. Just home is safe! A reproduction of domestic space. Vulnerability is not an inherent characteristic of women’s bodies; rather, it is an effect that works to secure femininity as a delimitation of movement in public and over-inhabitance in private. (Ahmed,2014). The relationship between Munes and her brother is one kind of reproducing fear that represents misogyny.

Tree metaphor: I can be a mountain of seeds rather than to be a mother.

 Mahdokht is an unmarried woman, suffers from fear and anxiety about sex. For instance, she is disgusted by sexual intercourse, especially by a particularly violent act between a maid and a gardener she accidentally witnesses. After this incident, she becomes obsessed with becoming a tree. Her desire stems from the need to reproduce herself without resorting to human sexuality. She succeeds partially by rooting herself in her brother’s garden in Karaj, the same one Farrokhlaqa later purchases. Mahdokht transformation’s final stages are enabled by the gardener and another woman (Zarrinkolah), who also finds her way to the garden. Zarrinkolah (who is a prostitute) and the gardener eventually marry, and she gives birth to a lily (a flower). The milk she produces nurtures Mahdokht the tree and makes possible her final metamorphosis: “In mid-spring, the tree in her body exploded.” (Rahimieh,2000)

In the eternal metamorphosis, the parts of Mahdokht separated from each other. She was in pain and felt like she was giving birth”. Mahdokht turns into “a mountain of seeds” carried away by the river. What initiates Faezeh and Munes’s journey is a heated debate about the precise definition of virginity, followed by supernatural turns of events that place them on the road to Karaj. Both of them take refuge in Farrokhlaqa’s garden. Mahdokht does not want to find partners or professions that give her the potential to be reintegrated into the social order she had once left behind. Zarrinkolah and the gardener, like Mahdokht, undergo a supernatural metamorphosis. (Rahimieh,2000).

Gender is a category that is relevant to the analysis of the structural features of narratives. (Gymnich, 2013). Based on Lanser’s perspective about the private and public narrative, there is no single voice in the narrative. (Lanser,1991). Therefore, we face a double construction. In public narration, the narratee is external to the textual world. Private narration is addressed to an explicitly designated narratee who exists only within the textual world. (Lanser,1991, p., 620). In the surface text, we encounter an insane and psychotic unmarried woman who wants to be a tree, a sort of insanity that cannot be controlled. In other words, Mahdokht can be perceived as a single woman who has a severe psychosis: she never got married and got old. Gender discrimination leads to labeling and stereotypical gender issues. In contrast, in subtext, we encounter the other characteristic of Mahdokht.

Based on Freudian theory, a psychoanalytic explanation of gender subjectivity is the father’s authority internalized to become a superego, functioning as an inner agency of social and moral prohibition. “Beyond the domain of restricting codes, however, the unconscious remains dominated by primal desire and sexual drives. Unconscious desire is organized by a fantasy of an imagery idea with powerful libidinal charges that become fixed. So, it remains a potentially disruptive force underlying our conscious gender identity.” (Morris,1993, p., 98).

One of the primal mechanisms is displacement. In this story, the libidinal energy associated with marriage and intercourse is displaced through the chain of apparently innocuous image and the idea of becoming a tree – the desire and the need to reproduce herself without resorting to human sexuality and witnessing violent sexual intercourse between the gardener and maid-so the libidinal energy can thereby slip through the barrier of censorship. In other words, Mahdokht denies femininity and wants to go beyond the gender order and hierarchy that society provides. “She was in pain, and felt like she was giving birth.” (p. 45, Persian text).

The motherhood role replaces with producing seeds as a tree (the tree is a symbol of violence against women like Mahdokht). Women’s marginalization emerges in a tree metaphor; woman’s evaluation that portrays in this story, who can go beyond the censorship, turns into “a mountain of seeds” carried away by the river; Mahdokht reproduces, instead of giving birth to one child, she can give birth to a lot of life. In other words, based on Cixous’s article, this metamorphosis is like writing, like speaking. Mahdokht tries to have a voice. “Women should break out of the snare of silence. They must submerge, cut through, get beyond the ultimate reserve-discourse.” (Cixous,1967, p. 886). “In mid-spring, the tree in her body exploded. In the eternal metamorphosis the parts of Mahdokht separated from each other”. Based on Cixous’s argumentation, we can see a body without end, without principal parts. If she is a whole, it is a whole composed of parts that are wholes, not simple partial objects but moving.  Therefore, gender is a process, not a result.

In a nutshell, the story is constructed on the journey’s motif (from Tehran to Karaj). Journey means development. Based on traditional and normative gender roles, women are passive and fixed. Their life is not a journey. Men are taught for the journey. Women internalized the attitudes and behaviors expected of their respective sex categories. Shahrnush Parsipur tries to transgress traditional gender expectations and destabilize normative power relations. Her novels generally are uniquely positioned to challenge and potentially disrupt traditional gender roles. She initiates the journey from Mahdokht seeds, an explosion, we can hear the voice of the tree/Mahdokht: “I’ve got out at last!” She transforms into the Mother of nature instead of the Mother of mankind.

References

 

 1-Abbot, P., Wallace, C. (1997). An Introduction to Sociology: Feminist Perspectives. London, New York: Routledge, Second Edition.

2- Ahmed, S. (2014). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. 2004. Edinburgh UP.

3-Bourdieu, P. (2001). Masculine Domination. Cambridge: Polity Press. 

4-Cixous, H. (1967). The Laugh of the Medusa. Signs, Vol. 1, No. 4 

5-Fetterley, J. (1978). The resisting reader: A feminist approach to American fiction.    Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

6- Gymnich, M. (2013). Gender and narratology. Literature Compass, 10(9), 705-715

7-Millett, K. (2016/1969). Sexual politics. New York: Columbia University Press.Chapter2: Theory of sexual politics.

8-Morris, P. (1993). Literature and Feminism. An Introduction. Malden: Blackwell Publishers.

9- Rahimieh, N. (2000). Iranian Studies, 33(1/2), 222-224. Retrieved December 29, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4311350

 Note: Somayeh Sadat Makian is a Persian novelist who has published three novels (in Farsi) in Iran. She is a clinical psychologist and registered member of the Psychology and Counseling Organization of Iran (PCO) and manager of her private clinic (Ravi Psychology Clinic) in Tehran. She has 14 years of experience in consultation, research, and teaching. She is living in Prague and studying at Charles University in gender studies.

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