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Posted on: July 9, 2018

Iranian Artist Spotlight

Forough Farrokhzad: Poet and Filmmaker

Whether you see Forough Farrokhzad as the feminist voice of a generation or as a defiant zealot, no one can doubt that she has cemented her place in the tradition of Persian poetry with her radical voice. She eloquently and honestly voices what has arguably been the struggle that has defined Iranian society for the last two centuries – how does a culture with such a strong tradition grapple with modernity?

Born to a middle class family in Tehran in 1935, Farrokhzad experienced a childhood similar to many Iranian women of her time. She was the third of seven children who attended public school in Tehran until she was married at the age of 16. The couple moved to Ahvaz  where they had their only son, but after five years of marriage, Farrokhzad separated from her husband. She left her son behind when she moved back to Tehran because the law granted fathers sole custody in matters of separation and divorce. This marks Farrokhzad’s first act of extreme rebellion against the status quo of Iranian society. Like much of Farrokhzad’s life, this act of defiance is interpreted differently depending on your feelings about the poet and Iranian society as a whole. Those who see her status as a feminist iconoclast as something to be revered, emphasize the injustice that women have to choose between an unhappy marriage and their children. For those on the other side of the coin, however, she was judged as selfish for leaving her son so that she could pursue her own independence and self-discovery. Because divorce was still considered taboo in most cultures around the world in the 1950s, the latter opinion prevailed and Farrokhzad was treated by many as a social pariah.

It was during this tumultuous time in her life that Forough Farrokhzad began writing her unapologetic poetry. Her first publication, Asir (The Captive), was publish in 1955. The collection is an intimate and multifaceted expression of her sentiments on love and loss. In the title poem of the book, Farrokhzad expresses the difficulties in making the decision to leave behind her family and conventional life for one of personal freedom.

The Captive

I want you, yet I know that never
can I embrace you to my heart’s content.
you are that clear and bright sky.
I, in this corner of the cage, am a captive bird.

from behind the cold and dark bars
directing toward you my rueful look of astonishment,
I am thinking that a hand might come
and I might suddenly spread my wings in your direction.

I am thinking that in a moment of neglect
I might fly from this silent prison,
laugh in the eyes of the man who is my jailer
and beside you begin life anew.

I am thinking these things, yet I know
that I can not, dare not leave this prison.
even if the jailer would wish it,
no breath or breeze remains for my flight.

from behind the bars, every bright morning
the look of a child smile in my face;
when I begin a song of joy,
his lips come toward me with a kiss.

O sky, if I want one day
to fly from this silent prison,
what shall I say to the weeping child’s eyes:
forget about me, for I am captive bird?

I am that candle which illumines a ruins
with the burning of her heart.
If I want to choose silent darkness,
I will bring a nest to ruin.

Over the following years, Farrokhzad continued to publish poetry books such as Divar (The Wall) and Tavallodi Digar (Another Birth). Her writings continued to directly challenged the patriarchy of Iranian society, marking her as a “modern” voice in a country that was undergoing modernization politically, economically, and socially. This made Farrokhzad an easy target for those who felt like the culture was shifting too quickly to adopt unfamiliar western ideals. But for those who welcomed this cultural shift, her honesty in tackling otherwise taboo topics with raw emotion from the point of view of a woman started a conversation that they felt was overdo.

Farrokhzad expanded her repertoire in 1963 with the release of her film The House is Black, a short documentary about a leper colony in Tabriz, Iran. Her stylized cinematography defined the film as a pillar of New Wave Iranian cinema. Apart from the visual and literary leap of her documentary, she disregarded the status quo once again after adopting a boy she had met in the colony whose parents were both lepers.

In February 1967, Farrokhzad tragically died in a car accident when she was only 32 years old. Even her untimely death was a point of controversy. Some claimed that her death was orchestrated by religious clerics who wanted to silence her, while others affirmed that she swerved her car on purpose as a means to commit suicide. By the end of the following decade, however, the opposing views of what the future of Iranian society should be came to a head with the Iranian Revolution. Ultimately, Ayatollah Khomeini claimed power and instated an Islamic republic in which he ruled supreme. During this time, Farrokhzad’s poetry was considered blasphemy and was banned in Iran for over ten years. Despite this censorship, she was still revered by many people who continued to find ways to share her poetry.

Farrokhzad’s poetry is still very much a relevant part of Iranian literature and its discourse. Regardless of what side of the spectrum one’s opinion falls, it is fair to say that she is just as controversial today as she was in her time. Many conservatives continue to use her as a scapegoat, claiming that society will no longer be able to thrive if women remain independent and unmarried.  For others, she is the symbol of the fight against the marginalization of women; she epitomizes a woman’s right to lead whatever lifestyle she likes freely, just a man is allowed to do. Not only is she an important figure for those who have remained in Iran, but she has also been a strong force for many Iranians who have left the country. For many who had to leave in the aftermath of the Revolution, her voice speaks to their feelings of challenging the status quo in modern Iranian life.  To this day, her grave is visited en masse and her spirit live on through all that she has and continues to inspire in poetry, film, art, and music.

Call to Arms

Only you, O Iranian woman, have remained
In bonds of wretchedness, misfortune, and cruelty;
If you want these bonds broken,
grasp the skirt of obstinacy

Do not relent because of pleasing promises,
never submit to tyranny;
become a flood of anger, hate and pain,
excise the heavy stone of cruelty.

It is your warm embracing bosom
that nurtures proud and pompous man;
it is your joyous smile that bestows
on his heart warmth and vigour.

For that person who is your creation,
to enjoy preference and superiority is shameful;
woman, take action because a world
awaits and is in tune with you.

Sleeping in a dark grave is happier for you
than this abject servitude and misfortune;
where is that proud man..? Tell him
to bow his head henceforth at your threshold.

Where it that proud mane? Tell him to get up
because a woman is here rising to battle him;
her words are the truth, in which cause
she will never shed tears out of weakness.