Women, Gender and Literature

This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals


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This paper will explore the contours of modern canonisation in the Persian literary context, focussing on the case of the poet Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967). Drawing on theories of canon formation from Western literary historiography, I will explore the unique network of valorising and devalorising forces operating on works of Persian literature in the contemporary period.

Forugh Farrokhzad is arguably one of the most celebrated and influential Iranian creative artists of the 20th Century – her counter-cultural poetics and reputation continue to illicit admiration and condemnation in equally strong terms. By considering the legacy of her work, the academic, artistic, and political attention it has received, many of these valorising and devalorising forces are illuminated. For example, the central role of the Iranian diaspora and Western academics in establishing her canonical standing; the perpetuation of her famed iconoclasm resulting from the distaste held for her by the Islamic Republic’s cultural establishment; and the importance of continued artistic engagement with her work and appropriation of her reputation.

It is the canonising function of such artistic engagement that this paper will consider in greater depth. In particular, through a close-textual reading of their work, the inter-artistic dialogue between two leading contemporary women poets from Iran and Farrokhzad will be highlighted. The poetry of Granaz Moussavi (b.1976) and Sara Mohammadi Ardehali (b.1976) demonstrate a number of resonances with Farrokhzad’s aesthetics, including their candid presentation of feminine perspectives, a pervasive sense of alienation, and the emancipatory connotations of images from the natural world. Recent interviews I have conducted with each poet further reveal the importance of Farrokhzad to their poetic practice. Echoing the traditions of istiqbāl and javāb-gu’ī common in pre-modern Persian poetry, acts of emulation and intertextual conversation between creative artists continue to be, it seems, an important factor in the determination of a poet’s worth, and hence, their place in the canon.

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In a country where journalists are routinely imprisoned for covering national or international news, a notable number of diasporic Iranian journalists have relocated to Iran, working as foreign correspondents. Following the siren song of the promise of home and belonging, diasporic journalists “return” to their country of origin, but then end up having to flee in the face of threats to their personal safety as in the case of Azadeh Moaveni or Hooman Majd. Or, in more dire cases, such as in the experiences of Roxana Saberi, Maziar Bahari and Jason Rezaian, they have been imprisoned for their writings. There are a range of motivations for the return: Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was more clearly motivated by immediate concerns for social justice as her camera captured images of mourning families outside of Evin prison. But journalists such as Moaveni, Majd, Saberi and Rezaian were drawn to Iran motivated by a desire to rediscover their childhood memories, or the mediated memories of their parents’ Iran. This desire to discover a personal history and forge connections with a lost homeland dovetail with a compulsion to bear witness. This paper explores the tension between the diasporic longing for home and return, and the diasporic journalist’s engagement with a discourse of human rights and free expression.

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This paper presents a re-reading of premodern Persian and Arabic Sufi biographical texts from the 11th - 15th centuries through the lens of gender and the body. While the paper's main focus is the late 12th / early 13th century Tadhkerat al-Awliyā' of Farīd al-Dīn 'Aṭṭār Nīshapūrī (d. ca. 1221), it also incorporates other, less-evaluated works of Sufi biography, including al-Sulamī's Dhikr al-Niswa al-Mu'tabbidāt (d. 1021), Ibn al-Jawzī's Ṣifat al-Ṣafwa (d. 1200/01) and 'Abd al-Raḥmān Jāmī's Nafaḥāt al-Uns (d. 1492). These works form a comparative basis upon which to examine 'Attar's rendering of the relationship between gender, the body, and spiritual practice. These sources are particularly valuable for the rare data they provide on pious female Sufis in the 11th - 15th centuries. In a surprisingly large number of entries, women feature at the centre of these biographical accounts, rather than hovering in the periphery as is typical of the ṭabaqāt literature. That these authors transmit so many accounts of women immediately raises the question: Did these authors construct a distinct paradigm of female spirituality? How can these representations inform us about the authors' attitudes towards women's practice of Sufism?

I posit that, within the world of literary representation, female Sufi saints (awliyā') and pious women of this period are linked more closely with their base corporeality and, as a result, must overcome their physical limitations with greater fervor than male saints. However, this association, and their ability to overcome it, is then used by women as leverage by which they assert their supremacy and spiritual authority. As such, the misogynist premise of women as tied to their physicality is converted into a tool for exemplary holy women to control their own circumstances and exert influence on their communities.

The paper borrows from scholarship on Christian female saints and investigates the extent to which their findings can apply to Islamic sources. I argue that in the case of the Islamic sources consulted, these theories can be carefully applied and, where necessary, adjusted in order to further our understanding of women's practice of Sufism as it was represented by male biographers.