You may have been part of the global outpouring of support for the protests taking place in Iran right now. The images of protests sparked by the death in police custody of Mahsa (Jina) Amini, arrested for loosely wearing her veil, are startling and perhaps unexpected to some.
However, there is a long history of political movements in Iran, and throughout this history, literary creations and politics have influenced each other. As a scholar of modern Persian literature and culture, I hope to give you pointers to a few novels to better understand the larger context of recent upheavals. In addition to the pleasure of reading, they could help you make sense of the news.
From the beginning of the 20th century to the 1979 revolution
The first major Iranian revolution in the 20th century was the Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911). It was an important political and intellectual movement that shaped the country for the century to come. Chez Gholam Hossein Saedi The Canon is a novel centered on the events of this period. It follows the clever and manipulative Mullah Mir Hashem navigating through the various groups involved in the tensions.
The Pahlavi monarchy was established in 1921 and survived the era of World War II, which was a turbulent time in Iran. This period is explored in detail through the eyes of Zari, in Simin Daneshvar Savushun. Zari keeps her family together in British-occupied Shiraz, while her husband Yusof becomes embroiled in political strife and eventually dies. The novel offers a wonderful portrayal of Zari’s inner life, as well as a sophisticated narration of this complex period in Iranian history.
In 1953, a nationalist movement led by Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was overthrown in a coup backed by the CIA and MI6. The nationalization movement of the 1950s is evoked in a novel by Ahmad Mahmoud Neighbors and also the epic of Parisa Reza The Gardens of Consolation. Mahmoud’s novel focuses on working-class characters in southern Iran, struggling to improve their conditions against the backdrop of the nationalization of oil. Reza’s novel, written in French, begins in the 1920s with a family of shepherds who settles in Tehran. Their brilliant son, Bahram, rises through education and joins the political struggles of the 1950s. It’s a living story that captures both rural and urban life in Iran.
The 1979 revolution and the protests since
In the mid-1970s, the unrest turned into a revolution and finally ended the monarchy in 1979. It was later called the “Islamic Revolution”, when the Islamic party led by Ayatollah Khomeini won.
The 1979 revolution is a sensitive subject for the Islamic Republic. The Book of Destiny by Parinoush Saniee was banned for a while in Iran and became a bestseller when the ban was lifted. It follows the life of a woman throughout the revolution and after. Massoumeh’s story begins as a naive young girl, forcibly married to a political dissident. We see her grow into a strong woman, struggling to get an education, work, and raise her children.
Due to censorship, many works covering the revolution are published outside Iran, by the large diaspora residing in North America, Europe and Australia. A bestseller on the revolution is the comic strip Persepolis: the story of an Iranian childhood, adapted into an animated film by Marjane Satrapi. If you haven’t read or seen it, you should. It describes well the upheavals of 1979, the Iraq war that followed and the journey of exile of a young girl. Told from the point of view of Marji, the heroine, it will make you laugh and cry. It’s a very personal, sharp, and witty comic.
Since the revolution, there has been the student movement of 1999 and the green movement of 2009. The green movement is discussed in books published by the diaspora – because they would not pass censorship in Iran: Ehsaneh Sadr’s A door between us is a notable example. It follows the story of two families who are going to be united in an arranged marriage, but with the start of the protests in 2009, things get complicated. There have been protests since the green movement in 2009, especially in 2017 and 2019.
The 2022 protests are therefore not new to the Iranian political landscape, and it is important to place them in a broader historical context. This helps us to understand that they are based on a long history of political revolt.
Women’s rights activism in Iran
The other important thing to remember when watching the current protests unfold is that the focus on women’s rights today is fueled by a long history of women’s rights activism in Iran.
Literary texts like the mighty of Shahrnush Parsipur women without men and the evocative poetry of Forugh Farrokhzad (Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad) illustrate different ways Iranian women have imagined their future.
One of my favorite books by an Iranian writer is Things we didn’t say, by Zoya Pirzad, where a woman from the 1960s imagines the possible changes she could make in her life. It is subtle and vibrant and is a wonderful read if you want to learn more about Iranian culture and current events through Persian literature.
Dr Laetitia Nanquette is an expert in modern and contemporary Middle Eastern literature based in the School of Arts and Media of the Faculty of Arts, Design and Architecture. She is particularly interested in Persian literature and contemporary Iranian culture. She trained in France, the United Kingdom, Iran and the United States. Her translations of Iranian short stories into French have been published in literary journals and she has translated Persian texts into English with Ali Alizadeh.