Iran’s Great Woman of Letters, Simin Daneshvar, Dies at 90

Article Summary
Simin Daneshvar, the first prominent female writer in Iran’s modern history and an instrumental figure in the rise of contemporary Persian literature, died last week at 90. Samira Fakharian marked her passing in a piece for the Tehran Journal, excerpted here, describing her long, rich career.

Iranian writer Simin Daneshvar passed away last week. She was one of the most prominent contemporary Iranian female writers. Here is a translated article prepared by the Tehran Journal. We present you with some excerpts from the article, written by Samira Fakharian.

Until the last decades of the nineteenth century, women remained almost absent from the literary field. They were only “present” through the breathing space provided by men. The Constitutional Revolution that broke out in 1906 strongly contributed to the development of women's status and improved their condition, as some intellectuals began increasingly to speak out about women's rights in the society. The period after World War I witnessed a steady increase in discussion on the status of women, which started to play a role in Iranian literature.

Following the Islamic revolution in particular, we saw feminist terminology entering the heart of literature, which was thus introduced to a new stage that can be termed the quest for identity. The women who faced this new problem protested increasingly against their historic exclusion. The events of the Revolution gave them the opportunity to get out of a narrow and traditional framework in search of social identity.

Shahrnosh Barespor believes that the experience of the revolution and the war and its psychological and economic outcome played a role in “placing woman at the forefront of events,” adding, “I write because I started to think; they suddenly stopped treating me as a cow. I write because on the surface I am in the phase of developing into a human being: I want to know who I am.” In light of this and after overcoming some hurdles, women in search of their identity tried to impose their presence through writing. In modern Iran, women’s participation in literary life has grown to the extent that some critics call contemporary Iranian literature feminist, as opposed to male-dominated.

Within this context, Simin Daneshvar was the first and most significant female novelist and the most prominent writer of women’s literature. Her novels occupy a special status in contemporary Iranian literature. Despite the negative attitude toward female characters in the bulk of Iranian novels — even some written by female writers — Simin Daneshvar presented the female character in all her aspects. She derived her stories from real life. That is why the her stories resonate with reality; as she always used to say, “I want to be the living witness to this time, as I want to reflect an ideal reality; this is literature from my perspective.”

Simin Daneshvar was born in 1921 in Shiraz. Her father was an eminent and respected physician in his time, and her mother descended from a famous family, as one of her relatives was Haj Mojtahd, a well-known cleric. She first published an article when she was just six years old in the Shiraz local newspaper.  After high school, she went to Tehran where she continued her studies in Persian literature at Tehran University.

The financial problems she faced after the death of her father forced her to work, so she turned to radio and wrote a series of programs entitled "The Unknown Shirazi,'' which did not receive great success. After that, she wrote some articles for Iran newspapers and published some translations. During her years as a journalist, she decided to start writing “fictional stories.”

In 1948, she published Quenched Fire, which was the first collection of short stories published by a woman in Iran. Some of these stories were published in a number of newspapers. The major elements of her literary style were evident in her work, namely women and their status in society.   

In 1949, she obtained her doctorate with a dissertation titled “Beauty as Treated in Persian Literature of the Seventeenth Century." After one year, she married the prominent public Iranian intellectual and writer Jalal Al-e Ahmad. Two years later, she travelled to the United States to complete her studies in the psychology of art, where she became familiar with some schools of creative writing. This benefited her greatly, and new writing techniques began to emerge in her style. After returning to Iran, she taught aesthetics at the music school of Iran's College of Fine Arts. In 1961, she published A City Like Paradise in a distinctive style of prose. Specifically, its language “came closer to the language of the people,” and was thus more of a landmark than her first collection of stories. However, she was not yet famous, and perceived as simply the wife of Jalal Al-e Ahmad. It was not until the publication of Savushun, her masterpiece novel, in 1969, that she attained fame and recognition as one of the greatest writers in modern Iran. It was considered the most complex Iranian novel, and some held that it surpassed the work of Jalal Al-e Ahmad, who died before its publication.

Savushun was the first novel written by an Iranian woman and from a woman's perspective on the world. Though Savushun placed her among the most prominent of Iranian writers, 1980's “To Whom Can I Say Hello?” established Daneshvar as a short-story writer. In it, she expanded on her earlier convictions with regard to society. The diversity of the characters in her novels reflected her deep understanding of the multi-faceted Iranian society by capturing the mentalities, ideals, aspirations and various lifestyles. Thus her writings were felt to be a true mirror of society.

This mirror also appeared in her novel The Loss of Jalal, in which she recounts the last days of her husband Jalal Al-e Ahmad. The Loss of Jalal was one of the most sincere works ever written on the late Iranian intellectual, and is considered the best novel ever written about him.

However, Simin Daneshvar started to write again in 1991 with Wandering Island, which formed the first part of a trilogy. The novel included a mix of historic commentary and fictional narratives, as well as several portraits of a number of historic and cultural figures who marked the stage of modern Iran.

Savushun was Daneshvar’s most successful work. Apart from being widely read by Iranian and non-Iranian readers, it reflected the details of the writer’s convictions. The events of the novel take place during World War II in Shiraz, during the Allied occupation of Iran. The novel tells the story of a woman called Zari who is submissive to her husband Yusuf, a prominent member of the landed gentry in the area. However, he is a fair and liberal person who could not tolerate any injustice or misery inflicted upon his workers and the people surrounding him. He refuses the Allied armies’ offer to buy his crop to feed the army. His refusal catalyzes a series of events which eventually lead to a tragic ending: the killing of Yusuf in a ceremony, as the army of occupation opens fire to disperse the crowds, resulting in the injury and death of Zari’s husband.

With the death of Simin Daneshvar, Iran loses an iconic writer of its modern age. It loses one of the women who brought female prose into the heart of a society that had previously viewed women as incapable of writing. Here we cite the words of Virginia Woolf, who wrote in 1929: “Until recently, women in literature were only the creation of men.”

Found in: women, persian literature, obituaries

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