Global and Iranian history are both closely intertwined with the lives and destinies of prominent figures. Every one of them has laid a brick on history’s wall, sometimes paying the price with their lives, men and women alike. Women have been especially influential in the past 200 years, writing much of contemporary Iranian history.
In Iran, women have increased public awareness about gender discrimination, raised the profile of and improved women’s rights, fought for literacy among women, and promoted the social status of women by counteracting religious pressures, participating in scientific projects, being involved in politics, influencing music, cinema… And so the list goes on.
This series aims to celebrate these renowned and respected Iranian women. They are women who represent the millions of women that influence their families and societies on a daily basis. Not all of the people profiled in the series are endorsed by IranWire, but their influence and impact cannot be overlooked. The articles are biographical stories that consider the lives of influential women in Iran.
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In the most well known portrait of her, one of Iran’s most famous poets, Parvin Etesami, is wearing a headscarf, her bangs just showing. She was born in March 1907 to a literary family. Her father, Yousef Etesami Ashtiani, was a writer and a translator and her grandfather on her mother’s side was a minor poet. She was named Rakhshandeh at birth, but later she adopted the penname of Parvin (Pleiades), changing her name legally.
Many of Etesami’s poems are in the form of debates, including “The debate between garlic and onion” and “The debate between pea and bean.” Her father taught her Arabic, English and the meters of Persian classic poetry before she started school. Because her father was a National Assembly representative for Tabriz, the provincial capital of Azarbaijan, Parvin Etesami came to know constitutionalists and cultural figures from an early age.
She first studied at Tehran’s American Girls College and continued her education at Iran Bethel School for girls, an American high school established by an American missionary organization in 1874.
She regularly recited children’s poetry for her father’s friends, who always encouraged her.
Etesami’s poems have appeared in primary and middle school textbooks for decades. Her poems express a deep sentiment against injustice and for the victims of tyranny and social injustice.
At her 1924 graduation ceremony, Etesami talked about the illiteracy and ignorance of Iranian women. She called this lack of education the “chronic disease of the East” and invited “thinkers and scientists” to remedy the situation so that the country of Cyrus the Great could “soar into the skies” again.
In a poem entitled “Women in Iran,” Etesami addresses the injustice against and restrictions on Iranian women. The last four verses declare that a “rotten chador” is not the foundation of Islam, and that chastity must be in the heart. No wonder, then, that these verses were removed from her poetry collection when it came to be reprinted under the Islamic Republic.
Despite the fact that her father fostered her early education, Etesami experienced restrictions against women firsthand and from within her own family. Her father “was against publishing her book of poetry before she was married,” writes her biographer Mahnaz Bahman, “and considered it unseemly considering the cultural context of the time. He believed that the publication of a young woman would be considered by others a ploy to find a husband.”
When she was 28, Parvin Etesami married a cousin of her father, the chief of police in the western provincial capital of Kermanshah, but her temperament was not compatible with the military disposition of her husband. The marriage lasted only nine months and she returned to Tehran.
After the divorce, Etesami’s father agreed to allow her to publish her first book of poems, which received a warm reception from literary figures and critics.
A short while later, she was invited to the new Pahlavi court to receive a Medal of Merit, but she refused to appear at the court or to accept the award. Her brother wrote that Etesami was against the dictatorship and could not have accepted such an invitation.
Parvin’s rejection of the Pahlavi monarchy has endeared her to the leaders of the Islamic Republic. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, her collected works were reprinted many times; several biographies have been published about her. A festival and a literary both take her name. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, speaks approvingly about her.
When Khamenei was hospitalized in 2014, a number of literary and artistic figures visited him. During the visit, the leader recited a line of poetry and asked his visitors to name the poet. Nobody could name the poet, so Khamenei informed them that he had recited the work of Parvin Etesami, comparing her to famous and revered poets such as Forough Farrokhzad. He criticized those who labeled her a “poet of peas and beans”. He also accused critics of trying to “cover up” Parvin Etesami in order to elevate Farrokhzad — a poet who is certainly no favorite of the Islamic Republic.
Parvin Etesami died at the age of 34 from typhoid fever in April 1941. Though she was a very different poet from Forough Farrokhzad, they both shared the same experience of a short but productive life.
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