Women and the Global Imagination: Unveiling of Self

by Sholeh Wolpé

Filed under: Blog, Women and the Global Imagination |

In our Winter 2014 issue Alicia Ostriker curated a poetry portfolio on Women and the Global Imagination, and we were so struck by its contents that we wanted to keep the dialog surronding this theme going on our blog. In her essay, Sholeh Wolpé examines the work of Iranian woman poets who have used transgression to push up against the boundaries their culture had placed on writing by women. We hope you enjoy reading. To read more on this theme, visit our store and buy or Winter 2014 issue (print or ebook), or become a subscriber to Prairie Schooner today. To take part in the dialog, follow and interact with us on Twitter.

Unveiling of Self: Tahirih and Forugh Farronkhzad

In the summer of 1848, while Elizabeth Cady Stanton read the Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances to a room full of women at the world’s first women’s rights convention, a Persian poet-scholar named Tahirih removed her traditional veil before a room full of men at a religious conference in Badasht, Iran, in a proclamation of her break with Shi’a laws. Neither event was well received by the women’s larger cultures, but while Stanton’s convention prompted articles declaring the gathering as "the most shocking and unnatural event ever recorded in the history of womanity," Tahirih’s gesture prompted vehement protest among the all-male audience at the Badasht conference; several fled the room in shame and anger, and one man slit his own throat on the spot.

A century later, a scandalous poem titled “Sin” was published in a popular magazine in Tehran. “Sin” not only celebrated lust and adultery, but did it unabashedly, and from a woman’s point of view. The poet, Forugh Farrokhzad, had much in common with Tahirih, and her poem echoed Tahirih’s act of physical and symbolic unveiling.

Tahirih was born in 1814 in Qazin, Iran, to a religious scholar who allowed her to learn alongside his male students, but only from behind a curtain. Before long, Tahirih’s knowledge of the Quran and Islamic theology surpassed that of many scholars. Nevertheless, at fourteen she was married to a cousin and moved to Iraq, where she bore two sons and a daughter. It was there that she became captivated by the writers of the Sheiki movement, who anticipated a new era of social justice and a new Messiah. When Tahirih left her husband to join the movement in 1843, she was forced to abandon her children.

Nearly a century after Tahirih’s act of defiance at the Conference of Badasht, another radical woman poet was born in Tehran. Forugh Farrokhzad was born in 1935, one year before Reza Shah would declare the mandatory unveiling of women in Iran. But even though women’s bodies were forced out from behind the veil, a thicker veil was thrown over their speech, expression, and manners. Like Tahirih, Forugh grew up to marry a cousin at an early age, and endured divorce, loss of custody of her child, and the shaming and rejection of her community and her family.

In a culture where women were confined to their homes and expected to be invisible and silent, Tahirih’s defiant act was an unveiling of not only her face, but also her voice, her poetry, and her perspective. If Tahirih was the first to tear down the veil that concealed women within the folds of their culture, Forugh was the first to shout her liberation at the top of her lungs.  While Tahirih’s poems were radical, rich in abstraction, and abundant with mystical love and erotic devotion to the divine, Forugh’s poems did away with God altogether. They lay bare the poet’s emotional, sexual, and mental landscape before the unforgiving eyes of her culture.

When she was thirty-six, Tahirih was condemned to death and was suffocated with a silk scarf, a method of execution known as khafeh kardan, which means both “to suffocate” and “to silence.” Her body was thrown into a well and covered with bricks. In Forugh’s case, even though many attempted to silence her by a different type of Khafeh Kardan, with repeated attempts to shame her through slander, disrespect, and disregard for her poetry and undisputable talent, her voice was finally silenced by an untimely accident when she swerved to avoid an oncoming school bus and was thrown from her jeep, hit her head on the cement curb and died instantly. She was thirty-two years old. Her funeral was attended by members of the literary, artistic, and intellectual communities in Iran, as well as by hundreds of fans. She was buried under falling snow.

As an Iranian-American poet, I am irresistibly drawn to these spirited, heroic women, because they took language that historically belonged to men and imbued it with erotic imagery and compelling feminine energy. Translating these two brilliant poets is challenging, in part because their texts are inseparable from their music. What is a cut branch of jasmine without its perfume? I have tried to the best of my abilities to translate the scents as well as the forms of these brilliant poems.

Rhyme By Rhyme

Should I meet you face to face, eye to eye
                         I would unlace my longing, strand by strand, sigh by sigh

I am a breeze in search of a glimpse of you, blowing
                        House to house, door to door, lane to lane, by and by

Steeped in your absence, heart’s blood tinges my tears falling
                        Fountain by fountain, stream by stream, sea by sea, tide by tide

I circle the gardens of your delicate lips, cheeks, perfumed curls
                        Blossom by blossom, tulip by tulip, scent by scent, vine by vine

Your brows, eyes, the mole on your face have captured my bird-heart
                        Trait by trait, love by love, kindness by kindness, stride by stride

My brooding heart weaves your love into my spirit’s fiber
                        Stitch by stitch, thread by thread, warp by warp, guide by guide

Tahirih rummaged her heart and found only you, through and through
                        Page by page, veil by veil, bend by bend, rhyme by rhyme

written in Persian by Tahirih
translated into English by Sholeh Wolpé

گر به تو افتدم نظر چهره به چهره رو به رو
شرح دهم غم تو را نکته به نکته مو به مو

از پی ديدن رخت همچو صبا فتاده ام
خانه به خانه در به در، کوُچه به کوچه کو به کو

مي رود از فراق تو خون دل از دو ديده ام
دجله به دجله يم به يم، چشمه به چشمه جو به جو

دور دهان تنگ تو عارض عنبرين خطت
غنچه به غنچه گل به گل، لاله به لاله بو به بو

ابرو و چشم و خال تو صيد نموده مرغ دل
طبع به طبع دل به دل، مهر به مهر و خو به خو

مهر تو را دل حزين بافته بر قماش جان
رشته به رشته نخ به نخ، تار به تار پو به پو

در دل خويش طاهره گشت و نديد جز تو را
صفحه به صفحه لا به لا، پرده به پرده تو به تو


If I release my amber-scented hair to the air, I would
Capture every wild gazelle in the fields, I would.

If I line obsidian my narcissus eyes, I would
Darken and set in frenzy the whole world, I would.

To see my face, every sunrise the sky would
Bring out its golden looking glass, it would.

If I should one day pass a Church, I would
Convert to my religion Christ’s virgins, I would.

written in Persian by Tahirih
translated into English by Sholeh Wolpé

اگر به باد دهم زلف عنبر آسا را
اسیر خویش کنم آهوان صحرا را

وگر به نرگس شهلای خویش سرمه کشم
به روز تیره نشانم تمام دنیا را

برای دیدن رویم سپهر هر دم صبح
برون بر آورد آئینه مطلّا را

گزار من به کلیسا اگر فتد روزی
بدین خویش برم دختران ترسا را

Forugh Farrokhzad

I have sinned a rapturous sin
in a warm enflamed embrace,
sinned in a pair of vindictive arms,
arms violent and ablaze.

In that quiet vacant dark
I looked into his mystic eyes,
found such longing that my heart
fluttered impatient in my breast.

In that quiet vacant dark
I sat beside him punch-drunk,
his lips released desire on mine,
grief unclenched my crazy heart.

I poured in his ears lyrics of love:
O my life, my lover it’s you I want.
Life-giving arms, it’s you I crave.
Crazed lover, for you I thirst.

Lust enflamed his eyes,
red wine trembled in the cup,
my body, naked and drunk,
quivered softly on his breast.

I have sinned a rapturous sin
beside a body quivering and spent.
I do not know what I did O God,
in that quiet vacant dark.

written in Persian by Forugh Farrokhzad, from her second book, The Wall, published in 1956

translated into English by Sholeh Wolpé and published in Sin—Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad (University of Arkansas Press, 2007)


گنه كردم گناهی پر ز لذت
در آغوشی كه گرم و آتشين بود
گنه كردم میان بازوانی
كه داغ و كينه جوی و آهنين بود

در آن خلوتگه تاريك و خاموش
نگه كردم بچشم پر ز رازش
دلم در سينه بی تابانه لرزيد
ز خواهش های چشم پر نيازش

در آن خلوتگه تاريك و خاموش
پريشان در كنار او نشستم
لبش بر روی لب هايم هوس ريخت
زاندوه دل ديوانه رستم

فرو خواندم بگوشش قصه عشق
ترا می خواهم ای جانانه من
ترا می خواهم ای آغوش جانبخش
ترا ای عاشق ديوانه من

هوس در ديدگانش شعله افروخت
شراب سرخ در پيمانه رقصيد
تن من در میان بستر نرم
بروی سينه اش مستانه لرزيد

گنه كردم گناهی پر ز لذت
كنار پيكری لرزان و مدهوش
خداوندا چه می دانم چه كردم
در آن خلوتگه تاريك و خاموش


Forugh Farrokhzad
Wind-Up Doll

Even more, oh yes,
one can remain silent even more.

Inside eternal hours
one can fix lifeless eyes
on the smoke of a cigarette,
on a cup’s form,
the carpet’s faded flowers,
or on imaginary writings on the wall.

With stiff claws one can whisk
the curtains aside, look outside.
It’s streaming rain.
A child with a balloon bouquet
cowers beneath a canopy. A rickety cart
flees the deserted square in haste.

One can remain fixed in one place, here
beside this curtain . . . but deaf, but blind.

With an alien voice, utterly false,
one can cry out: I love!
In the oppressive arms of a man
one can be a robust, beautiful female—
skin like leather tablecloth,
breasts large and hard.
One can stain the sinlessness of love
in the bed of a drunk, a madman, a tramp.

One can cunningly belittle
every perplexing puzzle.
Alone, occupy oneself with crosswords,
content with unimportant words,
yes, unimportant letters, no more than five or six.

One can spend a lifetime kneeling,
head bowed,
before the cold altar of the Imams,
find God inside an anonymous grave,
faith in a few paltry coins.
One can rot inside a mosque’s chamber,
an old woman, prayers dripping from lips.

Whatever the equation, one can always be a zero,
yielding nothing, whether added, subtracted, or multiplied.
One can think your eyes are buttons from an old ragged shoe
caught in a web of anger.
One can evaporate like water from one’s own gutter.

With shame one can hide a beautiful moment
like a dark, comic instant photo
rammed deep into a wooden chest.

Inside a day’s empty frame one can mount
the portrait of a condemned, a vanquished,
a crucified. Cover the gaps in the walls
with silly, meaningless drawings.

Like a wind-up doll one can look out
at the world through glass eyes,
spend years inside a felt box,
body stuffed with straw,
wrapped in layers of dainty lace.

With every salacious squeeze of one’s hand,
for no reason one can cry:
Ah, how blessed, how happy I am!

written in Persian by Forugh Farrokhzad, from her fourth book, Reborn, published in 1964

translated into English by Sholeh Wolpé and published in Sin—Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad (University of Arkansas Press, 2007)

عروسک کوکی


بیش از اینها ، آه ، آری
بیش از اینها میتوان خاموش ماند

میتوان ساعات طولانی
با نگاهی چون نگاه مردگان ، ثابت
خیره شد در دود یک سیگار
خیره شد در شکل یک فنجان
در گلی بیرنگ ، بر قالی
در خطی موهوم ، بر دیوار
میتوان با پنجه های خشک
پرده را یکسو کشید و دید
در میان کوچه باران تند میبارد
کودکی با بادبادکهای رنگینش
ایستاده  زیر یک طاقی
گاری فرسوده ای میدان خالی را
با شتابی پرهیاهو ترک میگوید

میتوان بر جای باقی ماند
در کنار پرده ، اما کور ، اما کر

میتوان فریاد زد
با صدائی سخت کاذب ، سخت بیگانه
دوست میدارم
میتوان در بازوان چیرهء یک مرد
ماده ای زیبا و سالم بود

با تنی چون سفرهء چرمین
با دو پستان درشت سخت
میتوان در بستر یک مست ، یک دیوانه ، یک ولگرد
عصمت یک عشق را آلود
میتوان با زیرکی تحقیر کرد
هر معمای شگفتی را
میتوان تنها به حل جدولی پرداخت
میتوان تنها به کشف پاسخی بیهوده دل خوش ساخت
پاسخی بیهوده ، آری پنج یا شش حرف

میتوان یک عمر زانو زد
با سری افکنده ، در پای ضریحی سرد
میتوان در گور مجهولی خدا را دید
میتوان با سکه ای ناچیز ایمان یافت
میتوان در حجره های مسجدی پوسید
چون زیارتنامه خوانی پیر
میتوان چون صفر در تفریق و جمع و ضرب
حاصلی پیوسته یکسان داشت
میتوان چشم ترا در پیلهء قهرش
دکمهء بیرنگ کفش کهنه ای پنداشت
میتوان چون آب در گودال خود خشکید

میتوان زیبائی یک لحظه را با شرم
مثل یک عکس سیاه مضحک فوری
در ته صندوق مخفی کرد
میتوان در قاب خالی ماندهء یک روز
نقش یک محکوم ، یا مغلوب ، یا مصلوب را آویخت
میتوان باصورتک ها رخنهء دیوار را پوشاند
میتوان با نقشهای پوچ تر آمیخت

میتوان همچون عروسک های کوکی بود
با دو چشم شیشه ای دنیای خود را دید
میتوان در جعبه ای ماهوت
با تنی انباشته از کاه
سالها در لابلای تور و پولک خفت
میتوان با هر فشار هرزهء دستی
بی سبب فریاد کرد و گفت
آه ، من بسیار خوشبختم

Sholeh Wolpé

RED in Konya

A place is just a place. That uplifting divine in a mosque, a church, a synagogue, or a temple is the vibration of the Creator inside of us—the lover and the beloved in union, forever entwined like the braid of our genes.

This is how I enter every mosque: with a covered body and a naked soul. I pray inside my eyes, inside the cave of my own being. I say words without the aid of breath, think thoughts with my spirit, bow before no one except whatever helps me fit into the heart of humanity.

But the open spaces are reserved for men. Only men.

I hum prayers under my breath, under every ravishing dome of each mosque, beneath its delicate beauty, among the souls of the artists who gave eyes, backs, hands and souls to its grandeur.

Women must huddle behind ropes and wooden barriers, on the periphery, the other side, like chattel, covered head to toe. They kneel side by side, stand up in prayer. They crush me between the pillows of their hips.

Men pray freely, directly under the dome. I watch them with a sense of dissonance. This needles that dangerous part of me I call RED, because she is red—the rebellious woman I strain to keep under check.

At Shams-i Tabrizi’s tomb,
the mosque’s wall-to-wall
machine-made carpet is red.

I break the rules, shun the women’s
section behind ropes, back and black,
out of the way, sit against a wall beneath
a large framed plaque of His name,
the calligraphy like long entwined fingers
of a goddess with endless golden nails.

Perhaps this is sacrilege, the wrong place to sit under His name.

But no one looks, no one comes to gather and reprimand, to shoo this female to where she belongs, behind that rope, out of the way. Of men.

I watch the Pashtu poet among us, the one with ties to Taliban, the man of religion in his customary white garb and black Western jacket, the dark man who never says much, smiles almost never, and watches everyone with eyes impossible to read.

He comes, comes towards me,
a dark coiling cloud (promise of rain?)
stops short, then lifts up his long
arms and his suddenly beautiful
bearded face, in prayer.

Now certain I am sitting
where I must not, a blasphemy in red,
beneath the Creator’s entwined golden name,
I gather my knees, hold them tight
like children in need of cheer and shield.

He bends and unbends,
lifts large palms up towards
the sky beyond this dome
where blue is light’s twisted lie.

I see dusty roads outside, fields
we have just passed, the sheep grazing in brown
pastures, a line of geese ambling by the side
of the road, the olive trees like rows of devoted
worshippers rooted to earth, and to us.

Yesterday I greeted my fellow writers with a Dervish greeting. This is how: you take a friend’s hand, entwine it in your own, then kiss it, and allow it to be kissed.

When it was his turn, I took the Pashtu poet’s hands. Something in his eyes warned me to not put my lips on his skin (so dark and soft), to not offer my own hands to his lips (trembling).

He mutters words.
Sparrow song. Bows,
puts his forehead
to the ground, his hair
so black not even light
escapes the straight strands.

Watch him pull me into his
event horizon, suck me
into his wormhole on the other
side of which he still
prays, except that here, in this
alternate universe,
he bows not before a god
but before me,
this female blinking danger,
soft, strong and RED,
his black, refusing his white.
RED who knows when to give,
what and how to take.
RED who is the explosion
in Shams, the dance in sama,
the music in Rumi’s whirling words, a sky
on fire, the heart of the third planet,
even the curled strands of this carpet
on which a thousand praying men
lay their foreheads. RED,
the shawl on my head, on my soft,
bare shoulders, RED, the ink, the blood,
also your eyes when angry (or in lust?)

In this universe, my Pashtu friend, my fellow poet, you pray to this, this immutable RED, the color that refuses…

Forugh Farrokhzad, born in 1935 in Tehran, Iran, is one of the most significant female Iranian poets of the twentieth century. Her poetry was the poetry of protest– protest through revelation– revelation of the innermost world of women, their intimate secrets and desires, perceptions and perspectives. Her poetic documentary, The House Is Black, which is about a leper colony in Iran, won the prestigious Best Documentary Award in 1963 Oberhausen Film Festival in Germany.  On February 14, 1967 she died in a car crash.

Tahirih, born in 1814 in Qazin, Iran, is arguably one of the most controversial women in Iranian history. A poet, and activist, a scholar, and a mystic, she converted to the Ba’bi faith and was the first woman to remove her veil in the company of men.  In 1852, she was murdered for her beliefs and her condemnation of clergy and state. Her poetry was collected and published years after her execution.

Sholeh Wolpé was born in Iran, and spent most of her teen years in Trinidad and the UK before settling in the United States. A recipient of 2013 Midwest Book Award and 2010 Lois Roth Persian Translation prize, Sholeh’s eight publications include three collections of poetry, three anthologies and two books of translations.