Thursday 9 March 2023

Virginity: the sum of a girl's worth

In the early 1970s Mum's American pen friend and family paid us a visit on their way home from Iran; the husband was something in US diplomacy. We wore our best clothes and had to be on our best behaviour. Our visitors had straight teeth and spoke with movie-star accents. They brought with them a small souvenir for each of us from the faraway, fairytale country about which I knew nothing. I still have my gift, a little mirror mounted behind small doors in a hand-made, hand-painted frame. I'd never owned anything so exotic, and for many years this was my only image of Iran. So when I picked up Jasmin Darznik's Song Of A Captive Bird I thought it might give me some insight into the country.

Song of a Captive Bird The story is fascinating and appalling, a fictionalised account of the life of female Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad, born in 1934. In mid-20th century Iran "children belonged to their fathers" and a "girl’s virginity was the sum of her worth". The only roles expected of her were those of wife and mother. Forugh rebelled against these cultural and religious restraints. She wanted to write poetry and she wanted to do the things that boys could do. Forugh "judged", "punished", and fought her mother "with a force nearly equal to love". In contrast she idolised the Colonel, her father, and yearned for his approval. Her actions brought about a great deal of strife and heartache.

Iran's 20th century history forms the backdrop to Forugh's story and includes the role that British and American oil interests played in the region's upheaval. Winston Churchill described Iranian oil as a “prize from fairyland beyond our wildest dreams”. Prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh believed "Iranian oil should belong to Iran. In London and Washington, politicians called him a madman". A 1953 Anglo-American backed coup "ousted Mossadegh, propped up the shah, and tightened England and America’s grip on Iran’s oil". Traditionalists protested against the country's "Westoxification" while student communists fought against the excesses of the monarchy.

Forugh's death in 1967 brings Song of a Captive Bird to an end, but Iran's troubles continued. Only a few years after Mum's penfriend visited I was vaguely aware that the Shah had been deposed and replaced by the Ayatollah. In the 1980s I heard about the Iran-Iraq war without really understanding the context. It all seemed so far away. Iran's affairs are now much more visible, reported on social media by Iranians themselves. Women like Forugh, the rebel poet, continue to struggle against religious constraints, no longer hidden, no longer whispering.

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