Women Without Men by Shahrnush Parsipur

23rd Feb 2012

Women Without Men by Shahrnush Parsipur

First published in 1989 and immediately banned in Iran, with its author jailed for more than a month and eventually forced to move to the US, this controversial novella is not only an important part of the history of women’s writing, it is also a beautifully written piece of magical-realism, in the tradition of A Thousand and One Nights and Isabel Allende.

Five women, one of whom has become a tree, come together in a garden near Tehran. All of them are attempting to liberate themselves from oppression, with varying successes. Though exploring their lives, their various obsessions with sexuality and virginity and how others see them, Parsipur shows how some women cannot live without men after all.

This edition, the first authorised translation, is published by the Feminist Press, despite Parsipur herself rejecting the label of ‘feminist’ to her writings. She once said:

“I am not a feminist. But I am not against feminism. I think some forms of feminism are too extreme”.

Like Doris Lessing, another famous reject of the label in regards to her writing whilst having it taken up by those of us proudly wearing the t-shirt, Parsipur uses character’s flaws and obsessions to represent societies’ as a whole.

This book is brief, but stunning, and includes an extensive afterward; including an author’s biography that reveals more about Women Without Men’s place in the history of Iran. It is set in the 1953 during the British backed coup that brought down the democratically elected Prime Minister and reinstated the Shah, and yet these cataclysmic events are only alluded to, with one character finding it difficult to get a taxi because of violence on the streets.

This book appears old fashioned in places, the characters naïve and simplistic. Yet through the four women, emotionally damaged former prostitute Zarrinkolah, wealthy fame-hungry Farrokhlaqa, mysterious Munis and continuously disappointed Faizeh all experience is covered, all emotions shown.

The book shows the need for space to consider, the garden is one of secluded domesticity that leads to the characters being able to make real changes in their lives. By being able to live apart from men, they stop obsessing with how men see them, or how they see men.

This book is the sort that you want to re-read properly immediately after reading it. There is an awful lot to think about in its deceptively simple fairy-tale style prose. The book is still banned in Iran because of it’s depiction of female sexuality.

I personally will be looking up Parsipur’s previous work, Touba and the Meaning of Night, also published by the Feminist Press, as soon as possible.

Women Without Men was also made recently into a feature film by Shirin Neshat that won the 2009 Venice Silver Lion for Best Director and was selected for the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

Rating: 5/5
Recommended for: Fans of Isabel Allende, Doris Lessing, Gabriel Gael Marquez, Mary Gaitskill.

Other recommended reading: For books on women in Iran Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. For less well known magical realism try If I Told You Once by Judy Budnitz or The River Midnight by Lilian Nattel.

Jess Haigh