Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Words, Not Swords by Farzaneh Milani ✰✰✰✰

Quick Version:
A brief survey of women in the arts, writing in particular, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and how their political climate affects their portrayal and their voice.
Long Version:
I was drawn to review this book for two reasons.  First among them, political Islam is an area I studied, and second, women in Islamic societies intrigue me.  Initially I thought that the book would discuss the works of Iranian female writers and the restrictions which their government places upon their work.  This book was quite a bit more complex.
Ms. Milani lays out some background information for her book in a rather repetitive introduction.  It does not state on the galley I read whether or not it has been edited as of yet, so perhaps a final, tighter copy will emerge.  Even as is, her points are interesting  enough to keep me moving through the text.  A good deal of background information is given regarding the history of veiling, not just in the Muslim world, but in other cultures and faiths as well; she also discusses issues of men and the turban.  In the author’s opinion, the veil is not the issue so much as the confinement of women, their inability to move freely through their society, and not just physically.  It is their voice, as much as their body, which is suppressed.
Iranian tales are discussed in the first section of the book.  It is fascinating to see these tales through the lens of a Persian woman and understand how a people’s stories can reflect the minutia of a culture.  Ms. Milani does not expect her reader to be up on their Middle Eastern folk literature and gives enough background of each for you to follow her points illustrating the immobilization of women.  She moves forward chronologically to show the reader what has changed, and what has not, in more modern works.
One of the most fascinating parts of the book, for me, was the section on Iranian cinema.  The ways in which directors navigate the sticky issue of portraying female characters on screen range from clever to outright ludicrous (to my western eyes).  She also discusses the politics of women in the audience.
In the second section of the book four women and their works were specifically examined.  Their stories are told with such passion and admiration that I was saddened, not for the first time, by how little of the Middle Eastern canon has been translated into English.  
The concluding section of the book addresses the author’s frustration with the “hostage auto-biography” which forms most western readers’ opinions of Middle Eastern women as invisible, timid, and voiceless.  There are two sides to every story, and Ms. Milani wants us to celebrate the valiant women who spread their wings to expand their physical and vocal space.
Star Ranking: 
Four Stars  This is not an easy read, but I believe it to be an important one.
Target Audience: 
Those interested in international women’s issues or who study Persian literature and cinema.

(Adult non-fiction-Release date of 1 May 2011)

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