Women Without Men is a book with a counterintuitive title. It defies the culture and cultural awareness of the land of its creation. While books should never be judged for their titles alone, this one dares challenges and informs all at once and cannot be overlooked. Shahrnush Parsipur is a female author who comes from Iran. This too is a vital piece of knowledge before the book is even opened. Those facts set the tone for critical reading by the audience and prepares for them to undertake their reading with serious context.
This will not be a fun book the bio is stating. And fun it is not. Its story is one of powerlessness and anguish. Briefly the book relates the story of five women and the different choices they must undertakes in their lives. The twist is that hovering over them and informing and restricting their decisions is the Iranian cultural system with its strict religious rules regarding the place of women in society. What is ironic is that the five women ultimately cannot avoid each other. That is the point of the book, its theme.
From Farrokhlagha the rich woman to Zarrinkolah the prostitute each will find that there is a point in which they are all just prostitutes who must sell their freedom, symbolically represented in Women Without Men as virginity, to any form of man. In the end somehow the women overcome their caste and achieve their dreams – but only by escaping the ‘sameness’ of Iranian women culture. This paradox is the tool that expresses the theme. The challenge is reacting to the book in a personal manner that still makes sense of that culture. My interpretation of this difficulty began on the very first page.
There is some clear foreboding that one sees. “This [the battle of reflection and pool] always troubled Madokht, for she could not tolerate any conflict” (1). I felt that this must be cultural and representative of the difference between America and Iran. If this simple battle of nature troubled Madokht it is probably indicative of the battle of nature between women and men. I saw a life of difficulty for her. Time and again this came true as the author dealt with the women separately. This was a great way to express the norms and help me see the differences in the novel. The social expressions and constraints really stood out.
It is not entirely unexpected in America that women would ‘wall themselves off’ from men in their personal interactions. There are unfortunately plenty of stereotyping and cliches that speak to that, fair or not. However there doesn’t need to be desperation within those times. Women Without Men possessed that social desperation. Where the women had each other to rely on, as exemplified by them all ending up at Farrokhlagha’s estate, they also couldn’t stand each other. They could not escape the social constraints and pressures of what it means to be a woman. A perfect story from page 101 describes this.
“Farrokhlagha didn’t work. She spent the entire fall walking around and giving orders. ” Why would this be? That struck me as the difference of economy working with the difference of basic cultural norms as compared to the American experience. The women just could not get rid of the burden that had been placed upon them. The only thing that they had to hold onto was their economic differences. One was rich. Two were prostitutes. Two were middle class. Because of their lack of gender identity as a positive they learned to at least hold onto the tenuous position of their money. That became who they were and they lorded it over the others even inside the garden.
I find that here in America women tend to empower each other when gathering and can overcome these economic differences; in Iran where that is all they have they just can’t let go. That extended to the political realm too as I discovered. Here in our country one can become empowered by political activism. Where brutal or insidious oppression represses freedom politics can fight against that. The coalition of the garden oasis could have banded together. They probably would not have been successful but there could have been a movement to crush. Then it could become an inspiration. This never even crossed their minds.
Any sort of teamwork ended by page 108 with the separation of Farrokhlagha the de facto leader and Zarrinkolah who was trying to get pregnant. So the group began to fracture. Even with their work and activity this was useless. Also Parsipur was making a point here: the women in their activity still had no political voice or empowerment and Farrokhlagha’s husband behind the scenes who actually has political power refuses to use it for such people as women. So that too contrasted with my cultural expectations of home. Were there any similarities that I could find? I really couldn’t. Infighting is not unknown here.
But I found myself deriding the women for not working together more. That might be an indication of the uselessness of such an endeavor but also pointed to the extreme differences found in Iranian culture. The book was an insightful indictment of the Iranian culture in general and of the overall culture of the capital Tehran at the same time. It was difficult for me to grasp. A closer look at the author explains why this is so. Parsipur as an author took on a tremendous challenge by writing Women Without Men. This is unknown for the Western culture. She isn’t just presenting an intriguing story with complex issues.
She is taking on the whole of her society in a way that could actually endanger her. The fact that she is an Iranian woman is enough to gain her a world full of troubles. Her book demonstrates that clearly. Yet she accepted this in an effort to share her world with the outside. One particular issue really stands out. It is in Parsipur’s treatment of the male figures. There is not a hero among them. There is not one that is really upright among them. That is especially true of the political figure of Farrokhlagha’s husband. There is no better way to show the demeaning, systematic abuse of women than through that figure.
He has plenty of power to change things or at least begin to influence some sort of change. He is will connected. He has money. All of this is evident through the setting of the story. Despite this he refuses to move. He doesn’t lift a finger to assist. In that way he is chiding their efforts and just shaking his head knowingly off stage. But is important to note that the author is not complicit with this reality. She has the women, and especially Farrokhlagha resenting this man. He is potent and refuses to help the women. They are impotent and cannot help themselves.
Because this doesn’t change in the novel Parsipur is making an important and dangerous socio-political statement. She is condemning through her writing the ongoing nearly misogynistic culture that is radical Iran and perhaps even the larger Middle Eastern world. That puts her in a great deal of danger. Later in her book she briefly acknowledges this with a cynical vignette. “After talking it over with Munis, she [Farrokhlagha] she concluded that she had to start her social life by becoming famous” (104). This is not ambition on the part of the main character. It is a joke being played by the author, albeit again in dangerous fashion.
She is poking at the system’s cultural repression of the woman spirit and demonstrating that under its pressure any freedom is just a dream. One might as well just dream big. Shahrnush Parsipur’s novel Women Without Men is a powerful story about cultural differences between the West and the Middle East’s treatment and understanding of women. The author dares to tread on ground that exposes this and shows a vitality of spirit to share with the world. Her characters are sadly realistic and her story is challenging. I found my eyes opened and expect others’ to be as well.