“Mechanical Doll” and Other Poems

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“Mechanical Doll” and Other Poems

by Furugh Farrukhzad


Three poems set in mid-twenlieth-century Iran; published in Persian (as “Gunah,” “Ay marz-i pur guhar,” and “Arusak-i kuki”) in 1955 and 1964, in English in newspapers and magazines as early as the mid 1960s.


“Sinning” is an expression of sexual desire that violates strict standards of female modesty and decorum in Iran; “0 Realm Bejewelled” and ’ “Mechanical Doll” satirize the regimentation of society and suppression of political freedoms in Iran under Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

Events in History at the Time of the Poems

The Poems in Focus

For More Information

Furugh Farrukhzad (also spelled Forugh Farrokhzad) was born on January 5, 1935, to a middle-class family in Tehran, Iran. Her father, a colonel in the army, was a stern and often distant head of the family, who, nevertheless, provided Farrukhzad and her siblings with the leisure to browse the family’s well-stocked library of Persian literature. Farrukhzad’s literary interests blossomed early. By 13 she was experimenting with the classical poetic form known as the rubai (quatrain). Between the ages of 16 and 19, like many women from the urban Iranian middle classes, Farrukhzad completed middle school and then entered an arts school, where she studied sewing and painting. Her formal education ended in 1951 when she married Parviz Shapur, a man 15 years her senior. A year later their son, Kamyar, was born. In 1954 her life took a drastic turn from the customary path. She divorced and thereby not only became estranged from her own family and her husband but, as was customary in Iran at the time, lost all rights to her son. Although she agonized over these events, she proceeded to write. Farrrukhzad published three volumes of her most candid poetry: Asir (1955, The Captive), Divar (1956, The Wall), and l[u]syan (1957, The Rebellion). “Sinning,” the first poem discussed in this entry, is from Divar, though the poem was probably written some two years before this collection of poems was published (Katouzian, p. 286). Farrukhzad’s rebirth required that she find ways to support herself. After a series of menial jobs, in 1958 she became a clerk-typist at the Gulistan (also Golestan) Film Studios (named for its founder Ibrahim Gulistan, b. 1922). The film company provided Farrukhzad with apprenticeship and travel opportunities; on two occasions (1958 and 1961) she visited Europe to study filmmaking. Becoming a filmmaker in her own right, Farrukhzad proceeded to collaborate with the studio on Khanah siyah ast (The House Is Black), which concerns a leper colony, and was selected best documentary at the 1963 Oberhausen Film Festival. Farrukhzad’s career was unconventional for a women in 1960s Iran. Before she was 30, not only was she considered among the finest modern poets in her own country, she was known as a talented filmmaker in Europe. In 1964 the groundbreaking collection of poems for which Farrukhzad is best known, Tavcalludi-i digar (1964; Another Birth, 1981), appeared. Containing a couple of the poems covered here, the volume marks the emergence of a mature writer, whose outspokenness about sexuality has given way to a critical—even cynical—view of Iranian society.

Events in History at the Time of the Poems

National identity crisis

On August 19, 1953, the United States Central Intelligence Agency, in cooperation with British intelligence, orchestrated the overthrow of Prime Minister Dr. Mohammad Mosaddeq (1882–1967, known also as Musaddiq al-Saltanah)


1925 Qajar dynasty ends; an army general, Reza Khan, becomes His Majesty Reza Shah Pahiavi, ruler of Iran.

1941 Reza Shah abdicates in favor of his son Mohammed Reza Pahiavi.

1951–53 Mohammad Mosaddeq becomes Prime Minister of Iran; the shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, lives in exile,

1953 Central intelligence Agency-backed coup d‘état removes Mosaddeq from power; restores Shah to the throne.

1960–63 Under pressure from the U.S. government, the Shah sponsors land reform, literacy and health corps, and the vote for women; riots erupt against the shah’s dictatorship.

1964 The shah abandons reformist impetus in the wake of assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy; exiled from Iran, Ayatoltah Khomeini ends up in Iraq.

1969–70 Leftist guerrilla movement forms in forests of northern Iran, poses new threat to monarchy.

1979 Istamic Revolution; Ayatollah Khomeini replaces the shah as head of the country.

and restored Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (ruled 1941–51; 1953–79) to the throne. To many Iranians this event was merely the latest in a series of humiliating defeats that began early in the nineteenth century when foreign powers became involved in Persian affairs. Iran was once again enmeshed in the geopolitical aims of two great powers. The Soviet Union needed access to the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, while the United States, post-World War II successor to Great Britain in the area, became responsible for denying the Soviets that access. As the largest link in the Islamic belt that girds the southern border of the former Soviet Union, the country was vital to the American policy of containing Communism after World War II. In addition to its strategic importance, Iran had and still has infinitely more gas and oil than the other links in the belt: Turkey and Afghanistan. It was thus inevitable that the superpowers would meddle in the politics of the country.

The Mosaddeq affair was such an obvious demonstration of Iran’s lack of autonomy that it demoralized many of its intellectuals, writers, poets, and members of the clergy (Langarudi, vol. 2, p. 15). Not only did it end in the removal of a democratically elected government; it meant that a great deal of Iran’s wealth would remain in foreign hands. Many likened Mosaddeq’s downfall to the shameful defeats of the past: the Arab invasion of Iran in the seventh century; the onslaughts of the Mongols in twelfth-century Iran; and the two territory-ceding treaties that Iran was forced to sign with Tsarist Russia in the nineteenth century. When the reinstalled shah adopted a policy of westernization, financed the education of thousands of young Iranians at American universities, and entered into strategic alliances with the United States, he confirmed the dissidents’ (both secular and religious) suspicions about the threat his regime posed to the preservation of the national identity.

In 1967 one of the most alienated of the anti-Pahlavi critics, Jalal Al-i Ahmad wrote a polemic called Gharbzctdigi (plagued by the West, also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times).Though the government immediately banned the work, it circulated widely underground and eventually surfaced as one of the seminal texts of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Al-i Ahmad diagnosed Iranians’ aping of Western culture as a disease he called “Westitis” (also known as “Westoxication”), which was ravaging an “authentic” Persian identity. If no cure for this disease were found, then there would be little to distinguish the millions of westernized Iranians from Americans.

Opponents of the shah’s government could certainly point to aspects of urban nightlife in Iran as symptoms of advanced Westitis. At certain restaurants, clubs, and casinos, people openly engaged in forbidden activities like dancing, drinking alcohol, and gambling. (Indeed these activities were part of Persian society before westernization, but people engaged in them covertly then, on the margins of urban areas.) Television and cinema flooded the culture with images of attractive people dressed in the suggestive fashions of the 1960s. These highly visible signs of foreign influence encouraged two views that were antithetical but equally simplistic: on one hand, that the West was uniformly materialistic and depraved, and, on the other, that to be modern one merely had to act like cardboard Westerners. Prior to this time, most women wore chadors, or body veils; some men dressed in varieties of traditional clothing (baggy pants, felt hats or woven or cloth skullcaps, and open-toed sandals), others in conservative Western suits, ties, and fedoras. Women’s skirts shortened and men’s sideburns lengthened as modernization was reduced to tasteless imitations of American and European dress and grooming. These perceived affronts to public morality incensed the clerics and their followers, who still resented the mandatory unveiling of women the shah’s father Reza Pahlavi (ruled 1921–41) had ordered in 1936. Traditional families insisted that female members preserve their ismat (“modesty, innocence”) at all costs. At the other end of the spectrum, the leftists saw the indiscriminate embrace of Western culture on the part of the secular nouveaux riches and middle classes as proof that the Pahlavis were nothing but puppets dancing to the tune of their American masters.

Caught in the crossfire—the status of women

Farrukhzad’s short life coincided with remarkable changes in the lives of Iranian women. In January 1936, a year after she was born, Reza Shah outlawed the veil, which meant that a majority of Iranian women, who had always kept their hair hidden from all but their closest relatives, now had to appear in public in Western hats or bareheaded. The practice of veiling became politicized. Religious authorities described unveiling as a perilous step toward secularism, while supporters of the shah saw it as necessary for modernization. The effect of unveiling was primarily felt in the cities. In Tehran a noblewoman like Sattareh Farman Farmaian’s mother wept “with rage and humiliation” at the thought of allowing strange men to see her hair (Farman Farmaian, p. 95). In the rural areas, where women worked alongside men in the fields and often did not don the veil, the change was less apparent. Being unveiled was their foray into public education for young women under Reza Shah, for the veil connoted behaviors, such as seclusion from public forums, that began to be discarded with it; women found themselves taking classes from men to whom they were not related.

Reza Shah’s successor accelerated his father’s westernizing and secularizing policies. Under the provision of the Town Council Act (1962), women and members of recognized religious minorities (Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians) gained the right to vote and, if elected to office, the right to swear allegiance to the holy book of their own confession. This act inflamed the religious opposition to the shah and eventually led to violent demonstrations. Women meanwhile gained the right to vote, which would be revoked a few months later under pressure from clerical leaders. The process of westernization continued, aspects of which greatly upset Farrukhzad. In her view, cosmetic changes were beginning to turn Iranian women into doll-like creatures with westernized appearances but empty minds. A small but growing number of women went abroad and returned to become active professionally as teachers, lawyers, or doctors. Some, like Farrukhzad, pursued careers in the arts. A divisive force, the movement of some women away from the traditional roles of daughter, wife, mother, widow, widened the gap between opponents of the shah (both clerical and secular) and his supporters. The veil became a convenient way of expressing one’s political views. Many women began to wear the veil as a sign of protest against rampant westernization. At the state-sponsored universities even women who came from non-observant homes began to veil in open disobedience to the official prohibition of the chador on campus.

The Poems in Focus

“This Text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.”

“This Text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.”


“Rose” (gul) and “nightingale” (bulbul) not only rhyme in Persian, they are definitive elements of every romantic garden in classical literature, The nightingale’s fierce attraction to the rose has come to symbolize the infatuation of the lover with a beloved in lyric poetry. In the Divan of Hafiz (also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times), the corpus of the most renowned fourteenth-century lyric poet appears the following illustration:

I walked within a garden fairr
At dawn, to gather roses there;
When suddenly sounded in the dale
The singing of the nightingale.
Alas, he loved a rose, like me,
And he, too, loved in agony;
Tumbling upon the mead he sent
The cataract of his lament.
With sad and meditative pace
I wandered in that flowery place,
And thought upon the tragic tale
Of love, and rose, and nightingale.
          (Hafiz, p, 127)

In modern times, the phrase “country of roses and nightingales” has been used sarcastically to allude to all that is wrong in Iran, from frequent power failures, to rampant official corruption and poorly manufactured domestic products. The familiar expression when faced with one of these ills is “What do you expect? This is the country of roses and nightingales.”

“This Text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.”

“This Text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.”

A poetic scapegoat

Though by modern Western standards, “Sinning” might strike one as a poem of passionate innocence, when released in Iran, it seemed almost seditious for its deliberate undermining of traditional values. The poem elicited outrage, as revealed in an introduction to a 1954 collection of Farrukhzad’s poetry. Sayyid Hadi Ha’iri pointed out that the poets of the classical period had spoken of “rebellion and sin” without being sinful themselves (Ha’iri in Langarudi, p. 176). But now a woman was violating one of the basic conventions of femininity in Persian culture: namely that women are za`ifah, or “fragile and ruled by almost ungovernable passions” (Milani, p. 139). It is for this reason that families insisted their female members preserve their ismat or “modesty, innocence” at all costs. As noted, about two decades before the poem’s appearance, Reza Shah had outlawed the veil, thereby removing the physical emblem of modesty, or ismat.To some, this was a “day of shame”; to others, it signaled emancipation (Milani, p. 34). By making her intimate emotions part of public discourse, Farrukhzad went much further, taking the unveiling beyond the physical to the emotional realm. The great popularity of the poem intimates that it resonated for many women of Iran, who at the time suffered repression in private as well as civil life.

The outrage against the poem was telling as well. “Sinning” was released at a particularly crucial time in contemporary Iranian history. The legitimacy of the regime was in question, and pressures to increase popular participation in government were mounting. Released into this environment in 1955, the poem exposed the naive strategy of Pahlavi reform, which assumed rapid social, political, and cultural changes could be imposed from above without incurring a backlash from below. The backlash incurred by the poem reflected a reaction against change in general that was occurring in pockets of the population. To be sure, many conservative or traditional families were adamant in their opposition to the form of modernization that called on women to become individuals in the Western sense of the word. These opponents surfaced in large numbers among the rural and urban poor and middle classes and among the merchants in the bazaars. The anti-regime feelings would manifest themselves in symbolic acts of defiance: graffiti insulting to the royal family; the smashing of windowpanes at universities; and deliberate reveiling by women who were not devout. That some quite progressive Iranians had objections to westernization becomes clear, as noted, in Farrukhzad’s “Mechanical Doll,” a poem that reacts not against women’s becoming individuals, but against their trading one type of anonymity for another.

Sources and literary context

While Farrukhzad’s poetry is indebted to the great authors of the past, such as Rumi (d. 1273), Sa’di (d. 1292), and Hafiz (d. 1389 or 1390), her poems would have been impossible without the groundbreaking verse of Nima Yushij (1897–1960). Nima departed from more than a millennium of classical conventions to create modernist Persian poetry. Breaking with the traditional strict rhyme and metrical schemes, he innovated in ways that gave rise to new schools of modern verse, known collectively as “Nimai” or “Nimaic.” His innovations also led to translations of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European and American poetry. Poems by France’s Paul Valery, Paul Eluard, and Louis Aragon, Russia’s Anna Akhmatova, Spain’s Federico Garcia Lorca, and the English-speaking T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were translated into Persian in the 1950s and 1960s. Their styles and content influenced modernist Persian poets, Farrukhzad among them. There are unmistakable parallels between her death-of-nature poetry and Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” as shown by these lines from her “Earth’s Word”: “The sun was cold/ and the plenteous-ness went from the land/ And grass withered on the fields” (Farrukhzad, “Earth’s Word,” Bride of Acacias, p. 57).

The poems covered here show an evolution in Farrukhzad’s focus, from the type of intensely personal preoccupation of “Sinning” to the social issues of “O Realm Bejewelled” and “Mechanical Doll.” In her first phase, Farrukhzad “typifie[d] the intellectual Iranian woman caught in the cross-tides of a strict, traditional society and the ever-increasing onslaught of Western ideas and modes of life” (Javadi and Sallee, p. 2). Next her poetry grew even bolder, challenging the world as created according to scripture, focusing especially on the plight of women. From her socially oriented poems, she would progress, in the final stage, to a haunting preoccupation with the cosmos, fixing on loneliness, death, and a not unrelieved darkness, in which lurks the promise of rebirth. (Specifically, she moved from poems such as “Sinning” and “Dreaming,” to “Mechanical Doll” and “Green Delusion,” to “Ill Be Greeting the Sun Again,” “Let Us Believe in the Oncoming Season of Cold,” and “The Voice Alone Is Left.”) This is how one critic characterizes her final compositions:

Gone is the youthful voice of the lonely rebel recalling the sense of sin in the midst of a most pleasurable experience. Gone also is the paradoxical longing for, and loud protestations against, a prince riding a white horse, a housewife’s apron, washed linen waving in the wind. Gone, finally, are snapshots of sweet elders surrounding childhood confusion, mechanical dolls lying in luxurious, coffin-like boxes, and the ever-present lonely woman in an enclosed space pleading for a window. In their place, we witness a deep human desire to engage the rich texts of an essentially mysterious universe, to hold communion with the unknown, to converse with utter solitude.

(Karimi-Hakkak, pp. xxv-xxvi)


The title of “O Realm Bejewelled” is taken from Iran’s unofficial national anthem. Used ironically, it alludes to the rosy view of the anthem, which clashed with the dark realities of late 1950s and early 1960s Iran. By the time Farrukhzad wrote this poem, the Pahlavi promise that the country would soon become an advanced industrial nation seemed hollow, even cynical, to critics of the government The regime censored or imprisoned and tortured dissidents (both leftist and clerical) for expressing their views, while it rewarded mediocrities and sycophants, in addition, rapidly proliferating examples of bad taste in, for example, architecture grieved artists, who saw what they thought of as the “real” Iran disappear be-hind mansions better suited to the American community of North Hollywood than to North Tehran.


A great deal of the Persian criticism of Farrukhzad’s early work, especially “Sinning,” attacked the poet rather than evaluated the poem on its own terms. It is difficult to overstate how shocking “Sinning” was to readers in mid-1950s Iran. Critics, who were predominantly “subjective and moralistic” at the time, condemned the poem on two counts: its technical immaturity (e.g., the redundancy of “burning” and “hot” in the first line) and its explicit sexual imagery (Langarudi, p. 25). In retrospect, a point would be made about the language of this early poem: that on one hand, the speaker delights in flaunting her sin but on the other hand, she uses the condemnatory language of patriarchy—most obviously, the value-laden term “sinned.” Farrukhzad had yet to show the full lexical freedom that would surface in her later poems. In any case, the poem was initially taken as an unrepentant confession of sin; so often was it understood this way that it became necessary to defend Farrukhzad against charges of indecency. A traditional poet of her day, Ibrahim Sahba, satirized Farrukhzad’s verse for the literary “lapses”—a clear reference to “Sinning.” (Hillmann, p. 53). Although she claimed not to heed such criticism, there is some evidence to suggest that Farrukhzad got her revenge on Sahba in “O Realm Bejewelled.” In a stanza not found in the Banani-Kessler translation, the speaker predicts that she will “hurl herself madly down into the affectionate bosom of the motherland” (Hillmann, p. 53). After this literary suicide, the poet conjures up the same Ibrahim Sahba to compose the dead speaker’s elegy, which will rhyme in drivel (in Persian, kashk —literally, “whey”). Critically, “O Realm Bejewlled” won appreciation from at least some Iranian intellectuals for its innovative elements, among them, the equation of the self in the poem with Iranian society rather than with a sighing or grief-stricken speaker.

The responses to “Mechanical Doll” were affected by the fact that when it first appeared, critics in Iran were still reading Farrukhzad’s poetry mostly as obscene and as protest against inequality between the sexes. Social change has since encouraged newer views with regard to this type of Farrukhzad poem. A Canadian edition of her poems conveys one such view:

In these poems… we see the poet contemplating the condition of women in her society. Characteristically, she does so through her own experiences rather than through any general preconceptions. Being “a healthy beautiful female” in “a man’s domineering arms” while viewing one’s world “with eyes of glass” is indeed an apt depiction of the lifestyle imposed on a whole generation of Iranian women growing up in the 1950s and 60s.

(Karimi-Hakkak, pp. xxi-xxii)

The poet’s life ended tragically on February 14, 1967, when the jeep she was driving crashed into a wall to avoid a school bus. After this, the practice of eulogizing the poet on the anniversary of her death became a ritual among Iranian intellectuals and opposition groups. Admirers collected unpublished or rare scraps of her writing and rushed them into print to satisfy the brisk market in memorializing. With each generation, another version of the poet is reborn, and her poetry is recompiled to suit particular times and places. Under the Islamic Republic, Farrukhzad’s divan (corpus of collected works) has been republished without certain poems deemed to exceed the moral standards of discourse in Iran (Farrukhzad, Divan, p. 8). These poems have been restored in collections published outside of Iran.

—Paul Sprachman

For More Information

Farman-Farmaian, Sattareh. Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem through the Islamic Revolution.New York: Anchor, 1992.

Farrukhzad, Furugh. Another Birth.Trans. Hasan Javadi and Susan Sallee. Emeryville, Calif.: Albany Press, 1981.

_____. Bride of Acacias: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad. Trans. Jascha Kessler with Amin Banani. Delmar, New York: Caravan, 1982.

_____. Divan-i asfrar-i Furugh-i Farrukhzad. Tehran: Murvarid, 1992.

Hafiz. Fifty Poems of Hafiz.Ed. Arthur J. Arberry. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1962.

Hillmann, Michael C A Lonely Woman: Forugh Farrokhzad and Her Poetry.Washington, D.C.: Three Continents and Mage, 1987.

Karimi-Hakkak, Ahmad. Remembering the Flight: Twenty Poems by Forugh Farrokhzad.Vancouver: Nik, 1997.

Katouzian, Homa. “Of the Sins of Forough Farrokhzad.” Iranshinasi 12, no. 2 (summer 2000): 264–87.

Langarudi, Shams. Tarikh-i tahlili-i shir A now. Vol. 2. Tehran: Nashr-i Markaz, 1991.

Milani, Farzaneh. Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers.Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1992.

Muradi-Kuchi, Shahnaz. Shinakht-i Furugh Farrukhzad.Tehran: Qatra, 2000.

Sprachman, Paul. Language and Culture in Persian. Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda, 2002.

Taj al-Saltanah. Crowing Anguish: Memoirs of a Persian Princess from the Harem to Modernization. Ed. Abbas Amanat. Washington, D.C.: Mage, 1993.

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“Mechanical Doll” and Other Poems

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“Mechanical Doll” and Other Poems