Parsipur, Shahrnush (1946–)

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Parsipur, Shahrnush

Shahrnush Parsipur, born in 1946 in Tehran, Iran, is an influential Iranian novelist. She has published eight books of fiction—three of them are translated into English—as well as her prison memoirs. Even though all of her works are currently banned in Iran, her novel Tuba and the Meaning of Night became a national best seller. She currently lives in the United States as a political refugee.


Parsipur was born in Tehran, Iran, on 17 February 1946. She is the daughter of an attorney in the Justice Ministry originally from Shiraz (a city in southwest-central Iran). When she was sixteen, she began to write short stories and articles. In 1973 she received her B.A. in sociology from Tehran University.

Her first book was Tupak-e Qermez (The little red ball; 1969), a story for young people. Her first short stories were published in the late 1960s. One early story appeared in 1972 in a special short-story issue of a magazine that also featured stories by other Iranian writers. Her novella Tajrobeh'ha-ye Azad (Trial Offers, 1970; translated into English) was followed by the novel Sag va Zemestan-e Boland (The dog and the long winter), published in 1976.


Name: Shahrnush Parsipur

Birth: 1946, Tehran, Iran

Family: Divorced, a son who lives in Iran

Nationality: Iranian

Education: Tehran University, faculty of letters: B.A. in sociology (1973); Sorbonne, Paris: Chinese philosophy and language, 1976–1980


  • 1967–1974: Editor and producer Iranian National Television
  • 1977: Publishes Small and Simple Tales of the Spirit of the Tree
  • 1979: Returns to Iran in the wake of the Iranian Revolution
  • 1981: Incarcerated for four years and seven months
  • 1990: Spends two periods in jail
  • 1994: Moves to the United States as a political refugee, receives the Lillian Hellman/Dashiell Hammett Award from the Fund for Free Expression
  • 2003: First recipient of Brown University's International Writers Project Fellowship, by the Program in Creative Writing and the Watson Institute for International Studies

She was a producer and editor of Rural Women, a socially inclined weekly show for National Iranian TV. In 1974 she resigned her job in protest against the torture and execution of two journalist-poet activists by SAVAK (the shah of Iran's secret services). She was imprisoned for fifty-four days. In the letter of resignation that she wrote, she indicated that she was not opposing the government or monarchy, but that she believed execution was unjust. After her release, she held a variety of office jobs and in 1976 she moved to Paris to study Chinese language and civilization at the Sorbonne until 1980. She returned to Iran in the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Parsipur was imprisoned before the 1979 revolution and again for more than four years in the 1980s for alleged oppositional activities. In 1989 she published her novel Tuba va ma'na-ye Shab (published in English as Tuba and the Meaning of Night). The publication of her short novel Women without Men in 1989 took her to prison twice more in the early 1990s. She was arrested one year after the fatwa against Salman Rushdie was issued. Immediately after its publication, Women without Men was attacked by fundamentalist journals and media for its references to virginity, and was thus unofficially banned. This also led publishers and booksellers to take her other works out of sale until the early 2000s, when they reappeared in bookstores. The Iranian government banned Women without Men in the mid-1990s and put pressure on the author to desist from such writing. Early in the 1990s, Parsipur finished her fourth novel, a story of a female Don Quixote called Aql-e abi'rang (Blue Intellect), which remained unavailable until 1992.

Translations of Parsipur's stories have appeared in Stories by Iranian Women since the Revolution (1991) and in Stories from Iran: A Chicago Anthology (1991). English translations of Parsipur's major writings were in print by 1992 when the author traveled around the United States and participated in the International Writer's Program at the University of Iowa. In 1994 Parsipur fled Iran and currently resides in the United States as a political refugee. In the same year she received the Lillian Hellman/Dashiell Hammett Award from the Fund for Free Expression. In 2003 she was also given the first International Writers Project Fellowship from the Program in Creative Writing and the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.


Two writers have greatly affected Parsipur's work: Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Charles Dickens. As a measure of how much she admires Dostoyevsky, Parsipur tells the story of attending an Italian school in Tehran run by Roman Catholic nuns, where every Sunday the nuns would preach to the students. In those moments, she used to think that if she had to become a Christian and marry a Christian, she would marry Dostoyevsky. Regarding Dickens's influence, she pointed out that she read his book Great Expectations thirty-three or thirty-four times. When she read it the last time—in prison in the Islamic Republic—she noticed that she still was fascinated by it. Interestingly, however, she has not read anything else by Dickens. Among French writers, Honoré de Balzac has influenced her. Also, two Latin Americans writers have affected her: Gabriel García Márquez from Colombia, and Jorge Luis Borges from Argentina.

Among Iranian authors, Sadeq Hedayat (1903–1951) has deeply influenced Parsipur's writing. She has used Hedayat's book, Blind Owl, in two of her works: Tuba and the Meaning of Night and Blue Intellect. There seems to have been a constant challenge between Blind Owl and Parsipur's two books. She was also profoundly swayed by Sumerian myths. One was the myth of Gilga-mesh and other was the Sumerian myth of creation, and they are manifest in three of her books: Women without Men, in part in Tuba and the Meaning of Night, and in a considerable part in Blue Intellect.

Both novels, Women without Men and Tuba and the Meaning of Night, depict the male-dominated culture in harsh terms. Parsipur's other works, such as Adab-e Sarf-e Chay dar Hozur-e Gorg (1993, Tea ceremony in the presence of a wolf) and Khatirat-i Zindan (1997, Prison memoirs), published while in exile, also reflect her commitment to the cause of Iranian women. The short stories and articles reunited in Adab-e Sarf-e Chay dar Hozur-e Gorg express the author's views on social and cultural issues. These short stories sometimes portray Parsipur's own experience, but also the minds of alienated men and women who seem trapped between two worlds: traditional and modern, old and new, and determined and free.


From the time I was a young woman I discovered some secrets. And that was that unless you have sexual experiences you cannot enter the domain of public work and social activities. Those in power know this fact and thus transform women to sexual objects. I mean they first and foremost repress and denigrate women, then they direct them to put a wedding gown on and go to their husband's home and come out wearing the shroud. I mean to say that they train women in certain limited roles. So the most important barrier in front of a woman who has ambitions in creative work and wants to do something important is to overcome her fear of sexual taboos and matters. […] There are some strange fears around which must be overcome. The way to do so is to talk about sexual matters as much as possible openly and honestly. […] Don't get me wrong, I don't believe in sexual anarchy, not at all. But I completely endorse sexual freedom. This must come to pass so that women can become somebody. Having said all of this I hereby declare in this particular historical juncture that in my judgment the best thing a woman can do is having a husband, live with her children and carry on a quiet and dignified life!



Parsipur is seen in Western countries primarily as a feminist writer, but she wants to be known not as a feminist but as a free woman. Some of Parsipur's works have been translated into English, French, Italian, and German. Even though Parsipur moved to the United States in 1994 she remains in regular contact with the literary communities in Iran and abroad; because she is deeply respected by the younger generation of writers, she receives numerous manuscripts written by them, especially female authors, who seek her opinion on their work.


By breaking taboos about women's sexuality, Parsipur has contributed to the rise of a feminist discourse after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Parsipur's narrative, therefore, not only criticizes patriarchal social convention but also attempts to subvert the male-dominated literary style of the prerevolutionary period. The following generations of female writers are nourished by her work.

Her legacy is also informed by her fight to expose the political conditions that Iranian women writers must struggle against in order to continue their literary work. Parsipur's works are among the most successful of writers from Iran. The literary movement to which they belong has produced new forms and creative approaches to social problems and has addressed forbidden topics.

In the 2000s, even pious Muslim women, whether within the ruling elite or from among the oppositional groups, are reinterpreting Islamic ideology to offer a female-favorable reading of the theology. Women's issues have gained a new significance in Iran and can no longer be ignored by politicians. In their campaigns, Iranian candidates have taken the situation of women as a central issue. These developments may be regarded as a way of subverting or a way of appropriating women's discourse, but they do stand in contrast with the state discourse of the Islamic republic and indicate the direction of cultural change. At the center of this process, the works of female authors, mainly inspired by Parsipur's writings, have influenced the course of political development and culture production in Iran.


Bashi, Golbarg. "Ideological Tyranny in Iranian Women's Studies: A Response to Shahrzad Mojab." Free Thoughts on Iran. Updated 16 November 2005. Available from

Moayyad, Heshmat, ed. Stories from Iran: A Chicago Anthology (1921–1991). Washington, DC: Mage Publishers, 2002.

Parsipur, Shahrnush. Women without Men: A Novella. Translated by Jocelyn Sharlet and Kamran Talattof. New York: Feminist Press, 2004.

―――――――. Tuba and the Meaning of Night. Translated by Havva Houshmand and Kamran Talattof. New York: Feminist Press, 2006.

                                                   Laura Ruiz

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Parsipur, Shahrnush (1946–)

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