Farrokhzad, Forugh (1935–1967)

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Farrokhzad, Forugh (1935–1967)

Major Iranian poet who was an early feminist and one of her country's first important female writers. Name variations: Farrough, Foroogh, Furogh, or Furugh Farrukhzad or Farrokhzaad or Farrokhzād. Pronunciation: Four-UGH Farroch-ZHAHD. Born Forugh Farrokhzad in Tehran, Iran, on January 5, 1935; died of injuries sustained in an automobile accident in Tehran, on February 14, 1967; daughter of Mohammed Farrokhzad (a colonel in the Iranian Army) and Turan Vaziri Tabar Farrokhzad; attended a coeducational secondary school and a girls' high school as far as the ninth grade in Tehran; attended the Kamalolmolk Technical School; married Parviz Shapur, in 1951 (divorced 1954); children: one son.

First poems published in Tehran newspapers and magazines (1953); had nervous breakdown (1954); had love affair with Nader Naderpur (1954–56); made first trip abroad (1956); became assistant atEbrahim Golestan's film studio and began love affair with Golestan (1958); went to England to study film production (1959); began work as documentary filmmaker (1960); completed documentary film on Iranian lepers (1962); acted in stage production of Six Characters in Search of an Author (1963); was the subject of UNESCO film (1965).

Selected works:

The Captive (1955); The Wall (1956); Rebellion (1958); Another Birth (1964); Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season (1974).

Forugh Farrokhzad was a prominent Iranian poet and filmmaker during the middle decades of the 20th century. Dying young, she produced only 127 poems, presented to the public in five collections, plus a small number of verses that appeared in various Iranian magazines. Nonetheless, many critics believe she is the greatest female poet in the history of the Persian language and one of the luminaries of Persian literature. In the modern Iranian tradition, her readers often refer to her by her first name alone.

Farrokhzad rebelled against the strictures of her conservative homeland both in her writing and her lifestyle and, as a consequence, faced widespread condemnation. Even in her early years, she explored her identity as a woman and lover in ways that shocked her contemporaries. Maturing as a poet, she went into still more dangerous areas in criticizing aspects of Iranian society and in examining the role of women in general. She was drawn to filmmaking during the last years of her life, and the topics that she took up, such as the treatment of lepers, again showed her critical temperament. The young writer's zest for exploring the world through her poetry was expressed in a letter she wrote to her last lover, Ebrahim Golestan: "I want to pierce everything and as much as possible to penetrate into all things. I want to reach the depths of the earth." For critic Farzaneh Milani, "Forugh's entire canon of work might be considered the first Bildungsroman written by and about a woman in Iran."

Forugh Farrokhzad was born in 1935, the third child of an upper-middle-class Iranian family. Her mother was Turan Vaziri Tabar Farrokhzad ; her father, Mohammed Farrokhzad, was an army colonel who presided over four sons and three daughters. His superior officer, Reza Shah Pahlavi , had seized control of the country by means of a coup in 1921 and had begun a process of Westernization. Thus, the Farrokhzads were members of a new urban elite firmly established in a modernizing society. Forugh, whose name means "brilliance, radiance" in Iranian, grew up in a comfortable house in central Tehran.

The Farrokhzads valued education, and all four of Forugh's brothers attended universities in Germany. But even the three girls in the family obtained some of the benefits of their father's personal library and his educational aspirations: he personally taught them to read. Forugh attended a local coeducational grammar school and, at age 13, entered an all-girl secondary school, the Khosrow Khavar High School. By this time, she was writing poetry in the classic forms of the Persian tradition, and she continued with her literary efforts when she dropped out of ninth grade to enter the Kamalolmolk Technical School to be trained in dressmaking and painting. At this institution, she studied with some of Iran's most prominent artists, including the female painter Behjat Sadr .

She was a lonely woman, an intriguingly unyielding rebel; an adventuress of both body and mind…. Relentlessly, she trespassed boundaries and explored new domains.

—Farzaneh Milani

Farrokhzad married Parvis Shapur in 1951. He was an Iranian civil servant and amateur writer whom the Farrokhzads reluctantly gave their daughter permission to marry at the age of 16. She had by this time already caused her parents concern as a result of her unwillingness to observe the restrictions on females in traditional Iranian society. Unable to control this wayward daughter and anxious to secure the family honor by protecting her virginity, Farrokhzad's parents were willing to allow her to pursue her desires. She may have felt that Parvis, with his contacts in the Iranian literary world, offered her a degree of cultural stimulation and opportunity she could not get at home.

Within a year, Farrokhzad gave birth to a son Kamyar (meaning "desired friend"), but even as a young mother her mode of dress, with its tight-fitting clothes and short skirts, caused comment among the neighbors. With her husband's encouragement, she continued her writing and began to publish her verse in Tehran's newspapers and magazines. Even these early works contained a feminine viewpoint that impressed many readers in a society in which women's ideas were seldom heard in public.

Her first collection of poetry, The Captive, appeared in the summer of 1955, when she was only 20, and caused an immediate stir. A woman poet was a rarity in the Iranian literary world. Although sexual themes had played a large role in the country's literature since World War II, this writer's verses were unique in featuring a candid expression of a female's personal thoughts and feelings. For example, she compared her life to that of a caged bird. Her lines caused an even greater uproar as the young woman narrator described her own love affairs. The most famous poem in the collection, "The Sin," is a forceful description of love-making. In it Farrokhzad wrote: "I sinned, a sin full of pleasure." A second poem contained in the volume, "The Wedding Band," gives the reader a bitter view of marriage as a mechanism for reducing women to a lifetime of servitude. Some Iranian readers and critics believed that the contents of The Captive could undermine the moral basis of the society. Certainly the poet drew upon her own experiences in a constricting marriage as an inspiration for such verses.

Forugh Farrokhzad later wrote that she did not believe she was accomplishing "anything extraordinary" with such writing but "this commotion has arisen around me" due to the fact that "no woman before me took steps toward loosening these chains of constraints that have bound women's hands and feet." In the view of her biographer, Michael Hillmann, her accomplishment was all the greater since Farrokhzad was writing "without benefit of models or the psychological or personal support of other women writers." Moreover since she had no facility with foreign languages at this time, she could hardly draw on role models from Western literature. She was, in short, "more on her own in the mid-1950s than almost any other woman writers from Europe or North America during the last two centuries."

In the view of some critics, even in this early collection, the young poet presented a second challenge to Iranian tradition: she showed signs of rejecting the established forms of traditional Persian poetry and began to reflect the influence of Nima Yushif, the country's pioneer of literary "modernism." For example, The Captive reflected Yushif's ideas by its use of an identifiable poetic speaker, and thus Farrokhzad joined other young poets who were moving away from traditional forms by the middle years of the 1950s. Nonetheless, her shift in style was only a small literary rebellion compared to the inflammatory content of her works. In fact, at this time, she retained important features of the Persian tradition in writing verse, e.g. in using rhyming couplets and lines of equal length. By Milani's count, only 12 of Forugh's first 86 poems depart from the classical forms of Persian poetry.

In 1954, Forugh divorced Shapur. In doing so, she lost custody of her son, since both Iranian law and the fact that she was known to have committed adultery dictated that the child go to his father. In Hillmann's view, the young poet was troubled by the loss of her child but understood her inability to be either a housewife or mother "because her personal and professional commitment to poetry meant an independent life-style and a renunciation of such conventional feminine roles." Nonetheless, she apparently remained on cordial terms with her former husband. In 1956, she dedicated The Wall to him "in memory of our shared past" and with thanks for "his innumerable kindnesses."

Even supposedly worldly and Westernized members of Tehran society gossiped viciously about this young woman, who now published candid poetry in newspapers and magazines about her sexual adventures. In Milani's telling description, in the absence of any women's movement in Iran in the '50s and '60s Forugh Farrokhzad "was a leading lady without a supporting cast, without the unity of community," and her isolation and loneliness were "both brutal and devastating." Combined with the strain resulting from the collapse of her marriage, these pressures led Farrokhzad to a nervous collapse in the fall of 1954. In the aftermath of this episode, both her lifestyle and her rhetoric became more flamboyant. She began a two-year love affair with Nader Naderpur, a prominent Iranian poet. In a new edition of The Captive, she declared her intention to free "the hands and feet of art from the chains of rotten conditions" and to help women "to describe what is in their heart without fear and concern for the criticism of others." She lamented the fact that men had been able to describe their experiences of love in poetry without evoking criticism, and she insisted on her right to do the same from a feminine perspective.

Farrokhzad published a second volume of poetry, The Wall, containing 25 of her works in 1956. As in The Captive, she combined a personal voice and themes drawn from a woman's love life with relatively conventional verse patterns. In this volume, her celebration of physical love was even more candid—and shocking to her Iranian readers—than in her first collection. Shortly afterward, she took her first trip abroad. In a nine-month stay in Europe, she reveled in the freer intellectual and social environment she found there. Traveling in Germany and Italy, she began a new set of poems. Upon her return to Iran, she found work on a local literary magazine and apparently engaged in a new series of love affairs.

Her latest works, from her trip abroad and from her first months back home, appeared in Rebellion, a collection of 17 poems published in 1958. Rebellion introduced new elements into her work, notably a critical posture toward religious belief. Her style remained largely traditional, however, and she herself remarked about the naive level of her craftsmanship.

Hillmann, Milani, and other critics find a fundamental change in Forugh's work after 1958. From that point until her death less than a decade later, she produced her finest work, which embodied an emphatic acceptance of literary modernism. Moving forward from her first three volumes, in which she had explored her own feelings and identity as a woman in a traditional society, her final two books of poetry show her examining society as a whole. The years after 1958 were also marked by her longstanding relationship with the writer and filmmaker Ebrahim Golestan. As one of Iran's most prominent intellectuals, Golestan offered Farrokhzad both financial and emotional support for her work. Nonetheless, the reaction of acquaintances in Iranian society to her open affair with this married man caused the poet deep anguish. On one occasion, she reportedly tried to commit suicide.

The last two volumes of her work also show a new stylistic daring as Farrokhzad followed the example of Nima Yushif into more flexible rhyming patterns and even into free verse. She became more sophisticated in her use of metaphor, and she developed a new precision in choosing words and in the internal structure of her poems. As Milani put it, Farrokhzad now "allowed the inner landscape of each poem to reveal itself of its own accord and to determine the particular form the poem would assume." She was no longer merely an adventurer in subject matter but "an adventurer in language and poetic forms as well."

Following a trip to England in 1959 to study English and filmmaking, Farrokhzad returned to Iran to take up work as a filmmaker. For the remainder of her life, she was active as a producer, editor, and actress in various filmmaking projects. Her most prominent production was a documentary on the Iranian leper colony at Tabriz, The House is Black, which she filmed in 1962.

By the early 1960s, Iran was in increasing turmoil as fundamentalist Islamic religious opposition grew against the government's program of Westernization. Farrokhzad remained apart from these dramatic political developments. Her most notable achievement in these years was to begin work as a stage actress with a successful role in a production of Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author in 1963.

Another Birth, the collection of 35 poems she published in 1964, saw Forugh Farrokhzad recognized as a major figure on the Iranian literary scene. Some critics in her country disregarded any mention of her gender and simply hailed Farrokhzad as a major poet. Forugh herself considered Another Birth as a sign of her maturation as a writer. It reflected a wider set of themes than had concerned her before and expressed them with a deepened set of images than those of her previous works. Her poetic voice, writes Hillmann, "no longer seems to represent merely her autobiographical self in the expression of feelings and views, but rather all Iranians with similar feelings."

The social commentary and satirical thrust of Another Birth was embodied in "O Jewel-Studied Land," in which the poem's narrator criticizes a society that has lost its bearings in a frenzy of technological advances and superficial Westernization. The poem's title is drawn from a popular patriotic song of the time. On social occasions in which she encountered members of the Shah's family, Farrokhzad was equally frank in expressing her criticism of contemporary Iranian life. By 1965, she had become enough of a figure on the international scene for her life to become the subject of a film produced by UNESCO.

In a final trip to Europe in the spring of 1966, Farrokhzad visited England and Italy. She reportedly encountered a Rom (Gypsy) fortuneteller at this time who warned her of a serious accident in her future. Shortly after her return to Tehran, she and Golestan were in fact injured in an automobile accident in the Iranian countryside. Nevertheless, she continued to live her life at a frantic pace, devoting much of her energy toward learning English. Her immediate plans for the future included a role on the stage playing the title character in an Iranian production of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan. Before she could realize this ambition, however, Farrokhzad was involved in a second, and this time fatal, accident on February 14, 1967. While traveling by car through Tehran to pick up a reel of film for Golestan, she swerved to avoid a vehicle approaching from the opposite direction and crashed into a wall. She was thrown from her car and died of the resulting injuries to her head.

Forugh Farrokhzad remains a singular figure in the history of modern Iranian literature. Writes Hillmann: "[N]o feminine voice in the 1970s emerged in the arts with Farrokhzad's intensity and audacity, in part because no equally talented woman proved willing to take the risks Farrokhzad took or pay the price that she paid." Although her total literary output could be held in a single, relatively small volume, she left a vivid memory of a talented woman who had challenged the mores of her conservative society in both her work and the way she lived her life.

A final volume of her work, Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season, appeared in print in 1972. This posthumous collection introduced new, darker themes into Farrokhzad's writing: loneliness and death. She now spoke of herself, although still in her early 30s, as "a lonely woman on the threshold of a cold season," and she explored the themes of death with terrible images of deformed babies and vicious knife-wielding murderers. Paradoxically, this same volume also contain poems of profound lyrical beauty.

For critics like Milani, Farrokhzad's tragic death was doubly sad because "she had just, in her last six or seven years, reached her poetic maturity and had finally found her own voice," and the brilliant young woman poet thus "left much of her life's work undone." For John Zubizarreta, she was "a daring, innovative writer" who had refused the limits of a society that traditionally inhibited the growth of females. She had produced "a poetry that addresses poignantly and forcefully the sensuality and grace of love, the sweetness and grace of love, the sweetness of personal and social freedom."


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

——. Iranian Culture: A Persianist View. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1990.

Klein, Leonard S., general ed. Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century. Rev. ed. Vol. 2. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1981.

Mahdavi, Shireen. "Captivity, Rebellion, and Rebirth," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review. 12–13, 1985, pp. 303–400.

Milani, Farzaneh. "Furogh Farrokhzad," in Persian Literature. Edited by Ehsan Yarshater. Albany, NY: Biblioteca Persica, 1988.

Uglow, Jennifer S., ed. The Continuum Dictionary of Women's Biography. Rev. ed. NY: Continuum, 1989.

Zubizarreta, John. "The Woman Who Sings No, No, No: Love, Freedom, and Rebellion in the Poetry of Forugh Farrokhzad," in World Literature Today. Vol. 66. Summer 1992, pp. 421–26.

suggested reading:

Najmabadi, Afsaneh, ed. Women's Autobiographies in Contemporary Iran. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California