CLIO TALKS BACK: Thinking About Women's Life Story-Telling in Iran

Writing in the Journal of Women’s History, Professor Farzaneh Milani observes that autobiographical writing is a very new phenomenon in the very old land of Iran. Only since the mid-twentieth century have Iranian Muslim women begun to publish their personal stories in any form.

Early in her pursuit of Iranian women’s life stories, Milani speculated that “a barrier as forbidding as a veil covers private selves and inhibits self-revelation. The cultural context . . . values and strongly institutionalizes a sharp separation between the inner and the outer, the private and the public. The culture of Hijab . . . is not conducive to the development of personal narratives and their generic public uncovering and display of the self. I surmised that in a veiled society, women are not the only ones veiled. The concrete, the specific, and the personal are also veiled. Communication is veiled. Words are veiled. Public expressions of intimate relationships are veiled. In such a society, walls abound, dissimulation conceals individualistic tendencies; houses become compartmentalized into inner and outer areas; abstractions supplant concreteness; elusiveness substitutes precision; art becomes impersonal. There is no tradition of confession, either in its Catholic sense or in that practice’s secular modern version, psychotherapy. A culture that idealizes women’s public anonymity, I concluded, considers life narratives as exhibitionism, as an act of immodest self-referentiality, as self-absorption and an ultimate act of unveiling.”

But then, living in the United States, she discovered that “invisible fences” also existed in America; these were less physical than cultural. The process of self-revelation only goes so far; zones of privacy and secrecy remain, but the boundaries keep shifting. Have these femces since fallen by the wayside in the Age of Facebook’s potentially extravagant culture of self-disclosure? Or are there still shifting boundaries? What causes a cultural shift that allows any individual to tell her story?

Even as American women, from movie stars to ordinary women, indulge in a “tell-all” or at least “tell-almost-all” culture, and sign up for courses in life-writing, women writers in Iran took to embedding their autobiographical work in poetry, in novels, and then insisting that these works were “not really” about themselves. In the late twentieth century, some began to publish more documented “hostage narratives” and “prison narratives.”

Where does one draw the line between fiction and “truth”? And why does it matter?

Clio, the Muse of History who talks back, thinks that the “facts” of personal stories do matter, but that they require considerable space to “get right.” They can’t be presented adequately in the space of the “soundbite,” the “tweet,” or the Facebook profile, or even in an on-line museum exhibit. This is why autobiographical memoirs and books still count.

What do Clio’s readers think?

Further reading: Farzaneh Milani, Women’s Autobiogtaphies in Contemporary Iran (1990); Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers (1992); and Words, not Swords: Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement (2011). This blog is based on Farzaneh Milani’s article, “Iranian Women’s Life Narratives,” Journal of Women’s History , 25:2 (Summer 2013), 130-152.