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  • Writer's pictureRhiannon Ling

Forugh Farrokhzad: The Iranian Iconoclast

Forugh Farrokhzad (Jaunary 5, 1935 – February 13, 1967)

Today’s veritable badass retains a bit of mystery about her. There are endless contradictory sources, hidden or redacted documentation, and a span of many years where people weren’t allowed to utter her name: after the overthrow of Iran’s secular monarchy in 1979, her revolutionary work was banned.

That only made her more beloved.

Forugh Farrokhzad was born in Tehran on January 5, 1935, one of seven children to a “strict-minded military father and his much younger wife.” Her mother would spend hours with her doll collection to escape the Farrokhzad patriarch (a theme that would later weave its way into Farrokhzad’s poetry); her father was staunch, a bit removed, a touch stilted. Still, the duo were progressive for the time, sending their daughter to a co-ed elementary school before she attended a technical high school. Young Forugh studied painting and dressmaking in her teenage years.

In 1951, at the age of sixteen, Farrokhzad fell in love with a distant relation fifteen years her senior. Despite her parents’ vocal concerns, she married him. The newlyweds moved to Ahvaz, where her husband worked for the Ministry of Finance. In later years, Farrokhzad would recall that “that ridiculous marriage at the age of sixteen destroyed my future life.”

One year later, her son, Kamyar, was born, and she found something like freedom in his arrival. She began writing poetry about her situation and the misogynistic existence of Iran. Her married status offered her a degree of protection, allowing her to travel to and from Tehran, looking to publish, without much public critique. It was within these travels that she began an affair that would end her marriage: unhappy in life, unhappy in husband, feeling trapped and stifled in her youth, she fell in with Nasser Khodayar, the Editor-in-Chief of leading literary magazine Roshanfekr.

Three major poems of hers were published in Roshanfekr around this time (1954/1955), quickly gaining notoriety for her lack of repentance, addressing of societal issue and taboo, and unapologetic femininity. This was further amplified by her daring to publish “The Sin” in 1955. Printed under her real name and alongside a photo of herself and her son, the poem described a lover’s embrace, adulterous sex, and unapologetic sensuality in stunning lines (I’m linking her work at the bottom, don’t you worry). It was “a reversal of a thousand years of Persian literature [written by men about their lovers],” and “collapsed any distance between the loving wife and the libidinous poet.” She never repented about her hunger, her sadness, her longing. She simply wrote about it. At a time when autobiography by women was nonexistent, at a time when women could be killed for adulterous liaisons, she took her life’s story into her own hands. She was brave, and it was stunning.

Somewhere in the same year, Farrokhzad published her first collection of poetry, entitled Captive. It was addressed to a series of unnamed men, those who called themselves lovers but acted as jailers. You can imagine the ripple effect that had on mid-century society.

Simultaneously, following the publishing of “The Sin,” Farrokhzad and Khodayar broke off their affair. The latter brutalized his lover in a series of short stories, devastating to Farrokhzad’s mental health. The very public reveal led to Farrokhzad’s divorcing of her husband. Her former in-laws forbade her from seeing her son; she never would again while she was alive. It was an agony that she felt deeply until her death, reflecting in a 1957 poem entitled “Poem for You:” “You will search for me in my words / and tell yourself: My mother, that is who she was.”

In September of 1955, Farrokhzad suffered an intense mental breakdown and attempted suicide. Her family placed her in the Rezai psychiatric clinic for a month, where she was subjected to horrific electroshock therapy. The press didn’t even let her survive that in peace. Some utterly dumbass magazine (my words, of course) covered her hospitalization by quoting al-Tha’labi: “Heaven forbid the day when the daughters of Eve, who are lacking a rib, become poets, and beware the day they go mad.”

After escaping institutionalization, Farrokhzad published her second collection of poetry, The Wall, in mid-1956. It was dedicated, with slight derision, to her former husband, an attempt to regain contact with her son. It didn’t work. Shortly after, she ventured to Europe, staying there for several months. She split her time between Germany, where she studied language and literature, and Italy, its environment soothing to her artistic heart. Soon, though, she missed her native language, and returned to Iran.

In 1958, her third collection of poetry was published. Entitled Rebellion, Farrokhzad described its contents as “between two different stages of life, the last gasp before a kind of liberation.” Her third volume called for the uprising of women against injustice and took particular aim at traditional Iranian manhood, explaining that both men and women suffered from gender iniquities. She had found a way to confidently marry her revolutionary prowess with her Persian literary heritage.

That same year, Farrokhzad began working at Ebrahim Golestan’s film studio, and the two develop an intimate relationship. It was such that Golestan didn’t speak of her for years after her death, until, in 2017, he stated, “I can’t measure how much I had feelings for her. How can I? In kilos? In metres?” Though Farrokhzad certainly saved herself artistically, the world has Golestan to thank for her years following. In 1960, she attempted suicide once again, saved only by Golestan entering the room at the right time.

Following this second attempt, Farrokhzad threw herself headfirst into passion projects. Over the course of several years, she developed and filmed The House is Black with a leprosy charity, immersing herself in a leper colony to humanize their plight. She was so involved, in fact, that she adopted a young boy, Hossein, from the colony. The two remained incredibly close until her death. In 1962, the documentary itself was released: accompanied by Farrokhzad’s own verses, the film portrayed the leper colony as an allegory for Iranian society. It won Best Documentary at the Oberhausen Film Festival.

Two years later, Farrokhzad published what many (including herself) consider to be her seminal work of literature. Another Birth, dedicated to Golestan, married meditations on love with cutting social commentary. She held no fear in addressing the government, the patriarchy, the misogynistic brutality of contemporary Iranian society. It was her pride.

Three years later, she was gone. On February 14, 1967, at the age of 32, Forugh Farrokhzad was killed in a car crash. It made front page news in Tehran. Regarded as a national tragedy, hundreds attended her funeral in what would be the last gathering of leading Iranian intellectuals before the revolution. In 1979, following the monarchy’s overthrow, her poetry was banned by the Republic. That only made her rebel status grow further, and she remains incredibly influential today.

Unfortunately, that censorship is making us untangle truth from fiction. We’re still trying to find her story in totality.

But god, I love her. I think you will, too.

“Perhaps because no woman before me took steps toward breaking the shackles binding women’s hands and feet, and because I am the first to do so, they have made such a controversy out of me.”

- Forugh Farrokhzad, Afterword to Captive, 1955 –

“What is important is humanity, not being a man or a woman. If a poem can get to that point, it is no longer connected with its creator but with a world of poetry.”

- Forugh Farrokhzad, Interview, 1960s –

Sources/For More Info: “Overlooked No More: Forough Farrokhzad, Iranian Poet Who Broke Barriers of Sex and Society” by Amir-Hussein Radjy [find poetry excerpts here], “Feminize Your Canon: Forough Farrokhzad” by Joanna Scutts [find poetry excerpts here], Forugh Farrokhzad, Poet of Modern Iran: Iconic Woman and Feminine Pioneer of New Persian Poetry by Brookshaw and Rahimieh

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