One night after giving a speech in Ottawa, Iranian writer Shahrnush Parsipur was jolted from sleep.
She suddenly remembered that the familiar-looking woman in the back of the room had been one of her prison guards in Iran “who one day had for no reason showered me with vulgar insults.” She suspected she was being watched.
Harassment and prison terms drove Parsipur, 67, out of Iran in 1994. She was first jailed, in 1976, for protesting the execution of several artists and writers. Her longest prison stretch lasted almost five years. She has published more than a dozen books, mostly fiction, in which she touches on taboo subjects such as sex and prostitution.
All of her books are banned in her homeland, though they sell well on the black market. Her latest is “Kissing the Sword: A Prison Memoir” (Feminist Press), in which she tells the Ottawa story above.
She now lives in northern California. We spoke by phone ahead of Iran’s presidential elections on June 14.
Randol: How do you see relations between Iran and the U.S.?
Parsipur: Iran’s situation is very delicate. When I was in prison I read a lot of religious books. One of them taught me that religion deceives. A religious person hides things.
This type of life affects your political relations. If the Iranians say they want to attack Israel, it means that they’ll never attack Israel. Everything they tell you is not real, it’s a lie. Reality is hidden.
Randol: Do you think this presidential election will bring change?
Parsipur: No, I don’t think so. The people are very angry and exhausted. Perhaps a candidate can make a change in Iran, but I am not sure that is possible.
We need an economic revolution. Iran is a rich country; we have petrol, copper and a lot of other things. But the leaders can’t use the resources wisely. The majority of the people are poor and they suffer.
Randol: Any hopes for Iran’s future?
Parsipur: Society is like a phoenix: You burn it and it is born again. Iran will survive. Iranians will try hard to forget everything and begin a new life.
Randol: Why are you censored in Iran?
Parsipur: They like women who are sheep. This is the main reason. They don’t like women like me.
Throughout history they have silenced powerful and intelligent women. They don’t like women in the highest places in culture. They like to hide women in homes.
Randol: But your books get through the censorship. You’re very popular.
Parsipur: They sell them in the black market. I haven’t any documents to show, but perhaps this prison memoir has sold almost one million copies in the black market. I receive no money from these sales.
Randol: Is it the broken taboos that draw readers?
Parsipur: The prison memoir is interesting to readers because they are curious about this part of our history -- the revolution and mass killings and imprisonments.
When I researched the mythology of Middle Eastern countries and older Iranian literature, I found that women were categorized as either “a prostitute” or “a good woman.”
A good woman doesn’t have any sexual desire; she is an object that makes children and is devoted to her husband. I am tired of this situation because prostitutes are also a part of society. We must have respect for them and we must change this situation.
Randol: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Parsipur: I am not a feminist. Society is made of men, women and children, so we cannot separate them.
Randol: In your memoir you discuss finally giving in to wearing the chador in prison, and you say at a certain point defending a personal value became not worth the effort. How do you know when to compromise?
Parsipur: It was the moment I realized that if I didn’t wear the chador they would kill me. I was sure.
(Shaun Randol writes for Bloomberg Muse. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
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