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Forough Farrokzhad 1935-1967

‘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.’ – Forough Farrokzhad

Forough Farrokzhad was an Iranian poet and film director, widely considered one of the greatest Iranian poets of the twentieth century. Her poetry addressed the concerns of a generation encountering modernity in pre-Revoluntionary Iran. It was banned for almost a decade after the Iranian Revolution due to the radical honesty with which it approached female sexuality.

She was born into a middle class family in Tehran as the third of seven children.. Her father was a career military officer. She started writing ghazals (odes developed from Arabic poetry) in high school, but left at the age of 15, enrolling at a college to study art and dressmaking, which were considered suitable accomplishments for women of the middle class. A year later she met the author Parvez Shapour, a neighbour and distant relative. She was immediately drawn to him. Her family opposed the marriage due to the age difference, but Forough insisted. A low-key wedding was organised. She left education so that her husband could move out of Tehran for due to his occupation. The couple had a son, Kamyar, a year after marriage. She continued to write poetry, and her first published poem The Sin caused controversy for its erotic content.

Parvaiz, concerned by the controversy and Forough’s frequent trips to Tehran, soon started asserting control over his young wife, who was becoming increasingly stultified by the routines of domestic life.  The couple separated in 1954. Forough was forced to give up custodianship of her son and return to her father’s home. Parvaiz’s family insisted she was not able even to visit him, and told the boy that his mother had rejected him out of a desire for a life of debauchery. Forough devoted herself to poetry, producing her first collection – The Captive – in 1955, becoming a well-known poet by the age of 21. However, the strain began to tell, and Forough was interned in a mental institution where she was subjected to electroshock therapy.

After she was released, she visited Europe, travelling through Germany, where many of her siblings were students, as well as visiting Italy where she briefly worked in film production. Her next poetry collection reflects the sense of freedom, particularly sexual liberation. These poems display an unusually bold expression of eroticism: expressing scorching desire touched by wistfulness at the impermanence of love. Her uninhibited celebration of female sensuality challenged cultural taboos, and were often seen as confessional. She went on to travel to Europe on two more occasions, where she learned new languages in order to explore and translate European poetry. With her brother, she translated a collection of works by poets exiled under the Third Reich.

Returning to Iran, she published her third collection of poetry. Also, she found secure employment so she was no longer economically dependent on her family or her ex-husband. The Golestan Film Company had been launched by Ebrahim Golestan, with whom Forough had an intimate friendship. She took a job with the company, moving from typist to editor to assistant director, and taking a course on documentary film-making in London before heading her first project in 1962. Her short film, The House is Black, was set in a leper colony where she stayed for 12 days, filming with a small team. With striking black and white imagery underlying Forough’s recitation of her own poetry, it became a critical success. Using the imagery of sickness and isolation with a style inflected with New Wave cinematography, Forough was able to establish the leper colony as a metaphor for wider social problems in Iran. She also adopted one of the children in the colony and raised him as her son. The film went on to win the 1963 Grand Prize for a documentary at the Oberhausen Film Festival. It has been described as one of the finest Iranian short films for its skilled juxtaposition of poetic and cinematic imagery.

She released her fourth book of poetry after the film, which signalled a move from the confessional style towards social commentary and a greater maturity of style, which she herself recognised. ‘I didn’t use poetry anymore to express a simple feeling about myself, but as poetry was sinking in me, I grew vaster, and I discovered new worlds.’ Despite her success, Forough still missed her son from her first marriage, and suffered with periods of depression. She also had a difficult relationship with her authoritarian father, constantly seeking his approval. Nevertheless, after her fourth book of poetry, she was becoming even more artistically and politically active, painting, drawing and playing a role in Pirandello’s Five Characters in Search of an Author, as well as protesting against the Shah’s policies.

At just 32 years of age, she died unexpectedly in a car accident. While driving to her office after meeting her mother she swerved to avoid an oncoming vehicle, and was thrown out of the jeep she was driving. She died of head injuries. Her fifth and final book of poetry – Let Us Believe In The Beginning Of The Cold Season – was published after her death. Inspired by Rumi, it showed a consolidation of her interest in Persian influences within a modernist framing. It also honed in upon the political stagnation that would lead to the impending revolution.

After her death she was recognised as one of Iran’s great poets. The banning of her poetry under Khomeini only increased its appeal. ‘Many people who left Iran in the 1980s took three books with them: Saadi, Rumi, Forough,’ said Fatemeh Shams, an assistant professor of Persian literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Sholeh Wolpé, who has translated her poetry describes her as ‘Iran’s most revered female poet’, flaggin her audacity and talent. She said, ‘Her poetry was the poetry of protest– protest through revelation– revelation of the innermost world of women (considered taboo until then), their intimate secrets and desires, their sorrows, longings, aspirations and at times even their articulation through silence. Her poems are still relevant in their advocacy for women’s liberation and independence.’