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A Poet Who Pointed the Way to a New Iran

By Farzaneh Milani
Saturday, March 12, 2005; Page A19

"This door is for men only," the man mumbled apologetically as he gently pointed to the other side of the theater.

It was a cold, rainy afternoon in December and three of my friends and I had stood in line for hours outside the Taatr-e Shahr Theater in Tehran. We desperately wanted tickets for an acclaimed play based on the life of the contemporary poet Forugh Farrokhzad, who was killed in a car accident at the height of her creativity in 1967.

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Exhilarated with our success in getting tickets, we rushed toward the theater with a grand sense of entitlement -- only to be stopped and directed to the separate entrance for women -- a common feature in government buildings.

But the separation was a brief one. Inside, everyone mingled freely. The average age appeared to be under 30, with women, often in groups of three or four, greatly outnumbering men.

On stage, there was singing, dancing and the recital of poetry by men and women together. Most of the actors had long hair, and not a single actress wore a scarf or a chador. They were clothed in elegant dresses and wore hats that looked like a woman's flowing locks. Neither a wig nor a scarf, it was a creative way of complying with the mandatory dress code.

Was I dreaming? Was this real? After the 1979 revolution, Farrokhzad's poetry was banned for more than a decade. I sat in the theater in stunned silence, swept off my feet by its magic and by the transformation of a vilified poet into a cultural icon.

Farrokhzad was a rebel who challenged cultural and political absolutism in her all-too-brief, 15-year literary career. She was a daring explorer of a public language of intimacy and transgression. The epitome of what the Islamic Republic wanted to eradicate, Farrokhzad is now the Iranian equivalent of a rock star. Her five poetry collections, the books and movies on her life and art, her voice recordings, and her short documentary film on leprosy sell like hotcakes in Iran. An industry has developed around her name.

Her popularity is one of the many dizzying paradoxes any casual visitor encounters in Iran 25 years after the Islamic revolution. Iranian women can drive cars but cannot ride bicycles. They are on the world stage as Nobel Peace laureates, human rights activists, best-selling authors, prize-winning film directors and Oscar nominees -- yet they cannot leave the country without the written permission of their husbands. They are some of the most fashionable women in the world but must observe an obligatory dress code in Iran.

Two competing narratives of womanhood thus exist side by side in Iran. Women are oppressed and restricted by discriminatory norms and male-centered interpretations of Islamic scriptures. But they are also a vibrant force for change, subverting restrictive laws with courage and conviction. It is this complex mixture of protest and accommodation, of resistance and acquiescence, of tradition and modernity that most accurately reflects the political climate in Iran.

With its separate entrances for men and women, Taatr-e Shahr Theater was not only staging the life and poetry of a revolutionary woman; it also served as the stage of an ongoing drama that is revolutionizing Iranian society. This bloodless and nonviolent revolution is reorganizing Iran's cultural and political landscape.

Farrokhzad had predicted such a day.

The writer is director of studies in women and gender at the University of Virginia.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company