Behbahani, by then a recipient of the Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom and a two-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in literature, had developed quite the reputation for speaking out against tyranny. Behbahani wrote about social issues with a populist bent. She wasn’t afraid to draw attention to the problems faced by prostitutes in Tehran or bring context to the Islamic revolution of 1979 by including Iranian history in her accounts.
On Tuesday, Behbahani died at age 87 from heart failure, her son told Bloomberg. She was a fierce feminist who subverted the form of Iran’s traditional ghazals, love poems traditionally written by male admirers to women. Behbahani flipped the ghazals and wrote hers to men. She used them to write about a mother’s anguish over the loss of her son in the Iran-Iraq war and the horrors of stoning women to death.
Even though she was apolitical, she had multiple run-ins with Iranian authorities. NPR reported that in 2007, a magazine published a poem Behbahani had written about the Iran-Iraq war. The government subsequently forced it to close. In 2006, she told The Washington Post she was whipped and beaten with an electrified club by riot police at an International Women’s Day event in Tehran. That same year, the editor of an opposition newspaper said he was forced to shut down when he printed one of her poems. In 1996, she was blindfolded and carted off to jail while she was at the home of a German diplomat. She was released the next morning.
“I will identify her as the most iconic Iranian poet alive,” Farzaneh M. Milani, director of Studies in Women and Gender at the University of Virginia, told The Post in 2006. “I can really say she has become a cultural hero, and she is treated as such outside and inside her country. She reminds me of T.S. Eliot. She dives deep into her culture and literature, and the product is a truly modern outlook on the role of the individual, concern for democracy and human rights. The form is traditional, but the perspective and poetic persona are quite progressive.”
President Obama quoted Behbahani in a video he recorded for Nowruz, the Persian new year.
Despite the efforts of the Iranian government and the ayatollahs to intimidate her and censor her speech, Behbahani became one of Iran’s most well-respected and beloved social critics, earning the nickname “The Lioness of Iran.”
Said NPR’s Davar Ardalan in a remembrance:
For millions of Iranians all over the world, Behbahani represented the invincible power of the Iranian psyche. Her words were piercing and fierce, lamenting on the lack of freedom of expression through the ages. For six decades, many Iranians found refuge in her poetry as a way to nurture their hunger for dialogue, peace, human rights and equality.
In June 2009, she penned the poem, “For Neda Agha-Soltan,” a tribute to the woman whose death during the violent crackdown following disputed Iranian elections was broadcast around the world.
You are neither dead, nor will you die.
You will always remain alive.
You have an eternal existence.
You are the voice of the people of Iran.
h/t: Translated by Milani and Kaveh Safa.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the first name of Davar Ardalan. It has been updated.