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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Women without Men

Shahrnush Parsipur

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To purchase Women without Men

Title: Women without Men
Author: Shahrnush Parsipur
Genre: Novel
Written: 1989 (Eng. 1998)
Length: 179 pages
Original in: Farsi
Availability: Women without Men - US
Women without Men - UK
Women without Men - Canada
Women Without Men - India
Femmes sans hommes - France
Donne senza uomini - Italia
Mujeres sin hombres - España
  • Persian title: زنان بدون مردان
  • A Novel of Modern Iran
  • Translated by Kamran Talattof and Jocelyn Sharlet
  • With an Afterword by Persis M. Karim (2004 edition)
  • A new translation, by Faridoun Farrokh, was published 2011
  • With a Preface by Shirin Neshat (2011 edition)
  • Women without Men was made into a film by Shirin Neshat in 2009

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Our Assessment:

A- : loosely constructed, but very appealing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Iranian . 17/8/2001 Asghar Massombagi
World Lit. Today A Summer/1999 William L. Hanaway

  From the Reviews:
  • "The book's mixture of realism, surrealism and fabulism (do we dare call it magic realism ?) and its appropriation of Iran's modern literary history is ambitious and daring. (...) Women Without Men is both about an idea of life and an idea of literature, that is, not only about what it means to be a woman in Iran but how to write about it. This post-modern quilt is framed with Persian mythology and its concept of garden of pleasures and knowledge." - Asghar Massombagi, The Iranian

  • "(A) subtle and sophisticated work in the postmodern manner. (...) Parsipur navigates skillfully between the extremes of mainstream discourse and overt opposition and ranges about in the no-man's land between the two. The lines between fantasy and reality are blurred by the use of magical realism, but a certain unobtrusive formality of structure reminds us that this is art as well as ideology. The irony that pervades the text prevents stereotyping of the characters and subverts its ideological thrust, again keeping it in the disputed territory between tract and trance. The author makes her point but also makes something else, and in so doing she has created a small masterpiece." - William L. Hanaway, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Women without Men describes the very different lives and fates of several women, all of which eventually intersect in a house and garden in Karaj, near Tehran. Men figure in these women's lives, but largely as an absence or a negative. Some of the male-female relationships are failed ones, but beyond that Parsipur describes a world in which there are fundamental barriers to any sort of normality or balance to a coexistence of the sexes.
       A sense of honour -- family honour and personal honour, as reflected in the purity of the women -- is a particular hurdle. The opening story tells of a teacher, Mahdokht, who was so shocked when the (male) school principal invites her to go see a movie that she quit her job:

     Mahdokht turned pale. She did not know how to respond to this insult. What was this guy thinking ? Who did he think she was ? What did he really want ?
       The expectations of her family and society, where virtue is all, have left her unable to live normally, leaving her fated to become an old maid. When she catches a fifteen-year-old girl and the gardener having sex in her brother's house she doesn't tell on them but hopes the girl is pregnant, so that her crime will become known and: "All her brothers would descend on her and beat her to death " Mahdokht's limited world can't handle such transgressions -- even as she obviously realises that she herself is missing something in trying to avoid doing anything improper.
       Another woman, Faizeh, also clings desperately to her virginity, certain that her only chance with Amir is if she remains pure (since nothing could be worse than marrying a woman who is not chaste). But he finds an eighteen-year-old girl who: "wears a chador, always looks down when she's in the street, and blushes constantly" and thinks that she's a much safer bet -- though, of course, it turns out the little hussy already even had an abortion, after her cousin got her pregnant ....
       Farrokhlaqa may still be: "beautiful and immaculately groomed", but she's fifty-one and menopausal, and her husband can find little but loathing for her. In their case, too, as throughout the book, miscommunication, and a basic inability to communicate are also at the root of the problems: here things come to a head when she doesn't know how to react to the unexpected:
     "Farrokhlaqa, dear."
     She trembled. He had never spoken to her that way. He always said Farrokh with that smile. She looked up. There was no derision in his eyes; he was looking at her kindly. Farrokhlaqa was frightened. She was certain he was planning something. She thought, what if he kills me ?
       She lashes out and (more or less) accidentally kills him: it's typical of what happens when man and woman are together here.
       Another character is Zarrinkolah, a prostitute in a bordello, who worries that she's losing her mind when all the men she services suddenly appear to be headless. She, too, can't handle her situation any longer -- despite having put up with it cheerfully for years -- and looks for escape. Like for the others, Karaj and its garden draw her to it, though it is not so much a final destination but a way station.
       In Women without Men Parsipur mixes realism with complete fantasy. Some chapters are specifically grounded in August, 1953 -- when Mossadeq was overthrown -- yet elsewhere she pushes the stories towards timeless irreality. One character dies and is resurrected (which makes life a bit easier: "She had died twice, and nothing surprised her anymore"), while another literally takes root as a tree. The mix is well-handled, giving the narrative a fable-like quality (where a gardener looking for work conveniently comes knocking at the door as soon as the decision to buy the property has been made) but also making many of the points much more effectively than strict realism would allow for. However, the individual stories are a bit loosely connected, especially at first, as some characters are very quickly introduced while much more space is devoted to others -- giving parts of the book the feel of previously written separate stories bunched and then tied together.
       One of the men explains one of the social norms:
"It doesn't make sense for a woman to go out in the first place. Home is for women, the outside world for men."
       So, too, it's entirely expected that when two of the women are on the road to Karaj -- aged twenty-eight and thirty-eight and both still proper virgins -- and a truck stops for them that the men inside rape the women. It's a fantasy, so the men get their comeuppance soon enough, but it's still a remarkable treatment of violation, as the women also find that having lost their virginity isn't that big a deal. The bigger crime, in the larger context of the novel, is that widespread lie that little girls are told, "that God would never forgive a girl who lost her virginity". The consequences are staggering, beginning with the little girls too afraid to climb and play on the trees for fear of damaging their virginity and extending to almost all facets of life, especially in the relationships between men and women.
       Parsipur doesn't insist on happy endings as she sorts out the women's fates in the end, winding things up realistically in suggesting -- as she does for one couple --:
     Their life is neither good nor bad. It just goes on.
       The loose collection gives the book an even lighter feel, despite the very serious subject-matter and grave events that take place. But this light (and the fairy-tale) quality also help Parsipur make her points, as the book never feels didactic and also entertains with its often marvelous episodes. Well worthwhile.

       Persis Karim's lengthy Afterword (new to the 2004 Feminist Press edition) does offer some useful background information about both Parsipur and the Iranian situation as well, which is certainly welcome.
       Note that a new translation, by Faridoun Farrokh, was published in 2011, also by the Feminist Press, essentially replacing the one by Kamran Talattof and Jocelyn Sharlet on which this review is based.

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Women without Men: Reviews: Women without Men - the film: Shahrnush Parsipur: Other books by Shahrnush Parsipur under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Iranian author Shahrnush Parsipur (شهرنوش پارسی پور) was born in 1946. She currently lives in California.

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