Women poets and authors have been producing important literary works in Persian for centuries. During the medieval period, Persian-speaking women who enjoyed royal patronage or who were themselves from a privileged class received the benefits of education and had the means and the opportunity to write and recite poetry. Medieval works by women retained the structure of classical Persian poetry, and their writings covered themes ranging from love and humor to rebellion and sorrow, often expressed in a more intimate and personalized manner than poetry written by their male counterparts. As economic development and political stability grew in the sixteenth century in Safavid Persia and Mughal India, poetry and written works by women became more widespread there. By the nineteenth century, as part of a broader revival of Persian literary arts and a rise in universal education and social movements influenced by the West, many more opportunities for women to write presented themselves. Since the twentieth century there has been a dramatic increase in the number of women poets and writers from Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan who have given voice to women’s perspectives. Today, the number of Persian-speaking women authors almost equals those of men, with their works often outselling those by men in the marketplace.
Qurʼānic Verses on Women
This rare interlinear Qurʼān fragment contains parts of the first three verses of the fourth chapter of the Qurʼān entitled Surat al-Nisa’ (Chapter of the Women). Unlike later interlinear Qurʼān’s, there is no color differentiation between the Arabic verses and the Persian translations. This page is noteworthy as an example of early Persian, when letters and characters were not quite codified.
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Rābi‘ah-‘i Balkhī, also known as Rābi‘ah Quzdari, was born in the city of Balkh, Afghanistan, in the tenth century. She is the first documented Persian woman poet. A contemporary of the classical poets Rūdakī and ‘Attar, she was a royal court poet during the Samanid Era (914–943). Balkhī, along with Mahasti Ganjavi (twelfth century), Padishah Khatun (thirteenth century), and Jahan Malik Khatun (fourteenth century), represent a short list of medieval Persian women poets whose work has survived. Balkhī’s lyrical love poems have captivated Persian speakers, and the tale of her own tragic love affair with Baktāsh, a Turkish servant, was portrayed in the Baktāshnāma, written by the poet Rizā Qulī-Khān Ḥidāyat. This book by the Afghan scholar Ghulām Ḥabīb Navābī includes selections of Balkhī’s poems along with her biography.
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Zeb-un-Nissa (1638–1702) was an Imperial Princess of the Indian Mughal Empire and the daughter of the Emperor Aurangzeb and Dilras Banu Bigum, a Safavid Persian princess. Zeb-un-Nissa was fluent in Persian, Arabic, and Urdu and recited Persian poetry as a teenager despite her father’s disapproval. She wrote her poetry in secret under the pen name makhfi (the hidden one) and is said to have loved literature so much that her private library was the most complete in the region. Zeb-un-Nissa wrote in the Indian style of Persian (Sabk-i Hindi), which flourished during her lifetime. In her later years her work put her at odds with her father, and she was imprisoned. Her poems continue to be popular among Tajiks, and this Tajik-Persian publication presents a selection of her ghazals (odes).
Zeb-un-Nissa. صد ویک غزل (A Hundred and One Ghazals [Odes]). Dushanbe, Tajikistan: Irfon Publishers, 2010. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (066.00.00)
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Fatimah Baraghani (1814–1852), born in Qazvin, Iran, is better known by her honorific titles: “Táhirih” (the Pure One) and “Qurrat al-‘Ayn” (Solace of the Eyes). Her activism, intellectual struggles, tragic life story, and execution has captivated generations of modern Iranians, making her an icon in the struggle for women’s emancipation and rights. In the Bábí and Bahá’í faiths she is venerated as a martyr. Táhirih, born into a wealthy and powerful family, was educated by her father in theology, jurisprudence, Persian literature, and philosophy. Her interest in jurisprudence attracted her to the Shaykhi and Bábí religious movements. After a Bábí gathering at which she publicly unveiled herself, she was arrested for heresy and later executed. About twenty poems attributed to her have become symbols of activism in Iran.
Amin Banani. طاهره قرة العين (Táhirih: A Portrait in Poetry: Selected Poems of Qurrat al-‘Ayn). Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 2004. General Collections, Library of Congress (058.00.00)
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The mid-eighteenth-century poet ‘Āyisha Durrānī (dates unknown), born into the notable Barakzai Pashtun family in Kabul, Afghanistan, was the wife of Tīmūr Shāh (1743–1793), a leader of the Durrānī Afghan dynasty. Durrānī was educated in Persian, Arabic literature, and the Islamic canon. As a pioneering supporter of early education, Durrānī opened the first girls’ school in Afghanistan. Many of her ghazals (odes) speak of a mother’s pain and sorrow, which she experienced after losing her eldest son in battle. Her Dīvān (anthology) was compiled as a manuscript during the reign of ‘Abd al-Raḥmān Khān (1880–1901). This extremely rare lithograph appears to have been copied from a manuscript and is the Library’s oldest Persian book written by a Persian-speaking woman.
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When Parvīn Etesami (1907–1941) was seven years-old, her earliest poems were published in her father’s magazine, Bahār. She is best known for her anecdotal poems or munāzara (dialogue or debate), but her poem Safar-i Ashk (Journey of a Tear) is considered among the finest works of lyrical Persian poetry. Etesami’s work followed the classical tradition in form and substance of Persian poetry and remained unaffected by reformist trends. Her didactic and philosophical themes follow the classical works of Sanā‘ī, Nizāmī, and Rumi, but she was also inspired by the fables of Aesop and La Fontaine, which she put into Persian verse.
Fāṭimah Jahāngard. دیوان پروین اعتصامی (The Anthology of Parvīn Etesami). Kerman, Iran: Khadamate Farhangiye Kerman, 2002. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (060.00.00)
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Sīmīn Dānishvar (1921–2012) is known as a noted academic, novelist, short story writer, and translator. In the 1940s Dānishvar published her collection of Persian short stories, a first by an Iranian woman. Her groundbreaking novel, Savushun (A Persian Requiem), the first Persian novel written by a woman, became a bestseller and was translated into multiple languages. She was married to Jalāl Al Aḥmad, an influential satirist and social critic, and after his death wrote Ghurub-i Jalāl (The Loss of Jalāl) in honor of his life. Dānishvar was also highly regarded for her Persian translations of such classics as Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. This is a compilation of Dānishvar’s selected masterpieces.
‘Alī Dihbāshī, ed. بر ساحل جزیره سرگردانی (On the Shores of The Island of Wondering). Tehran: Sukhan, 2004. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (065.00.00)
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Sīmīn Behbahani (b. 1927) is one of the most prominent figures of twentieth-century Persian literature. Behbahani published her first poem at the age of fourteen. Her early poems used a modern free verse style, but she switched to writing ghazals (odes) that focused on events and subjects common in the everyday lives of modern Iranians. Her outspokenness has put her at odds with government censors. Twice nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature, Behbahani has received numerous literary awards and international recognition. This is the Library’s first- edition copy of her 1950s book of poems title Footprint.
Sīmīn Behbahani. جای پا (Footprint). Tehran: Negah, 1956. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (061.00.00)
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The iconoclastic poet Furūgh Farrukhzād (1935–1967) is probably the most famous woman in the history of Persian literature. Her work openly discusses in the free verse poetic style a range of intimate topics that conservative Iranian society deemed taboo. In her first book Asir (The Captive), Farrukhzād expresses her views on traditional marriage, the plight of Iranian women, and her own situation as a divorcée and a single mother not willing to conform to conventional norms. Her last two works Tavalludī dīgar (Another Birth) and Iman Biyavarim bih Aghaz-i Fasl-i Sard (Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season) were written in a mature and sophisticated style of free verse that have profoundly changed the conventions and structures of Persian poetry. Her work has been translated into many languages and was banned in Iran for more than a decade after the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
Furūgh Farrukhzād. تولدی دیگر (Another Birth). Tehran: Murvarid Press, 1963. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (062.00.00)
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Born in Tehran, Shahrnūsh Pārsī‘pūr (b. 1946) casts a spotlight on the lives of women using a frank writing style combined with magical realism. Pārsī‘pūr was imprisoned at various times for her activism and writing during the monarchy and especially after the Iranian Revolution. A number of her works are banned in Iran. In the last four decades she has written several ground-breaking novels, the most notable of which are Tuba va M’ana-yi Shab (Tuba and the Meaning of the Night) and Zanan Bidun-i-Mardan (Women without Men), which was adapted into a feature film. She currently lives in the United States.
Shahrnūsh Pārsī‘pūr. مردان در برابر زنان (Men against Women). Tehran: Shirin, 2005. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (057.00.00)
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Gulrukhsor Safi (b. 1947), born in Komsomolobad, Tajikistan, is a prominent Iranologist, a Persian-language literary figure, and Tajikistan’s national poet. She is highly regarded throughout the Persian-speaking world for her contributions to Iranian studies, modern Persian poetry, and the study of Tajik-Persian folk songs. The author of more than seventy books and the former chief editor of the prestigious newspaper Pioneer of Tajikistan, she is currently the deputy chairperson of the Union of Journalists. Her books, often about the lives of women in Central Asia, have been translated and published throughout the region. This book Shuʻlah dar Sang (Flames from the Stone) written in Tajik-Persian modified Cyrillic script is a recent anthology of her work.
Gulrukhsor Safi. شعله در سنگ (Flames from the Stone). Dushanbe, Tajikistan: Adib, 2011. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (063.00.00)
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Novelist and short story writer Zuyā Pirzād (b. 1952) currently lives in Yerevan, Armenia. Her first book Chirāgh‘hā rā man khāmūsh mī‘kunam (I Turn Off the Lights) has been translated into English and is the winner of the prestigious Hushang Gulshiri Literary Award. Pirzād’s characters and storylines often involve Armenian-Iranians or Armenian themes. She also won the prize for Best Foreign Book in 2009 in France. The volume on display, Sih Kitab (Three Books), is a collection of three of Pirzād’s works.
Zuyā Pirzād. سه کتاب (Three Books). Tehran, Iran: Nashir‑i Markaz, 2003. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (064.00.00)
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