The Iranian Maya Angelou Passes Away

She lived to the ripe old age of 87. She who Iranians lovingly called the Lioness of Iran. She who chronicled her people's politics, their beauty, their mundane and their extraordinary, their oppression and their plastic surgery, the landscape of their lives. She lived beloved and revered by her people, convinced of her own patriotism while her government branded her poetry to be treasonous. Simin Behbahani (her first husband's last name), born Simin Khalili (her father's last name) and at times published under Simin Khalatbari, was not only an elegant voice, but a sounding board for social consciousness, justice, advocacy, love and politics. She died last week, not long after the Field's Medal announced an Iranian woman as its first ever female recipient of the award (Maryam Mirzakhani).

Poetry and literature are extremely important to Iranians and Iranian society. Most Iranians, not just the intellectual elite, live most of their lives playing poetry games with family members at parties and quote their ancient poets (like Rumi and Hafez) in every day conversation. Yet poetry and literature are still dominated by men in Iran, making Behbahani's success among her people and her peers even more impressive. Her rare female voice, writing since the age of 12 and publishing since the age of 14, was nominated for two Noble prizes (for literature in 1999 and 2002), and won the international Janu Pannouius Poetry Prize in 2013. Behbahni is, in fact, the most significant Iranian writer of the ghazal form, which is structurally similar to the Petrarchan sonnet form.

While she wrote many sonnets of romantic love, Behbahani made significant contributions to the form by weaving into her sonnets every day events and political undertones, such as prostitution (Oh my lips, my cunning lips, mask my miseries in mystery, Perhaps he will pay me a few more coins. Kiss him, love him, be pretty!), domestic violence (The passive verb is for the father who broke my heart, Beat my sister with slaps and fists, threw my mother out of the house), and war (The trousers with the folded leg, Belong to the man missing one leg). In her poem, Stop Throwing My Country to the Wind, Behbahani writes of the rulers of Iran:

Stop this screaming, mayhem, and bloodshed. Stop doing what makes God's creatures mourn with tears.

My curses will not be upon you, as in their fulfillment. My enemies' afflictions also cause me pain.

You may wish to have me burned, or decide to stone me. But in your hand match or stone will lose their power to harm me.

The government of Iran prevented Behbahani from leaving the country and perceived her and her work as a security risk. Still, she never stopped writing or advocating for civil rights, particularly the right to freedom of speech. She said, of her dreams of a future Iran:

Our poets, writers and artists are venerated only on the day when there are no more authors in prison, when poets are not in trouble, when students are not jailed, when our journalists are free and so are their pens, when poverty and despair and oppression have ceased to exist [in this country.]

At the time of this national treasure's death, there were more than 30 journalists and another 30 bloggers in jail in Iran.

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Shermin Kruse is author of Butterfly Stitching