Sholeh Wolpe

March is Persian Heritage Month. There are about 400,000 Iranian-born immigrants in the United States and roughly one in ten live in Southern California. That makes Southern California home to the largest community of Iranians in the world outside of Iran.

But this year let us celebrate Iran’s women.

Tahirih (1817-1852) was Iran’s first suffrage martyr. A poet, thinker and leader, she courageously defied conventional norms and unveiled in public. She was later strangled, a symbolic gesture to shut her up. Her final words proved prophetic: “You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women.”

The 20th century started well for women. They participated in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 to liberate their country from the foreign ownership of its resources. But under the law they were still regarded in the same class as minors, criminals, and people with mental illnesses.

In late 1950s a young woman by the name of Forugh Farrokhzad shocked the nation by publishing poems that were completely from a female perspective—emotionally, sexually, socially and politically.  Her poetry was the poetry of protest through revelation—revelation of the innermost world of women (considered taboo until then), their intimate secrets and desires, their sorrows, longings, aspirations and at times even their articulation through silence. Her expressions of physical and emotional intimacy, much lacking in Persian women’s poetry up to that point, placed her at the center of controversy, even among the intellectuals of the time. She was subjected to tabloid gossip and portrayed as a woman of loose morals. She died at the age of 32. To this day her poetry is a source of inspiration and courage for women in all fields and walks of life.

The struggle continued. In 1963, women gained the right to vote. They also won the right to be elected to parliament. Later, The Family Protection Act gave the women guardianship rights to their children, increased the minimum age of marriage to 18 and gave women the right to divorce their husbands. Women dressed as they wished and could travel without permission of their fathers and husbands. As I was growing up in Iran, I took these hard-won rights for granted and complained about not being treated as equal because I was a girl. I wasn’t taught the history of women’s struggles. I suppose when you are still swimming hard against the current, it is hard to look back and ponder how you got this far up the stream.

In 1979 everything changed. The Iranian people revolted against the Pahlavi regime. It was a revolution in which women freely and enthusiastically participated. Ayatollah Khomeini was welcomed from exile as an interim leader until a democratic government could be established.  But Khomeini had other plans. An uncompromising and deeply religious man, he was bent on imposing his radical Islamic ideology on the entire nation. He renamed the country The Islamic Republic of Iran and began a systematic extermination of the opposition as well as members of religious minorities. Women did not fare well. They were forced under the veil and morality squads began to patrol streets and parks to make sure women did not deviate from “proper” code of conduct. Those who did not obey, were jailed and beaten. The Family Protection Law was abrogated. Men could now forbid their wives from working or even leaving the house; they could divorce their wives and inform them of it by mail. Men were also permitted to marry more than one permanent wife and as many seegehs (temporary wives) as they desired.

For 43 years women pushed back against this gender apartheid regime with all their might. Many such as Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer who represented imprisoned Iranian opposition activists and politicians, fought tirelessly against the monstrous regime and suffered harassments and repeated imprisonments.

Fast forward to recent events. On September 16, 2022, Iran’s morality police took Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, into custody for not wearing her hijab according to government guidelines. She was visiting the capital from the northwestern Kurdish city of Saqez.  Mahsa was forcefully taken away, and according to eye-witnesses, severely beaten. She died in police custody. Her brutal death fueled a world-wide protest and ignited a massive show of opposition on Iran's streets. People have been marching the streets of cities in Iran, as well as in countries world-wide, chanting Zan – Zendegi – Azadi  (Woman – Life – Freedom). Perhaps you have seen that anthem displayed around the city or campus.

Still, through it all, the violations, tortures, imprisonments, lashings, dangers, and threats, Iranian women have remained resilient and courageous. They have refused the patriarchy, again, again.  They have valiantly pushed against the gender-biased laws established in Iran under so-called religious mandates. And they have excelled beyond the Islamic Republic’s wildest dreams. In 2003 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Shirin Ebadi for her pioneering efforts for democracy and human rights. In 2014, The Fields Medal (the Nobel Prize of Mathematics) was awarded to Maryam Mirzakhani. Novelist Shokoofeh Azar was Iran’s first to be on the Booker Prize International longlist. The list goes on and on.

Today, Iranian women outnumber men in higher education. They have established grassroots women’s right movements and have distinguished themselves in every imaginable field from literature to architecture, filmmaking, science, journalism, and Olympic competition.  

Let us celebrate them. Today, this month, always.


Only Voice Remains

Why should I stop, why?

Birds have gone to seek their blue way.
The horizon is horizontal,
movement vertical-- a gushing geyser.
Bright stars spin as far as the eye can see.

The Earth repeats itself in space, air tunnels
become connecting canals and day changes
to an entity so vast it cannot be stuffed
into the narrow imaginations of the newspaper worms.

Why should I stop?

The path meanders among life’s tiny veins
and the climate of the moon’s womb will annihilate
the cancerous cells, and in the chemical aura of after-dawn
there will remain only voice--
             voice seeping into time.

Why should I stop?

What is a swamp but a spawning ground
for corruption’s vermin?
Swelled corpses pen the morgue’s thoughts,
the cad hides his yellowness in the dark,
and the cockroach
… ah when the cockroach harangues,
             why should I stop?

Printer’s lead letters line up in vain.
Lead letters in league cannot salvage petty thoughts.
My essence is of trees; breathing stale air depresses me.
A bird long dead counseled me to remember flight.

Fusion creates the greatest force—
fusion with the sun’s luminescent soul,
comprehension flooding with light.
Windmills eventually warp and rot.
Why should I stop?
I hold to my breasts sheaves of unripe wheat
and give them milk.

Voice, voice, only voice.
The water’s voice, its wish to flow,
the starlight’s voice pouring upon the earth’s female form,
the voice of the egg in the womb congealing into sense,
the clotting together of  love’s minds.

Voice, voice, voice, only voice remains.
In a world of runts,
measurements orbit around zero.
Why must I stop?

The four elements alone rule me;
my heart’s charter cannot be drafted
by the provincial government of the blind.
What have I to do with the long feral howls
of the beasts’ genitals?
What have I to do with the slow progress
of a maggot through flesh?

It’s the flowers’ bloodstained history that has committed me to life,
the flowers’ bloodstained history, you hear?

             - Forugh Farrokhzad  (poem from Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad, trans. Sholeh Wolpé)

Sholeh Wolpé is an Iranian-American poet, playwright and librettist. Her most recent book, Abacus of Loss: A Memoir in Verse, was hailed by Colorado Review as a book that “examines the masks of patriarchy in powerful metaphor and narrative.” Wolpé’s literary work number over 12 collections of poetry, translations, and anthologies, as well as an oratorio, several plays, and multi-genre productions. She is the recipient of the 2014 PEN/Heim, 2013 Midwest Book Award, and 2010 Lois Roth Persian Translation prize. Her translations of 12th century Sufi mystic poet, Attar, The Conference of the Birds , and 20th century Iranian rebel poet Forugh Farrokhzad,  Sin: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad , have established Wolpé as a celebrated re-creator of Persian poetry into English. Wolpé has lived in Iran, Trinidad, and the United Kingdom and is currently a writer-in-residence at the University of California, Irvine.


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