Could Scheherezade - protagonist of the legendary tales of 'The Thousand and One Nights' - be an icon for Islamic feminism? Iranian sociologist Anousheh Jeddikar, guest speaker at Vienna's Scheherezade Society, a centre point for Orientalists and Iranian women living here, certainly believes so.
Scheherezade's wisdom dictated that she exercise wit to win over King Shaharyar of ancient Samarkand, instead of engaging in open confrontation with the powerful. The king, hurt and angered by his wife's unfaithfulness, had been marrying a new woman every night only to execute her the next morning. But Scheherezade's patience not only helped save her life and that of countless young women, it also healed the king's pain.
Anousheh compared the recent increase in the number of women writers in Iran to the continuation of the non-confrontational, yet path breaking story-telling tradition of Scheherezade. Like Scheherezade, whose creativity blossomed at the most trying time of her life, Tahereh Alavi in the novel 'Heidegger and I' wrote without offence to either reformist forces or the conservatives in her native Iran, "And all begin to talk about me...as if I don't exist, I'm absent, I'm dead. And they can evaluate my sensibilities and quirks whatever way they wish. And I look at them as if the are talking about someone whom I have not seen or know. That night ends and so do other nights. One thousand and one nights have passed from my own wedding night. I am old, used, like a coach that sometimes when they sit on, they remember a memory."
Today, many women are using the power of their imagination to explore taboo topics like romance, sex, money and politics in masterful ways in their writing. Shiva Arastui, one of the brightest stars on Iran's literary horizon, writes in 'Fridays', a short story; "The colonel's wife did not, like Razmik and Dadash, discuss the 'news'. Every Friday when Razmik and Dadash exchanged the news, she picked a record from Razmik's collection and played it on full volume...The singer sang, 'Blood drops instead of rain on Fridays...' Dadash's umbrella was still not dry."
It appears that women's truthful, personal narratives written in everyday language has many takers. The trend traces back to Fataneh Haj Seyed's 'Drunkard Morning', a book published in 1998, about a woman from an aristocratic family who defies society to marry a carpenter. When her husband is cruel to her, she leaves him too, to marry another.
A 2005 survey published by Zanan, a Tehran-based women's magazine founded in 1991 by Shahla Sherkat, winner of last year's Courage in Journalism Award, reveals that the number of women novelists in Iran increased 13-fold in the last decade, while the number of male novelists has only doubled since then.
These days, books by women sell much more than those written by male authors in Iran, despite the dual censorship that they face from the government as well as their families. Anousheh quoted Azar Nafisi, Professor, John Hopkins University and author of the 2003 novel 'Reading Lolita' as having said that a new trend has appeared in the work of a younger generation of Iranian writers since the mid-1990s. "Iranian fiction has entered a new era...The Islamic Revolution has shaken all values and norms within society. Now, the images of women have to be rethought and redefined. Under extreme pressure, women must look at themselves not only as members of their society or their country but as individuals whose very private lives and liberties are being redefined."
Literary critics say that it will be difficult for hardline politicians, even if they want to, to curb this trend and undermine the literary work, as the culture of women storytellers has deep roots in society. In the past, publishers seldom printed more than 5,000 copies of a novel, mostly written by men, but today it is not unusual for a novel by a woman writer to have at least a 100,000 copies displayed at bookshops across the country.
The debate around Islamic feminism is a relatively recent one in Iran, though. Is feminism possible within Islam? Is it possible to even talk of feminism if it is caged within an Islamic framework? How can the reform movement in Iran embrace feminism?
Jaleh Lackner-Gohari, an Iranian doctor and founder of the Scheherezade Society in Vienna, stresses the need for a more inclusive understanding of feminism within the world of Muslim women. She tracks the feminist spirit post-1979, giving us a glimpse of the closed Iranian society when gender segregation was imposed and the role of women only within the Islamic concept of family was sanctified. She believes that the debate in Iran is divided into two rigid views - those exploring the possibilities that exist within Islam to address women's interests and those who strongly reject the possibility of change within the framework of an Islamic Republic like Iran.
However, the silver lining comes in the form of an emerging third force placed somewhere in the middle of the two extreme groups, saying that it is not Islam but patriarchy that is at the root of problems faced by women.
Parvin Paidar, a feminist sociologist, campaigner and writer, who died in October 2005 at the age of 56, was perhaps the first to suggest in her writings in the early 1980s, that a commonality of interest does exist between the views of both the Islamic and secular women. The formal debate over Islamic feminism as part and parcel of Iran's reform movement began in February 1994 after social scientist and Harvard-educated Afsaneh Najmabadi spoke at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, encouraging religious and secular feminists to dialogue with each other.
In fact, even before Najmabadi spoke, Sherkat, a major voice for reform in Iran wrote in Zanan's inaugural issue that religion, culture, law and education together will resolve problems faced by women in society.
Like Scheherezade, who found a thousand stories to stay alive, women in Iran are discovering a thousand different ways to stay alive and writing is one of them.
"Mahsa Mohebi is another favorite whose talent for storytelling reflects unending possibilities to change reality and to create a new world," concludes Anousheh.