Sanam Tiffany: The Magic of Forough Farrokhzad

Sanam Tiffany

Islam / RELG 270

December 18, 2016

The Magic of Forough Farrokhzad:

Feminism and Power Through Poetry and Devotion

When people first think of Islamic poets, images of the greats Rumi and Hafez often come to mind; and though they are very talented and memorable for exceptional reasons, people often forget to think of the many Muslim women who contributed incredible amounts to art and literature in the Islamic world. Though there are many incredible poets to choose from, Forough Farrokhzad – Iranian, Muslim, poetess, filmmaker, and subversive icon of Islamic feminism – wrote deeply moving poems, reflecting on spirituality as well as a woman’s place within Muslim society in ways that were previously unexamined. She challenged the power dynamics that have come to be associated with Islam, and gave agency to Muslim women through powerful prose that demonstrated bold role reversals, jarring criticism of the role of women within strict Islamic societies, and vulnerable reflections of selfhood and personal emotions.

Born in Tehran, Iran in 1935, Farrokhzad was quickly set upon the track of patriarchal womanhood that was common for girls in the early 20th century of Iran: attending a girls sewing school for most of her young life before being married at sixteen, giving birth to one child, and becoming divorced just two years after the wedding despite the immense social stigma surrounding young divorced women in Iran. Her work was radical not only because she was the author, but also because of the content; she regularly spoke of taboo subjects like love and sexuality, disapproved of the way religion and Sharia law functioned, and placed her emotions first in her writing instead of behind those of a man. Though Farrokhzad’s work often criticizes the fanaticism and reactionary nature of religion in her life, her work was more of a condemnation of the ulama (or clergy, of sorts) than of Islam itself as a religion. She was still Muslim, but often expressed her disapproval in the ways that religious leaders used the religion and the power of faith to exploit and marginalize people like herself.

After this intense time in her life, she published her first book of work when she was just twenty, already a controversial figure for her young and divorced status in her society alongside her bold work. Her work to many marks the first point in mainstream modern Islamic art in which a woman artist expressed vulnerability, power, and disapproval of her restricted life in such candid yet beautiful terms. Because of her controversial poetry and subversive position in Iranian society, she became to be known in a negative light by the more conservative masses, perhaps only adding to her fame through an air of infamy.

One of her most objectively feminist poems is titled “To My Sister”, in which she begs of her sister to reclaim her confidence and power in order to not be mistreated by men. In it, she asks her sister “How long for the sake of a morsel of bread, will you keep becoming an aged haji’s temporary wife, seeing second and third rival wives, oppression and cruelty, my sister, for how long?” The poem clearly challenges concepts of feminine objectification as she implores “How long will you be the object of pleasure In the harem of men’s lust? How long will you bow your proud head at his feet like a benighted servant?”. She discusses the myriad of tricks and events that cause a woman to remain in the corner and demands that she rise above it. She finishes the poem with the words “Rise up and uproot the roots of oppression. Give comfort to your bleeding heart. For the sake of your freedom, strive to change the law, rise up.” ending with a clear disapproval of the laws in place and an ardent awareness of the oppression she faces for her gender. It is rare to find a piece of work as famous that rivals the blatant anger and desire for change as Forough “To My Sister”, making it a revolutionary work of feminist literature in the Middle East.

In her poem “The Conquest of the Garden”, Farrokhzad describes her feelings on how she felt as an empowered woman within an extremely restrictive and conservative society. The poem uses the story of Majnun and Layli, the lovers who are separated by a garden wall, one of the oldest and most famous stories of the Middle East. In her version, Forough gives a voice to the female character of the ancient tale, describing her perspective on her situation, the disapproval of the world around them, and an unabashed perspective on her sexuality, creating Biblical allusions and challenging popular conceptions of sin. In the poem, Layli’s character says “Everyone is afraid everyone is afraid, but you and I joined with the lamp and water and mirror and we were not afraid.I am not talking about the flimsy linking of two names and embracing in the old pages of a ledger. I’m talking about my fortunate tresses with the burnt anemone of your kiss and the intimacy of our bodies, and the glow of our nakedness like fish scales in the water. I am talking about the silvery life of a song which a small fountain sings at dawn. we asked wild rabbits one night in that green flowing forest and shells full of pearls in that turbulent cold blooded sea and the young eagles on that strange overwhelming mountain what should be done”, describing a form of intimacy and love that was often left undiscussed in the mainstream. This unapologetic description of an intimate, sexual encounter from the perspective of a woman was almost an act of rebellion, not only ignoring the societal expectations of her femininity that were used in an attempt to silence her, but also elevating the voice of women in the Middle East and throughout Islam by giving such a bold character such agency. Her modernized poem makes references to the Garden of Eden, saying “Everyone knows, everyone knows; that you and I have seen the garden from that cold sullen window and that we have plucked the apple

from that playful, hard-to-reach branch.” This poem played an important role in her becoming viewed as a feminist, being dubbed one of the first times in Middle Eastern history that a work of art portrayed a bold and unabashed emotional voice from the mouth and perspective of a woman, and an Islamic woman at that.

The poems “Sin” and “Confession” are both instances in which she blatantly ignores what is expected from her as a female author; discussing intensely emotional situations of sexuality and her own unwillingness to align to Iranian concepts of appropriate femininity. In “Sin”, she says “I committed a sin, a sin full of pleasure In an embrace which was warm and fiery . I committed a sin within arms Which were hot and vindictive and strong . In that dark and silent private place I looked into his secret-laden eyes.” describing a beautiful romantic affair that she reflects on with some guilt as she traverses the line between happiness and fulfilling her role as a Muslim woman by abstaining from such activities. In “Confession”, she further declares her agency by stating “Perhaps you have heard, about women That their heart say ‘yes’ while their lips say ‘no’. They do not show their weakness. They are secretive and quiet and deceitful . Oh, I am also a woman, a woman whose heart Flies forth in desire for you. I love you O tender fantasy! I love you O impossible hope!”, describing the popular conception of womanhood versus what womanhood means for her: confidence, power, and revolt. Both poems describe a woman who is wary of her place in her society but also unwilling to accept it. Even if the world expects certain things from her, she uses her poetry to say that she will never submit and she will never conform. Farrokhzad uses these pieces to affirm her confidence in her own form of femininity, while simultaneously calling out the unfair societal expectations for Iranian women and unabashedly discussing her romantic life.

Directly after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, many bans were made on works of art that were not up to the standards of Sharia Law. Some of these bans on literature and art included the entire collection of Farrokhzad’s work, which lasted for a little under two decades after the Revolution. Despite the censorship of her work, it was hugely popular within the Iranian Black Market, and her poems were used as inspiration and slogans in anti-Khomeini protests. It is rumored that in the ‘80s, the college students who would protest in Tehran would chant the words “I Pity the Garden”, referring to her forlorn and cogent poem which says  “No one thinks of the flowers. No one thinks of the fish. No one wants to believe the garden is dying, that its heart has swollen in the heat of this sun, that its mind drains slowly of its lush memories. Our garden is forlorn. It yawns waiting for rain from a stray cloud and our pond sits empty, callow stars bite the dust from atop tall trees and from the pale home of the fish comes the hack of coughing every night.” Proven by the role her poetry played in the Iranian Revolution, her work as a revolutionary figure exceeded even gender at times. It challenged concepts of blind faith and expressed a bold condemnation of the way that young people, women and men, had been treated under Sharia Law. She challenged the strict notions of censorship at the time and rebelled against various parts of the system through her writings and fame.

“I Pity the Garden” even goes far into her past, making allusions to her childhood life and the trees she would playin with her sister. In the poem she writes that her sister “picks plastic flowers but gives birth to real children” describing the sullen and constricted life she viewed her sister living, becoming fraught with conceptions of idealism within her Muslim society. The poem describes her father’s weariness (“Father says: My time is past my time is past, I’ve carried my burden I’m done with my work. He stays in his room from dawn to dusk, reads History of Histories or Ferdowsi’s Epic of Kings.”) and her mother’s religious fears (“Mother’s life is a rolled out prayer rug. She lives in terror of hell, always seeks Sin’s footprints in every corner, imagines the garden sullied by the sin of a wayward plant.”), both depicting powerful scenes of the average Iranian-American household and family at the time of her upbringing. She describes the way in which her family’s garden, once full of life and magic, was now untouched and underloved, neglected by the anxieties and hardships of early 20th century Iran, and cast aside for nearly fanatic religiousness and violence that took the place of the garden’s wonders (“Our neighbors plant bombs and machine guns, instead of flowers, in their garden soil. They cover their ponds, hiding bags of gunpowder. The school children fill their backpacks with tiny bombs.”). She ends the poem with the lines “I am like a schoolchild madly in love with her geometry books. I am forlorn and imagine it is possible to take the garden to a hospital. I imagine, I imagine, And the garden’s heart has swollen in the heat of this sun, its mind slowly drains of its lush memories.”, wishing she could fix the garden and nurture it back to the way it was remembered, as a safe and special place full of life and curiosity, instead of a place now associated with negligence and stress. In a way, it can almost be assumed that Farrokhzad is yearning for her youth – a time which felt simpler and more magical – over the presentness her adult life in which she had become accustomed to so much mistreatment and disappointment. This poem centers and considers her emotions alone as a powerful testament to the way that women experienced shifts in social change in Iran as opposed to men. Her mother, her father, her sister, and her all had vastly different reactions to the events taking place but reacting very differently; her mother becoming a frenzied by religious, her father growing weary and sullen, her sister adopting commonplace feminine standards, and Forough, rebelling against it all with intellect and artfulness.

Though she was primarily famous for her poetry, Farough was also a well-respected filmmaker. Some of her films reflected on her positions as a woman within Iranian culture but her most well-noted and most-discussed film is called “The House in Black”. In this documentary, she took several of her colleagues to an area of Iran in which many lepers lived, and spent many days living with them and filming them. She related to theses people struck by leprosy in many way, feeling isolated from the society and the culture that they both shared. This piece was not only important for the creation of artwork that relied on empathy and solidarity, but it also showed the reality of life for the country’s less cared-for groups. The film was important to raising the sociological standards in Iran, causing people to grow more curious about the governmental going-ons. Her work at the leper colony caused her to become extremely close to many of the people there, and she ended up adopting a child from the colony before returning to Iran; this again shows her willingness to rebel against the stigmas of her time and create a path devoted to honesty and emotions.

In her very last poem “I Am Depressed”, written shortly before her tragic death, Farrokhzad says “I am depressed, O so depressed. I go to the porch and extend my fingers Over the taut skin of night. The lamps that link are dark, O so dark. No one will introduce me to the sunlight Or escort me To the sparrows’ gathering. Commit flight to memory, For the bird is mortal”. In this poem, she equates herself to the bird; the bird who is trapped, societally as well mentally. She asked her friend to write down this poem shortly before getting into the car accident that took her life at just thirty-two years old, furthering the popular opinion that this was a self-reflective and deeply personal poem that some even think hints to clues of suicide. To describe such powerful and taboo emotions so candidly and with such art is an incredible talent and takes massive courage. Her willingness to be vulnerable but genuine till her end is breathtaking, and she will always soar as the bird she wrote about while her poems are being appreciated and passed around.  

Forough Farrokhzad will live on forever through her powerful poems, revolutionary legacy, and inspiration to both activists and artists alike. Her place as one of the first Muslim women to challenge her restrictive society through art will never be taken from her. She was a respectable Iranian, Muslim, woman, and artists, and one of the most honest and captivating writers of her time and any other. She will forever serve as an inspiration to artists who seek to create work that is both political and emotional (a difficult feat). She embodied both respect and vulnerability, honesty and anger, beauty and carnal sadness. She was the first woman in Iran to so frankly state her opinions and feelings with such boldness and artfulness. Though so young, her impact lives on decades after her death, a bird soaring forever, this one immortal.  






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