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From Iran to the World: How Cultural Context Shaped My Writing

The journey of a writer is not merely a progression of words on paper; it's a transformation of experiences, perspectives, and cultural influences into stories that resonate with readers across the globe. I was brainstorming some ideas with ChatGPT and shockingly, it gave me an idea of the intricate relationship between my Iranian (we love to call it Persian) heritage and my writing, I'm reminded of how these two facets intertwine to create narratives that bridge the gap between the local and the universal. So, I decided to write about it, somehow I felt it may be of some interest to some of you. To know who I am and why I write what I write.

Disclaimer: if you're sensitive don't read this article.

Early Learn of Living Abroad taken in Ireland 2010

Iran, where I was born and grew up, with its ancient cities, bazaars filled with colors and scents, and the echoes of a poetic heritage, became the birthplace of my wild imagination. But within its beauty and mystique lay a society where norms and limitations often confined women to prescribed roles specially the period I was born in. It was during a tumultuous era—right in the midst of a post-Islamic revolution society and the early years of an arduous 8-year war between Iran and Iraq. It was an unforgiving time for a woman to come into existence, a time when feminophobia was intensified by the prevailing Islamic values of the newly established government, which sought to redefine traditional gender roles.

There is a series of photographs about this time in Iran by German photographer, Casey Hugelfink, that Guardian called it "a glimpse of a forbidden place," portraying a chapter in history that is described as a "dark decade after the 1979 revolution, throughout the Iran-Iraq war, when the country was sealed off to reporters and most of the world." Born into such a context, being a girl without a male guardian to protect me, with a younger sister who I was the guardian of (she's 3 years younger than me) and a single mother, it was an especially somber period to grow up. It was the beginning of dehumanizing women as second gender and walking wombs and reduce their legal worth into half of a man. Reducing women to sex objects and associating them with perceived sin by which it permitted many men of any age allow themselves to tear your privacy as a person and molest you as young as age 9.

It means, kids were sexualized since very young age. In that period, according to Iran’s first Supreme Leader, Khomeini, sexual experiences, with the exception of intercourse, are permitted with girls of all ages. He has issued a fatwa that “anyone who has a wife less than nine years of age is not allowed to engage in sexual intercourse, whether she is his permanent or temporary wife. However, other forms of sexual pleasures are permitted, such as touching with lust, hugging, and rubbing penis between the buttocks and thighs; even if she is a nursing baby.” (source) Such an approach clearly encouraged pedophilia and child abuse as a right for all men and I was by no means an exception. I stole a book written by him from my grandfather's bookshelves when I was about 12 – 13 years old to learn more about sex (as any healthy teenager would). It was my youngest uncle who told me to read it (yeah gross, I know).

I remember when I read about such statement, I felt uncomfortable with whatever he said. If you search that book for “intercourse” it results in repeating the word 64 times. It's even more bothering to know that there are other information on 'sex for men' on having sex with permanent and temporary wives, permitted sex with one’s slave woman, and permitted one time sex with one’s wife dead body, permitted sex with legal prostitution and the fee one needs to pay for such service and so on. This book is supposed to be an Islamic guide to whatever and all you can find is sex. It's a Kamasutra of Khomeini perhaps. Just imagine what would happen if you're a 9 year old kid playing in the streets where men could see you as a potential wife, in the best scenario, or allow themselves to do whatever they want to you as Islam allowed them. I confirm here that in Iran and all Islamic countries, marrying a child before puberty is acceptable and legal if it is under supervision of a male adult or guardian. (Let's assume that guardian is your 12 years old brother.)

The Struggles that Ignite Imagination

Why I'm telling you these? Well, the simple answer is that I want to show the absurdity of growing up a girl in such context and how it shaped my writings. Growing up as a woman in Iran meant navigating the contradictions of a society that simultaneously celebrated art, history, and intellect, while imposing restrictions that left many women silenced. It is when and where that if you're not a pro islamist, a man and disapproving their desires, you're a slut!

It was within these contradictions that my writing found its fire. The limitations and expectations propelled me to craft stories that challenged norms, exploring the very concepts that were deemed taboo. Through the written word, I found a way to voice the unspoken, to question the unquestioned, and to unmask the societal intricacies that often go unnoticed. That why I write what I write and why I'm brave enough to express my perspectives toward certain subjects or explore the dark depth of human psyche that is impacted and molded by such norms and environment. And I write for simple reason of fighting the identity they wanted me to have: A daughter to a man, a wife to a man, a mother to a man. Not that I'm anti man or anything. I am anti identifying a woman only by having a man by her side as if she has no individuality, goals, dreams. As if it's ok to do whatever you want to her as a man because it is her fault if you did. As if it is her job to run away, to cover up, to shut up so you as a man don't get a hard on. It was a corrupted time and place to be born and grow up. A place that taught me to be transgressive to all these, to hate all these, to fight against all these. I wish I had the courage to release my autobiography 'Virginity for Sale' for all of you to read but I'm still not that brave. Maybe one day, when I feel I am strong enough to share... until then... I write fiction. Or maybe sooner depends on you. Vote down if you wanna read it:

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It was such a society with its weight of history, tradition, and religious norms that has shaped the very core of who I am as a woman and as a writer. That is why perhaps many assume me as an extreme feminist sometimes without really reading what I write and why I write them. I remember once a guy messaged me on Instagram telling me that he's gonna buy Feminomaniacs for his ex because he thought I am as "crazy and shit headed" as she (as he called her). This guy was an American, neither Muslim, nor Iranian and I met many of them since I left Iran in hope I find my equal position in society.

Such encounters made me think perhaps, it's not just Iran, not just Islam but it's the world that tend to still put women as second genders categorizing women with a strong opinion and voice as 'crazy'. He was a type that judge a book by it's cover, in this case, by its title and a type that never read or think.

It was living abroad that further shaped my writing. I left Iran amidst Iran Green Revolution in 2009. It was widespread protests and demonstrations that erupted in Iran following the 2009 presidential election. The movement was driven by allegations of election fraud and a desire for political reform. Demonstrators, largely composed of young people and students, took to the streets to demand fair elections and greater civil liberties. Despite initial momentum, the protests were met with a violent government crackdown, leading to a decline in the movement's visibility and impact. It was the dead-end for me as I lost many of my friends. I couldn't take it anymore and I left. What happens next is not of importance in this article, I wrote about it in my secret autobiography. But what is important is that women still are fighting for their rights there. With the death of Mahsa Amini that recently marked as one year aniversary of her death by Iran's infamous 'morality police'.

As I read an article on return of these stupid police, it hit close to home for me as someone who weaves stories out of the intricate threads of cultural context. No matter how much I want to detach myself from my origin, yet, I can't help but connect with the brave activists who refuse to back down in the face of this repressive force. The return of the "morality police" isn't just a headline—it's a haunting reminder that the struggles I explore in my stories are not confined to fiction. The echoes of my own experiences resonate through their stories. That the unsettling reality of children being sexualized from a tender age, especially young girls, still exists. The psychology of growing up in this environment is a constant interplay between what's expected and what's desired. The tug-of-war between staying within the lines drawn by society and breaking free to embrace individuality creates a complex emotional landscape. It's a struggle to preserve a sense of self amid the pressures to conform.

In my latest trilogy (coming up next year), I delve into the journey of a Middle Eastern woman who has been entangled in such a mindset from her early years and it has carried into her adulthood, leaving her struggling to find herself. She grapples with the perception that her value and identity are tied to her sexuality and toxic relationships with abusive men, and she's yet to discover her self-worth independent of them. This book more than ENARO, Feminomaniacs or resonated with me. So, writing is the canvas on which my internal struggle finds its voice. The emotions I've felt, the battles I've fought within, and the longing to break through barriers all manifest in the characters and narratives I create. Each story becomes an opportunity to delve into the psyche of individuals who, like me, grapple with the expectations placed upon them.

As my writing journey expanded beyond Iran's borders, I found that the themes I explored—be it the complexities of human behavior, the power dynamics within societies, or the struggle for individuality—transcended cultural boundaries. These themes resonated with readers from different corners of the world, fostering connections that reminded me of the universal human experience that unites us all. In the ever-expanding world of literature, cultural context serves as both a lens through which we view our own stories and a bridge that connects us to the stories of others. My Iranian heritage is not just a backdrop for my writing; it's an essential thread that weaves the tapestry of my narratives. As I continue to explore the depths of human behavior, societal dynamics, and the boundaries of imagination, I am reminded that through the act of writing, I can break down barriers, inspire conversations, and share the unique journey that began in Iran and now resonates with the world.

Bangkok Women Writer's Group's 20th Anniversary: Authors of Rhythm of Missing Pieces

And you? What do you think about what impacts your writings?

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Jan 28
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Great piece!

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