“If one were to believe her highness, the whole country was on the verge of revolution, with women deploying an artillery of inflammatory prose, wielding books like bucklers, and taking up pens as if they were swords.” Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, The Woman Who Read Too Much
Most of my favourite fiction books have a strong feminist element. This is the kind of book I adore; stories of women refusing to accept traditional or patriarchal values and vowing to live the lives they wish to lead regardless of society. This account is of a woman in Iranian history, a woman who “read too much.” The title reminded me of the Stefan Bollman book, “Women Who Read Are Dangerous/ Les Femmes Qui Lisent Sont Dangereuses.” The woman who read too much was the poetess from Qazvin, Tahirih Qurratu’l-Ayn, who challenged the status quo so spectacularly, so much so that it made her seem dangerous to those in power, and she was eventually put on trial for heresy.
In this book reading too much was just reading, plain and simple. This is Iran in the 19th Century, and religion as well as patriarchy hid the roles and voices of women in historical events. This book presents voices of other women who were somehow involved in the poetess’ trial for heresy:
“But by the time she was arrested in the first winter of the young Shah’s reign, both her admirers and detractors were forced to agree that none of the traditional names of womankind could sum her up. She was admitted to be the calamity of the age.”
You can’t help but be reminded of how women have often been the scapegoats in history. In this time period, the Shah’s regime was experiencing famine, public executions, tortures, and treason trials. But a woman who reads and teaches other women to read will be the talk of the town instead of some of the more heinous events taking place.
In the end, reading meant more than just reading words in books; it also meant reading people, situations, and circumstances. And the more I learn about literacy being denied to certain groups over time, the more amazing it is for me to see how some people are so determined to share this gift because they know it’s a gift and can be so freeing. Literacy is seen as dangerous in the hands of the wrong people, as it always has been, but the people who withhold this knowledge are the ones who are dangerous to me:
“The prisoner in the Mayor’s house was teaching women how to read and write far more than poetry. She was showing them how to inscribe their lives on the pages of history, how to decipher motives, inscribe actions, interpret the world. She was giving them the tools by which to be autonomous.”
“They listened as she told them how languages and marriages were bridges, merely, between man and woman, tongue and ear; how they were the means by which to build, in which to house, on which to raise new meanings between human beings. When a marriage was faithful, it gave birth to poetry, she concluded. If not, it was a dead letter overnight.”
This is my second book by the author and she paints such a wonderful story of one woman who made a difference and left a lasting legacy that might not have been so obvious at the time. Highly recommended!
“If there were daughters, sisters, wives in these pages, it’s only because we cannot be read whole. We come to the last chapter split in parts, Beloved; we come scattered in fragments, torn. There is no such thing as a complete woman in this world.”