In celebration of Women’s History Month, we often highlight contributions made to the U.S. by renowned women in our society. We talk about about our writers, our scientists, our politicians and our activists who have made great strides for women everywhere. Here at USM, Coordinator for the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs Reza Jalali is teaching colleges across the state about another group of women who have put their lives on the line for change.
“Despite dealing with a very oppressive regime, Iranian women always manage to be present and participate in the political scene in Iran,” said Jalali. “This story has remained untold. It’s amazing. Iranian women have always historically been in the forefront of a national struggle for independence, for freedom and for democracy, and they’ve paid a huge, huge price.”
Jalali brings their struggle to light with his play titled “The Poets and the Assassin.” The play offers a historical and contemporary insight into the plight of women in Iran by challenging our assumption about a land that was once home to the rich Persian civilization. The play portrays Iranian women’s struggle against religious and cultural tyranny while countering stereotypes about Muslim women.
“In many ways it’s a mythbuster. The play challenges our assumptions about Iranian women.” said Jalali. “When we look at Iranian women, we think of them as being forced to sit at home and being silenced and being marginalized. And that happens. I can’t deny that. But the beauty of the situation is that they continue to fight back. No matter what.”
The play takes place in five acts, each one featuring a monologue from a different actor. In each scene an Iranian woman from a different time period speaks to the audience, each focusing on different topics including history, art, protest and the struggles of Iranian women in today’s society.
One scene is told by Scheherazade, the protagonist of a Middle Eastern folk story, “One Thousand and One Nights.” She retells the tale and stresses the importance of storytelling.
In the story, Shahryar, the king of Persia, has discovered that his new bride has been unfaithful and has her executed for her infidelity. From that day on, he refuses to trust women. Instead he marries a new virgin every night, and then has them executed the next day, before she has a chance to dishonor him.
Scheherazade becomes one of his brides and faces the same fate. But she has a plan. Scheherazade begins to tell the king a tale, but does not end it. The king, curious about how the story ends, is forced to postpone her execution in order to hear the conclusion. Each night, she begins a new story and does not end it. This continues for 1,001 nights.
The tale varies from country to country, but in the end, Scheherazade saves her own life and the life of a 1,000 other women through her intelligence and storytelling.
“Women have, traditionally and historically, been the gatekeepers of storytelling,” said Jalali.
Another character channels the spirits of different Iranian poets, telling the audience about their accomplishments and the power of spoken word in an oppressed society.
“Iranian women have always managed to write powerful poetry,” said Jalali. “This character talks about censorship because they’re fighting two kinds of censorship. One based on gender and one based on the politics of the land.”
Another monologue is delivered by an actor portraying Neda Agha-Soltan, a young girl who was shot and killed during the 2009 Iranian election protests. The protests were over the disputed victory of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and in support of opposition candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. The people accused the government of tampering with election results. The crowd was suppressed by local police with batons and pepper spray, but there were also men with firearms charged with controlling the crowd by any means necessary. Agha-Soltan’s last moments were uploaded to YouTube and were broadcast around the world, creating worldwide support for the cause.
Agha-Soltan’s murder is where the term “the assassin” comes into play.
This fictitious version of Agha-Soltan delivers a powerful monologue. She was 15 years old when she was killed, the same age of the Iranian revolution itself. “I could be the daughter of the revolution. I was born with the revolution, and it has killed me,” says Agha-Soltan.
The final character is a modern day Iranian woman who discusses the struggles she faces with body image and her thoughts on the chador, a one-piece garment or open cloak worn by many Iranian women in public spaces to follow the Islamic dress code known as hijab.
“The veil, to many Westerners, is a symbol of oppression. So you cannot be wearing this because you want to wear it. Your husband, your brother or your father made you wear it. And although that’s true in many cases, it’s also completely untrue in many others,” said Jalali. “There’s no such thing as one size fits all when you get into the complex issue of women’s rights.”
After each performance, the cast will join the audience for a reception and a discussion of the play.
“Most members of the audience come in with this preconceived notion of how things are in Iran and how Muslim women are. So they come with some ideas, with some unchecked assumptions, with some misconceptions that it’s the same thing everywhere in the Middle East,” said Jalali.
The play shows them that a majority of those who protested in the streets during the Islamic revolution in 1979 and in the summer 2009 were women. Jalali said many audience members are surprised to hear that a feminist movement exists in Iran.
Jalali uses the play to open up a discussion on the expectations of women, not only in Iran, but in the U.S. and globally as well.
“Western women think women in the Middle East are oppressed, but these women think the same thing of Americans,” said Jalali. “They’re thinking, ‘Why do you wear short skirts instead of long ones, and why do you wear your hair this way or that way. Why would you shave your legs if you were truly free? Why would you dye your hair?’”
Jalali is excited and proud of what he has accomplished with the play so far and hopes that every audience member is able to learn something from his work.
“The Poets and the Assassin” will be performed at Bowdoin on March 28 at 7:30 p.m. in Kresge Auditorium