Remembering Simin Behbahani: Iran’s Legendary Poet And Advocate
By Leila Mouri*
The prominent Iranian poet, Simin Behbahani, died last week in Pars hospital in Tehran, at the age of 87. In her funeral ceremony, held on August 22, thousands of Iranians gathered to say farewell to one of the legendary poets of the contemporary era. An outstanding member of Iran’s modern literary circles both inside and outside the country, Behbahani was also well known for her passionate social advocacy and support of human rights in Iran.
“My literary life and my social activism are not separated, I pursue them together” Behbahani asserted in an interview. Not surprisingly, her involvement in civil rights advocacy enraged the Iranian authorities and on one occasion her passport was confiscated when she was leaving the country to attend an International Women’s Day event in Paris in 2010.
Simin Behbahani was born in a highly educated and well-cultured family in 1927. Her mother was a member of one of the leading women’s societies that championed women’s suffrage and gender equality in the beginning of 20th century. She was also a poet and founder of a progressive women’s magazine called Banovan (Ladies). Simin Behbahani wrote her first poem when she was 14 and during the following years established herself as an acclaimed Ghazal-Sara in modern Iran. She was named Iran’s Lady of Ghazal. She spent most of her life teaching in high schools though she had earned a degree in law, as well.
When the One Million Signature campaign, a women’s rights initiative to raise public awareness of legal, social, and political discrimination against women in Iran, began in 2006, Behbahani was one of the first individuals to join. In 2009, the campaign nominated Behbahani, as a distinguished affiliate, to receive on behalf of Iranian women’s activists the Simone De Beauvoir prize that was awarded to the campaign. In one of the ceremonies in Tehran after accepting the award, Behbahani stated: “This prize is a big honor for all women who work with the campaign and jeopardize their lives [for it].”
In the past decade, Behbahani maintained a close relationship with the Iranian women’s movement and was present in most of their gatherings and meetings. In a demonstration that Iranian women’s activists held in 2005 ( the first one since the advent of the Islamic Republic of Iran) in front of the University of Tehran, Simin Behbahani recited one of her poems dedicated to women’s rights and gender equality. Addressing policemen (or better to say, authorities) who had surrounded the thousands of men and women in the protest, Behbahani recited: “Don’t boast about your superiority/ We are your equal/ Why are you shooting us?/ We are your other half.” A few months later, in another gathering to commemorate International Women’s Day in Daneshjoo park in Tehran, Behbahani, who had attended to support women’s activists, was attacked and beaten by Iranian police. One of the witnesses said: “Behbahani was beaten with a baton, and when people protested that she is in her 70s and she can barely see, the security officer kicked her several times and continued to hit her with his baton.”
During her life, Behbahani received many international awards both for her poetry and her efforts to advance human rights. In 1998, Human Rights Watch granted her the Hellman-Hammet Grant and in 1999 she was awarded the Carl von Ossietzky Medal by The International League for Human Rights (ILHR), which “honor[s] citizens or initiatives that promote basic human rights.” Behbahani’s last award was the Janus Pannonius Prize, which “is founded with the intention to be a kind of ‘Nobel Prize for poetry’” in 2013.
Though Behbahani was a friend and close ally of the Iranian women’s movement, no women were invited to speak at her funeral ceremony and men solely delivered all of the speeches. The Iranian maestro and Persian classic singer, Mohammad Reza Shajarian, was one of the speakers whose speech faced much criticism by Iranian women’s activists. They argued that Shajarian, also an outspoken artist, did not praise Behbahani for the independent and brave woman that she was, but rather admired Behbahani for her traditional role as a mother. Shajarian said: “Men build the world and women build men. Simin Behbahani is alive forever, as she was an affectionate mother. We must be grateful for our mothers in the memory of Simin Behbahani.”
During the last thirty-five years Behbahani was a target for Iranian authorities and under severe attack by conservatives. On several occasions they called her “Westernized” and verbally assaulted her for her human rights activities. Although she bravely stood her ground and never left Iran, the government’s pressure was sometimes unbearable for her. Like any other time in her life, she poured her feelings and the emotions of these moments into masterful words. She used rhymes as an instrument to speak against the brutalities she experienced and witnessed; an answer to authorities who wanted her silent:
[English translation of the poem from the clip:]
You want to erase my being, but in this land I shall remain
I will continue to dance as long as I sustain
I speak as long as I’m living; fury, roar, and revolt
your stones and rocks I fear not, I’m flood, my flow you can’t halt
* Leila Mouri is women’s rights activist and journalist