Step into other worlds of revolution.
“Just let the wind untie my perfumed hair,
My net would capture every wild gazelle.”
– Tahereh (1814-1852)
Tahereh, the “Pure One,” was a Persian poet who unveiled herself in an assembly of men — an act resulting in her execution. She is said to have uttered these last words, “You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women,” before she was strangled and dropped into a shallow well.
I learned more about Tahereh during a meeting in late October with Davar Ardalan. Ardalan’s memoir, My Name Is Iran, tells of a life deeply intertwined between two nations, America and Iran. Ardalan is the daughter of generations of revolutionary Iranian women. She is also a former producer at NPR who, in 1995, produced “Roars and Whispers,” a nine-part journey through Iran’s private and public spaces hosted by veteran NPR journalist Jacki Lyden.
Ardalan and Lyden’s epic enterprise changed how people everywhere, not just in America, saw Iran’s women. Re-aired in part here in 2009, the journey featured Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and The Republic of Imagination, for the first time. Lyden discovered her in 1995 in a classroom in Tehran. Nafisi’s republic is a country with no borders and few restrictions, where the only passport to entry is a free mind and a willingness to dream.
“What if we stand side by side and read literature in peaceful resistance and solidarity?” Ardalan said to me and a group of women in October. We were standing in the kitchen of a friend’s house, but I had never met her before. We were all in a circle around the kitchen island. On my right was the American writer Alice McDermott; on my left, the dancer and writer Kris O’Shee. Lyden stood beside the stove.
Ardalan told us that she imagined American writers gathering to read Iranian women poets aloud, something like a dress rehearsal for a Live Aid-style concert. She invoked Tahereh, explaining how feminist literature has deep roots in Iran. With tears in her eyes, she spoke of the murder of Jina Mahsa Amini.
Amini’s plight had been widely covered by then, setting off international protests. In September, the 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman was beaten to death by the morality police for not affixing her headscarf correctly as she emerged from the metro in Tehran. After Amini’s passing, people in Iran bravely protested against her death, demanding freedom of expression and inspiring similar protests around the world. Bereaved women cut their hair at the funerals of peaceful protestors.
After Ardalan’s call to solidarity, we began meeting weekly online to produce a dress rehearsal for the first multimedia, multi-artist #RoarsandWhispers event on Nov. 12th, featuring the song “One Zan” (One Woman) written specially for this movement by pHoenix Pagliacci and produced by Push Audio. Ardalan worked tirelessly to make it all happen.
“One Zan” framed an afternoon of readings on H Street in Northeast Washington, DC, during which American women read works alongside Iranian women. I learned about Iranian women writers who have been prodigious in their production of revolutionary works. I learned, for example, that over the last 200 years, Persian poets like Tahereh were executed for exercising their voice and agency. I learned that a peaceful army has been gathering around the world for centuries to educate themselves and to support the freedom of these women, everyone standing on the shoulders of those who came before.
In languages across the globe, the roar of solidarity is ringing out: Women-Life-Freedom, or Jin-Jiyan-Azadî, whose origins lie in Kurdish feminism and revolution. In Farsi, the words are Zan-Zindagi-Azadi. Words embraced and repeated around the world, spreading like wildfire into all languages.
At the #RoarsandWhispers rehearsal, participants contributed in different ways while centering the words of Iranian women; McDermott read poet Shahin Farahani.
In a powerful video, the interdisciplinary writer and performance artist Esha Sadr Eshkevari cuts her hair, the scissors crunching through her thick strands. At the rehearsal, Sadr read her poem honoring Baktash Abtin, an imprisoned writer who died earlier this year.
Pagliacci, the artist and activist born and raised in Toronto, explains why she was drawn to this project. “This particular song, ‘One-Zan,’ was actually never written down on paper. It was something that flowed through me once I got to the studio. I wrote it originally in the spirit of Emmett Till, as an anthem for the oppressed.”
People have been asking how they can get involved in #RoarsandWhispers. Curiosity was my first step. One way for you to participate is to film your own readings of Iranian women’s work. (Here’s a place to start: The Mirrors of My Heart: A Thousand Years of Persian Poetry by Women, translated by Dick Davis.) Look them up by listening to Farzaneh Milani. Use the hashtag #RoarsandWhispers on social media. Let down your hair or tie it up, cover it or not — it’s your freedom to choose. The only passport to entry is a free mind and a willingness to dream. In the words of pHoenix Pagliacci:
“It’s about looking at one woman and seeing an entire nation of women, an entire community, an entire generation raising their hand.”
(Roars and Whispers is part of Zan Z, a media project led by female storytelling technologists, journalists, novelists, artists, and musicians from around the world who are using the power of words, voice, and technology to preserve the stories of Iranian women for future generations. Find them on Instagram and Twitter.)
Leeya Mehta is interim director of the Alan Cheuse International Writers Center.