The Plight of Persian Women: 1891 v. 2022

How much has changed since Isabella Bird’s “Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan”?

Perhaps Orientalist literature of the 19th century justified atrocities inflicted upon peoples in the Middle East in the 20th century.

Perhaps the rush to judgment poses a graver threat. One hasty judgment from one era, another follows, and a cadence of escalations brings nations to their knees.

Isabella Bird resisted that instinct to judge in her travelogues:

Isabella Bird, from Wikimedia Commons

This Khanum Shirin is married to the chief or headman, but being an heiress she “bosses” the tribe…after my tent was pitched she reappeared with a much larger number of women, including two betrothed girls of sixteen and seventeen years old, who are really beautiful.

These maidens were dressed in clean cotton costumes, and white veils of figured silk gauze enveloped them from head to foot. They unveiled in my tent, and looked more like houris than any women I have seen in the East; and their beauty was enhanced by the sweetness and maidenly modesty of their expression. I wished them to be photographed, and they were quite willing…Although these beauties had been most modest and maidenly in their behaviour, they were sent back with blows, and were told not to come near us again…

The next morning her husband, the Mollah-i-Martaza, and his son, mounted on one horse…the Khanum took the whip out of my hand and whipped the women all round with it, except the offending beauties, who were not to be seen. The mollah is a grave, quiet, and most respectable-looking man, more like a thriving merchant than a nomad chief, though he does carry arms. He is a devout Moslem, and is learned, i.e. he can read the Koran.

Isabella L. Bird, Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan (1891)

Isabella Bird led a hell of a badass adventurous life. The courage of a woman who rode horses around the world whenever she pleased, or traipsed into corners of Asia, Australia, and more as she saw fit, left her no shortage of wit and power to condemn the abuse of women had she wished to do so.

But she did not in this instance. Indeed, her travelogue moved on from this incident like any other bend in the river.

One might judge her harshly for her lack of righteous fury. Particularly from the comfort of a country with safe running water, where cholera has never been a threat, where electricity puts memoirs before the eyes quickly and easily, and in which every threat is somewhere far, far away, coming from those other people. Men. Others. Distant.

Iran to hold public trials of 1,000 people charged with involvement in Mahsa Amini protests

Mahsa Amini was a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman who died in police custody in Iran after religious police detained her. Hundreds of others have been arrested.

An Iranian rapper named Toomaj appears to be facing trial for a song with lyrics such as:

Someone’s crime was dancing with her hair in the wind
Someone’s crime was that he or she was brave and criticized …
44 years of your government.
It’s the year of failure…

Toomaj, موزیک ویدیو “فال” از توماج


Whatever Iranians do — or try to do — I hope that the human courage on display is witnessed with honor. Unlike Isabella Bird, who needed to describe what she saw with the precision of an honest witness all-too-likely to be dismissed by men in almost every English-speaking country she might visit, we all get to see whatever we wish to see from a people.

Pictures of Iran? Music? Art? Families? All on display. For now. click and move on.

But if and when deaths start, then those choices constrain, and too much that we might wish to see will be silenced and cut short.

Whatever they might produce and offer the world is taken from us all. Our universe of possibilities contracts.

Impunity feeds upon impunity — evolves from impunity into uglier, bigger judgments which, right or wrong, touch others, innocent but judged. That was true in the 19th century and remains true.

Far harder to make peace than to judge.

No: we cannot leap to judge
Lest flay reverb this seismic psyche,
Cholestatic churning chamber,
Vulcanic millisecond grudge
We may lob hellfire through fairy syzygy
One tweet, we bleat, then shrug
Arrogant attainder.

Tom Tordillo, © 2022



Necromancer unleashing zombie hordes from Project Gutenberg to work literary atrocities. Also father/lawyer/commentator/ironic.

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Tom Tordillo

Necromancer unleashing zombie hordes from Project Gutenberg to work literary atrocities. Also father/lawyer/commentator/ironic.