Bahiyyih Nakhjavani: The Woman Who Read Too Much

“The woman is you,” remarked those who saw me with this book.

I can only hope to be half as courageous.

But who is she? “To read is to pray,” she taught. “To write is to trust.” Her words had claws, they said, but at the same time they recognized that her silence were double the weight of her words.

She believed in these: That sometimes, illiteracy was fear; that truth conquered fear; that denial was difficult in the face of truth; that the best told lies can prove short-sighted before the long truths of eternity; and that there was no escape for those who took refuge in their ignorance. And of pride? “Love had nothing to do with it.”

Who was she again? Throughout the story we only know her as the woman who read too much. All the women in the book were not given names. Set during the Qajar Dynasty in the 1800s when literacy among women in Persia was not encouraged, and the details of their lives were largely invisible and unrecorded — as it had been for centuries, and as it had been for most parts of the world; this clever literary trick by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani is most likely a curtsy to Virginia Woolf who wrote, “For most of history, anonymous was a woman.”

“No marker on her grave then? None.” Her death is something readers will know right from the beginning. Her story is written in such a peculiar way that it moves forward while moving backwards simultaneously, proving that the best of these Iranian women writers are masters not only in subtlety but also in form, and one can only try not to blink and miss allusions or be helplessly lost.

“History is filled with screams that are ignored.” The reading woman is executed for what she stands, for opposing unreasonable orthodoxy, “for stating the obvious rather than for deviating from the truth,” condemned for showing other women “how to inscribe their lives on the pages of history… giving them the tools by which to be autonomous.” Her death only fanned the flames of the emancipation of women, especially the emancipation of the mind.

Nakhjavani surprises us in the afterword by revealing that the woman who read too much; who, after all, had a name, was a real woman. Tahirih Qurratu’l-Ayn, the symbolic mother of literacy in Iran.

I glance around my library as I write and wonder at the sudden awareness that, on my shelves organized by geography, the Iran section is the only one where women authors outnumber the men. What better way to honor her!

Here in the midst of “look how far we’ve come” and “miles to go before we sleep,” reading this makes me ponder on the women who came before us; back to Enheduanna (2286-2251 BCE), a woman, the first known author, and to the endless library of history we long to fill… and read.

We’ve always had the rights of the mind at our disposal. We need only take up courage to use them.

The world changed when definitions of womankind were altered.”

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