Simin Behbahani (Simin Khalatbari)
Born: July 20, 1927, Tehran, Iran
Died: August 19, 2014, Tehran, Iran
Spouse: Manouchehr Koshyar (m. 1971–2002), Hassan Behbahani (m. 1946–1970)
Iranian contemporary poet, lyricist and activist.
Books: A Cup of Sin
Simin Behbahani was not only Iran's most influential poet but also one of the most important women in the long history of Persian literature. Her main influence was her mother, Arghun, who also wrote poetry and played the tar, a long-necked lute. Arghun was a progressive woman for her time and her house was a popular meeting place for writers and social activists. It was she who discovered the poet in Simin when she was still a teenager.
In what proved to be her last media interview in 2013, Behbahani told BBC Persian how she had written her first poem at the age of 14. When her mother found it, she pretended it had nothing to do with her. But her mother knew the truth and sent it to a poet friend. The next day the poem was published in a newspaper. It was the beginning of a writing career that spanned more than seven decades.
Behbahani wrote about love and femininity, but most of her work focussed on social issues. "The Ballad Of The Brothel," a poem about prostitutes in Tehran, drew attention to the plight of a group of women who had previously been ignored. In the early days after the Islamic revolution, Behbahani continued to write challenging poetry as chilling pictures emerged of people executed by the new regime, although it was not published until several years later. She was a member of Iran's Writers Association - a group always viewed with suspicion by the authorities.
Despite the risk, Behbahani remained an outspoken critic of the state. The cost was continued defamation and harassment by newspapers close to the clerical establishment, a temporary ban on travel outside Iran, and constant censorship of her work. In 2009, Behbahani received the Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women's Freedom on behalf of women's rights campaigners in Iran.
We All Thought She Was Untouchable
Known as the "lioness of Iran," Simin Behbahani has been writing fierce poetry for decades: during the reign of Iran's Shah, during the Islamic Revolution, during the reign of the ayatollahs, and over the past year's political turmoil. Through it all, she was not imprisoned and continued to enjoy the freedom to travel, says Farzaneh Milani, who teaches Persian literature at the University of Virginia and is one of Behbahani's translators.
"We all thought that she was untouchable. And it's amazing that a woman of 82, a woman who can barely see anymore, a woman who has brought nothing but pride for Iran, is now a prisoner in her own country," Milani says.
Behbahani has been nominated twice for the Nobel Prize in literature, and she has received many literary accolades around the world. She was on her way to read her poetry in Paris, where last year she was awarded a prize for her defense of women's freedom.
In a 2007 interview with NPR in Tehran, Behbahani expressed horror at the practice of stoning to death women convicted of adultery.
"In the last 28 years after the revolution in Iran, this has been repeated. And even once at the beginning of the revolution, we had a woman condemned to stoning to death. While they were stoning her, she would not die, as she was resisting. At the end, one of the police, or Revolutionary Guards, got a piece of heavy cement and put [it] on her head to kill her," Behbahani recalled.
In recent years, it has not been easy for Behbahani to publish her poetry in Iran, and for much of the last decade, she was not able to publish at all. Not long ago, she did release a book of poems, but only after government censors required her to remove 40 poems or fragments of poems. In 2007, the government closed a magazine that published a poem of hers about the Iran-Iraq war.
"It was an anti-war poem. And it would question the people who created and started the war," she said during the 2007 interview.
"Most [Iranian] writers cannot write, cannot publish exactly what they have in mind and what they have written. And they are forced to change or modify some of what they have written."
Most Popular Books
A Cup of Sin: Selected Poems (Modern Middle East Literature in Translation Series)
The Story of Zahra Simin Behbahani, written by Hanan Al-Shaykh and published in 1980
Bernadeh Mokhatas is a graduate student at Stanislaus State University and a writing tutor at her college.