Nahid Rachlin has taken her own story, interwoven it with the plight of women in Iran and contemporary Iranian history, and given us an intelligent memoir that will satisfy even those who usually crave frothier fare. Persian Girls is so beautifully and lucidly written that I kept hiding in the bathroom to binge-read it.
Nahid and her sister Pari were outspoken, free-thinking girls in a family that allowed its sons to embrace the Shah's love of all things Western but held its daughters to more traditional Iranian values. Pari in particular dreamed of America and of being an actress, but as the older daughter was pressured into marrying a man who considered acting on par with prostitution. Nahid, who wanted to become a writer, managed to persuade her father to send her to college in the United States, where she married an American and became a citizen herself. From childhood through adulthood, the sisters' love for and delight in each other is clear, despite their divergent paths.
While Persian Girls is an autobiography of Rachlin, it is also a portrait of women and girls in urban Iran in the decades before the Islamic Revolution. Rachlin makes tangible the intellectual agony of living in a society that considers women chattel, in which even during Rachlin's lifetime allowed men to marry nine-year-old girls, and in which women's behavior is still legally restricted. Sometimes it was even more heartbreaking to read about her sister Manijeh -- malicious as she was to both Nahid and Pari -- who behaved exactly as society and her parents expected her to, and yet was still blindsided and crushed by her arranged marriage. And, as the mother of a special-needs child, I couldn't help but sob at the description of a woman who was pressured by a suitor to abandon her blind toddler.
I was also heartened by Rachlin's many descriptions of women creating their own societies and taking care of each other. Rachlin's beloved aunt Maryam, who was the author's adopted mother from infancy through age nine, raised Nahid in a loving and traditional Islamic community of women, one in which the rhythms of their daily routine created a comforting cocoon. Even Pari found some solace in her neighborhood female friends, though it was not enough to alleviate her depression after losing custody of her son Bijan to her cruel first husband.
In the Iran Rachlin describes, women can never depend on men, but they can sometimes depend on each other. And sometimes, that is enough.
A final note: while I have gobbled up many memoirs by Iranian women, including Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, and even Firoozeh Dumas's Funny in Farsi, I have never before encountered such a vivid description of life under the Shah, and the American and European complicity in his corrupt rule. I would like to thank Nahid Rachlin for helping me to be a little bit less ignorant.
Want more Persian Girls information? read Ms. Rachlin's Persian Girls Backstory, or discuss Persian Girls in the MotherTalk Book Club.
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