When Iranian poet Simin Behbahani died last August at the age of 87, thousands upon thousands of Iranians—young and old, men and women—recited her poems in unison as they brought her body to Iran’s largest cemetery in southern Tehran. The scene was astounding and living proof of the triumphant power of a poet’s words.
I met Behbahani for the first time some three decades ago when I was preparing an anthology of articles devoted to analyzing her poetry. Her effortless kindness, her candor and courage, her refusal to be locked into narrow categories, the elasticity of her mind awed and inspired me. Old and new, East and West, masculine and feminine, personal and collective, local and global were woven seamlessly into the fabric of her personality as if they were an organic part of her poetry.
Behbahani, nicknamed the Lioness of Iran, was a voice of moderation and modernization, a fierce defender of human rights and human dignity. She was an eloquent voice of dissent in pre- and post-revolutionary Iran.
The story of her participation in a major festival organized by the Islamic Republic of Iran to celebrate Woman’s Day in 1997 captures the essence of her character. The hall held some 2,000 people. Here, in her own words, is how Behbahani remembers the event:
“I pulled out of my purse the written text of a speech, which concerned the harassment, the censorship, the oppression that had been inflicted on Iranian writers for 18 years. Halfway through my talk, the microphone was cut off. I continued at the top of my voice. The lights were shut down. I walked further upstage in order to use the light streaming through from the auditorium. The curtain was pulled down on me. I stepped in front of the curtain. Later, another round of vicious attacks was unleashed and I was threatened with death.”
But she wouldn’t be stopped. She read her speech in its entirety over the phone for one of the diaspora radio stations the next day. Other media outlets picked it up, and she published the speech’s full text in several journals outside Iran.
Throughout her life, Behbahani wrote about the political upheavals and violence she witnessed in her country. She remained loyal not to any one movement, but to peace and justice and her words. In one poem she wrote:
Behbahani refused to ever be silenced. In 2010, the government confiscated her passport. Stopped at the Tehran airport, the then 82-year-old was interrogated for an entire night and put under country arrest. She kept writing her poetry. “I am not scared, in the least bit, by the Islamic Republic,” she once famously said. “If they wish to cut off my tongue or blind me, they are welcome to do so.”
But the curtain will never be pulled down on Simin Behbahani again. She has joined eternity. As she once wrote: “To stay alive/You must slay silence.”
Farzaneh Milani is chair of the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures and teaches Persian Literature and Women’s Studies. Her most recent book is Words Not Swords: Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement.