Savushun: Women under Patriarchy Dominance

A visual essay by Leila Borhani Haghighi


Simin Daneshvar is the first Iranian female novelist. She wrote novels after the Islamic revolution of the 1979.  In Iranian history, woman have been subjugated and dominated by gender and cultural norms and have sometimes been excluded from the governments public sector on some occasions. Simin Daneshvar is known as the pioneer of Iranian female literature, whose novels are orbiting around the theme of women trying to gain their voice in a male-dominated society. Daneshvar is considered as the Voice of Iranian women fighting for their rights.  Before her, Daneshvar’s male predecessor wrote about women; however they wrote about women from a male mentality and based on “their”comprehension and perspective of a female psyche. Therefore Daneshvar sheds light on the real issues of the women of her time and has influenced, even inspired,a large number of Iranian woman writers.

Her novel Savushun, pronounced in Persian as Suvasun, is placed in the 1950s and 1960s under the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah. It is the first novel in the Iranian literary canon that is concentrated on woman’s experience and unveils a woman’s perspective of anti- monarchy and anti- westernized establishment of Reza Shah’s regimen and the reserved British occupation of Iran in the 1940s. Rouhangiz Shiranpour claims in her article ‘Woman’s Right, Writing and Education in Iran’ (43) that the novel illustrates the separate and different experiences of women in comparison to men. Daneshvar tried to project the voice of women who were oppressed under Mohammad Reza Shah’s reign. Daneshvar believes that woman were suffering from inequality in the public and private spheres and spaces. Not only women suffer from gender inequality but also, from discrepancy of human rights. For Daneshvar, women issues are not particularly feminist matters, but rather a human experience that need to be heard and deserve to be treated with similar rights as that of a middle- class men.

Daneshvar, created and organized an independent union for writers known as the ‘the Writers’ Association of Iran’, in which they protested against the nation’s social, political and economic injustice. This association became the voice of people during the governmental change in the years 1953 to 1979. Albeit, the principles of this organization caused the government to demand censorship for the writers.

Writers being known as the intellectuals and educated minds of the society were more involved in the social and political issues. Therefore, they were the trustworthy and credible voices of the societies unprivileged. However, in 1903 the Constitutional revolution banned women writers from writing anti-political or anti-state narratives and censored all their works. This action occurred once again during the Islamic Revolution, where women were condemned for not being in line with the Islamic regulations.

In this paper, I would like to focus on Savushun’s major character Zari as a precedent of women experiencing change during the reign Reza Shah Pahlavi. Furthermore, I will inspect some of the locations and settings which Zari plays a role and analyse her thoughts, reactions in each situation; and how historical, cultural and political issues cause the subjugation of women. I will also pay attention to the public and private spaces in which Zari interacts with other female and male characters. I will also use Habermas’s theory on public and private spaces and spheres (since he is the inventor of these terms), and how they can intertwine based on different situation.

Spaces in Savushun

This novel can be assumed as a novel of setting and location. Daneshvar’s characters habit in real areas in the city of Shiraz in Iran. In order to emphasize the importance of the events, actions and dialogues Daneshvar mentions famous venues of the passé, traditional Shiraz; she recalls the old street names and places before being altered after the Islamic revolution. The significance of this style of penmanship is to illustrate and depict a nation’s belief, norm and perspective. In addition, the use of common locations appeals the reader’s attention to a tangible situation and directs the reader’s to perceive the content of the novel attentively.

Since this novel focuses on public and private settings in Iran’s urban design, in this section I would like to concentrate on public, private spaces and spheres. I will start by explaining Persian locations such as the Persian court garden, used in traditional Persian architecture and Persian public baths. I will analyse the conversations between the characters in these locations and investigate the change and adaptation of the character’s interaction with respect to diverse settings.

The Public Bath (public space)

Fig. 1: Vakil public bath

Vakil public bath

All bathhouses are shaped as squares that are transferred into domes geometrically. The upper corners of the squared room links the round roof of the dome with an arch, this connection creates a squnich in the celling area (Pope, 1938: 1235-1237).  A public bath was an important part of the complex buildings in large cities in Iran. ‘The public bathes were divided into four main parts: an entrance, a cloakroom, a main door (middle corridor) and a hot chamber (garm khaneh) in which people bathed’ (Varjavand, 2001:274). In the center of the cloakrooms an octagonal pool surrounded by a foot washing channel (pa shuyeh) exists. A cloakroom itself is shaped either octagonal or square.

Bathhouses were, and still are spaces were local communities reunite and chat about different issues (BBC news). In the past, people gathered in the humid air to discuss the current events and to debate on social matters. In addition, important events such as, henna ceremony, wedding shower, delivery, and etc. were arranged in this location (Sameri and Gorji, 2015, 51-60).

In Savushun Daneshvar refers to Vakil Bathhouse, located in Shiraz. She describes a day which Zari goes to the public bathhouse. Normally, when men gathered in this space they communicated on political matters and common social issues. In contrast, women either gossip or give beauty tips in such gatherings. In chapter fourteen of Savushun, Simin meticulously writes about the conversations occurring in the female bath and at the same time points her protagonist’s perspective (Zari) to such mischievous interactions. For example here is an extract about beauty tips (Daneshvar, Savushun, 171):

“This is a family secret … henna, coffee, cocoa. I add the cocoa to it myself; it softens the hair. Soak one                               soup spoon each of henna, coffee, and cocoa in the chamomile tea and rub it all over your hair. Then cover your hair with fresh walnut leaves and wrap your head overnight or from morning to late afternoon”.

In reaction to this statement Daneshvar narrates as:

“Zari couldn’t care less about a hair colouring recipe”.

A further conversation is commenting on body figure:

“May God protect her … God protect you … I’ve never seen a body this white and smooth, like Chinese porcelain. Your eyes are the colour of dates. I’ve never seen eyes this colour. God has created you for the love of his own heart. God’s blessing on the most beautiful of creatures! I swear to God, if you weren’t in the bath, I would have thought you had put on a rouge or something”.

Zari’s thought:

“Zari wanted to hit her hand and free her chin. But how could she? In the British school, every week, they had two hours of a course on etiquette, and every day of the week they studied good behavior. Of course that meant they studied Bible”.

Based on Zari’s reaction and thoughts, it is noticeable that Zari does not approve of these conversations. However she does not know how to respond to this type of situation, since she is an educated person and has studied mannerism at school. In addition, these quotes envision Zari’s special and different character compared to the other women and how her mindset and mannerism oppose the perspective the other women in her hometown have on life. But her flaw is the lack of audacity to bluntly claim her thoughts. Even in public spaces only surrounded by women, women lacked the confidence to express their thoughts or chat about political and social matters. This highlights the male dominant environment and political situation of that period and signifies the suppressed environment in which woman were hampered.

Persian Garden (private space)

In Persian culture gardens are related to women. It was their realm for ruling, they could express their thoughts freely and without fear. During the era of Reza Shah’s reign the garden was considered as a utopian space which liberated women from the chaos on the other side of the walls. In Savushun the trace of relationships, death, isolation and animal imagery can be found in the garden settings.

The garden depicts women’s situation under political and cultural patriarchy. In this novel the garden is a private space for Persian women even though various men constantly interfere with this private space; Reza Shah’s ruling and the British occupation is depicted as an example of such interferences of men into private spaces of Iranian women. Zari has to make a balance between the outside political world and the inner domestic and serene family lifestyle. Unfortunately, when Zari’s husband steps into the garden, Zari’s status and power is reversed. Therefore, she is no longer the ruler of the house and garden; surrenders to male power and social limitations.

In the ancient time gardens were inhibited by leaders and kings. Therefore, they were responsible for the growth of either internal or external green lands. Julie Scott Meisami in her article ‘Allegorical Gardens in the Persian Poetic Tradition: Nezami, Rumi and Hafez’ mentions the term a ‘world-green’ (245), declaring the rulers are in charge of the growth of the internal gardens that cannot be isolated from the external gates protecting them. In addition, Daneshvar utilises the garden to express the individual’s authority and duty on their own world-green space.

B.1. The Persian Enclosed Garden

a. The Perspective of Privacy

The traditional Persian garden was designed differently from today’s format. The significance of the gardens was in its’ seclusion and veiled design. This secluded garden was built normally in the center of the house and no stranger’s vision could penetrate through this private space. Before the entrance of Islam, when Persia was ruled by various reigns, this structure for centering the gardens was common. In Persian culture and norm privacy is an important issue and has played an important role throughout history. As Mansouri claims in his article ‘A Field Research of Latency and Veil in Iranian- Islamic urban design: In Traditional Context of Shiraz Architecture’, introspection results from the environment, results from geographical situation specially populace and natural environment. This introspection is established in Iran’s borderline and has been passed by through generations (44). This trait has been carried and kept to this date through generations. This perspective has also been used in Iranian architectural constructions. This highlight of the privacy is clearly inspected in traditional Persian palaces and homes. The old Iranian nation believed that based on the theory of latency buildings would be more secure and safer from the intrusion of strangers. People had to pass narrow passages and corridors in order to enter the most beautiful gardens besieged by green plants and big pools.  This private garden area is called hayat indarooni in Persian, meaning the interior/ inside/ enclosed garden.

b. The Persian Enclosed Garden Construction

In traditional Iranian architecture, the entrances were built in a way that if the door was open wide for any reason the interior garden couldn’t be observed from the outside. In order to maintain the privacy, after the entrance, some convoluted spaces and corridors were constructed. These passages prevented the strangers from peeking into the holy domain of the house (Mansouri, 2010, 42).  After advancing the main entrance and passage, one would walk into an area called the hashti, an octagonal area which guests either men or women would gather in order to get permission from the owner to enter the enclosed garden; if they were not permitted the guests remained in this area while chatting with the host. I have to point that the inner garden is considered a very exclusive place where mostly close relatives and family members gather. Therefore the interior garden is located after the hashti.

Depending on the size of the house, two or more enclosed gardens are fabricated. In large houses normally two enclosed gardens are to be seen. The inner garden is larger than the exterior; the interior garden is for incest (women and children, intimate family members). The second garden (exterior) is smaller in size, erected for only men. Between the two gardens, a massive room is fabricated that is connected to both gardens. This room is called as ‘doroo’ in Persian meaning two-sided (Zareh, Naghizadeh and Hariri, 2013, 6). A garden is a space of unification between elements. Thus, establishing green landscapes with various geometrical shaped ponds. The garden is considered an alluring scenery for the members in the house, where halls and patios can affiliate man with nature (Memarian, 994, 15-16). In urban buildings in the city such as, Yazd, Shiraz, Isfahan, Kashan and Kerman the gardens functioned as a diminutive garth (Pirniya, 2010, 161).  Based on affluence, a Persian traditional house could consist of one family or several families. In Suvashun, Zari and her husband can afford to enjoy the comforts of life and possess a relatively good social status. This is also depicted in the seclusion and privacy of the garden that Zari enjoys. Her family is the only member living in this building and hence she owns the entirety of this garden.

Fig. 2: Dokhanchi House

Fig. 2: Dokhanchi House

Regarding the explanation above, an extract from the novel that interprets Zari’s passion for her utopian green land (Daneshvar, Savushun, 41):

“Oh yes. This is my city, and I love every inch of it-its hills in the back, its veranda
that runs all around the house, the streams on both sides of the patio, those two
elm trees at the edge of the garden, its sour –orange grove which you planted with
your own hands, that „seven-graft‟ tree to which you yourself added one graft
every year, the distillery next door with its mounds of flowers and herbs every
season, flowers and herbs whose very names make you happy…”.

Zari’s home represents a nationalist image of Iran through mentioning the elm trees and the sour-orange groves and orange blossoms (it is common to observe these plants in traditional Iranian household). She refers to her garden and home as her city. The home represents Iranian women’s identity. The garden is the land of hope and beauty, it’s the private space where Zari can express her thoughts; it is the land of isolation. The way she describes the garden is very passionate and it is obvious that she has nursed and cherished every plant and she has the control and power for organising everything in the garden.

c. Private and Public Space and Sphere Intertwine

In this section I will focus on the intrusion of male characters into Zari’s enclosed garden or in other words men entering the private space and turning this space into a public sphere by talking about political issues of the period. Mainly I focus on Jürgen Habermas theory who defined and established the term public sphere.  I will apply Habermas perspective on the chosen excerpts of savushun.

Habermas, is a German sociologist and philosopher. He is best known for his communicative rationality and his public sphere. He is recognized as one of the leading intellects in the world. Habermas describes the concept of public sphere as ‘all a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be found’ (Habermas, 1964, 49). Moreover, a public sphere is established when private individuals gather into a public body-form and commence a conversation publicly. People express their opinions when they are sure of freedom of assembly and association.  The expression ‘Public Opinion’ (Habermas, 1964, 49) refers to the ruling structure organized in form of a state. The public sphere is a place for higher power.  On the contrary, a private sphere is a small gathering or institution where individuals express their thoughts. In this sphere, individuals share the power rather than rule. In addition Habermas asserts, the two spheres can entangle on occasions. This occurs when the realm of private individuals can be assembled into a public body and discussions of social needs and requirements of a society take place.

In some chapters of Savushun, the constant shift of the spheres in the private space is noticed. This is depicted when in Zari’s enclosed garden, which is a private space, is intruded; alien men enter and confidently hold political discussions and evaluate the needs of the society while directly expressing their opinions and insights.

When reading further in Savushun, the outside world (such as different ideological, political perspectives of various characters in the novel) finds its way into Zari’s private space. Gradually, the utopian green land starts to demolish and her hope of a beautiful secluded city begins to disappear. When Yusof’s (Zari’s husband) alliances (Mr. Fotuhi, Malek Sohrab and Malek Rostam) enter the garden; Zari’s role as the ruler of the house and garden is suddenly diverted and she becomes a submissive wife and mother. Zari does not have the permission to take part in political discussions of Iran. But, she is asked to serve the guests with hookah and tea. She should make sure everyone is well settled. Moreover, Zari’s tone and attitude change. She is no longer a powerful individual but rather a surveillant wife and mother. Suddenly, her power and confidence evades. Daneshvar wanted to emphasise the effect of the outer world penetrating into the private space of a woman’s life. In this section of the plot Zari is physically active but is rationally passive in the conversations. The devaluation of women with in their home and public spheres was a common male behaviour during the Reza Shah’s era.

A brief example on the explanation above is the following excerpt in chapter 16, in which Yusof’s guests hold a secret meeting to organize armed resistance against the British occupying forces and their Iranian collaborators (Daneshvar, Savuhun, 204-206):

“She entered the room and placed the hookah in front of her husband. The air in the palour was hot and stifling with all the doors shut, and she could see the sweat- beads on the men’s foreheads… She went to the cupboard and took out some fans which she placed on the table in the middle of the room. The she took out some side-plates and knives and forks and set them noiselessly on the table”.
“I’ll be the only one facing danger in this plan,” Sohrab continued.
“I know my death will be just one step away. But if I don’t do it, the nightmare of our massacre will drive me mad. You say this plan is yet another of show… my dear fellow, don’t you see I’ll be courting death of my own free will” he put a hand on his eyes and suddenly wept…”
“Strangely enough, the two water-melons which Zari had just cut open were both yellow and unripe. She took this as a bad omen. The third water melon wasn’t bad, and she was to cut each slice in a zig- zag pattern when she decided that her guests were too preoccupied to He placed the dish of melon next to the map of Iran which they had spread out on the table…”

Zari is indirectly been asked by her husband to leave them when he takes the dish of melons from her. The place which she is being asked to dismiss is her actual power domain. When strangers visit her enclosed private garden, she is expected to remain hospitable and behave as good hostess. The men start reading the map, and Zari starts cutting the watermelon into various geometrical patterns. In this passage we have a mixture of space with sphere. Based on Habermas theory, male guests have entered the private space of Zari and are discussing social and political matters of the time. Therefore, the men have altered this private space into a public sphere in which they can speak freely.

Zari’s gender relationships

As Zari’s personality changes in different Spaces, her character and response change upon encountering different genders. In this section, Zari’s interactions with different male characters of her life are discussed. On one hand Zari’s relationship with her husband and son who demonstrate the patriarchal members in her life are explored. While on the other hand, the influence of an open-minded, educated man, Abdollah Khan, on Zari’s life is studied. Finally to evaluate her relationship with other female characters, her relationships with two significant female figures in the novel, Khanom Fatemeh and Ezzatoddowleh are evaluated.

A. Men in Zari’s life

Zari’s development of character can be better understood through the study of her relationship with her husband Yusof and her son Kosrow within the home setting alongside her relationship with Dr. Abdollah khan from the hospital. Within her home she is submissive to her husband and son, she is a devoted wife and mother. Zari’s husband is the symbol of Marxist idealism of that period. Yusof like many Iranians of that time thought that the British were influencing the Iranian nationalism, however he like many of the Iranians, wanted to hold onto their national identity and culture. Thus, Yusof is an archetype of Marxist ideology who also opposed Reza Shah’s reign. Furthermore, when Yusof and his allied friends arrive at Zari’s garden, the actual outside political world is invited into the private space but Zari is still expected to maintain her role as a wife and mother. This imposed expectation and behaviour removes her identity; she is forced to abdicate her throne, her rulership of the secluded city. Zari’s relationship with Yusof is interesting. At first when Yusof lay eyes on Zari, he was attracted to her education and her ability to form and express her ideas. Yet, after their marriage he treated her as a pretty object with no voice or expression. The only time that Zari has the power to exist is when she is alone and without Yusof. To highlight this issue in a part of this novel Zari asserts to Kosrow:

“Yes dear. In your opinion and that of your father and teacher, I am a coward,
a weakling. I am always afraid that something might happen to one of you. I can‟t bear the
thought. But I too… when I was a girl, I, too, was brave in my own way” (Daneshvar, Savushun, 141).

This excerpt demonstrates, when women are wedded they are considered as secondary citizens.

The only understanding figure towards women in this novel is Dr. Abdollah Khan.  He is assumed as Zari’s only male confidant.  After the death of Zari’s husband’s, Dr. Abdollah khan is the only person who sooths and advices Zari. While other men are looking forward to hear Zari has gone mad. Dr. Abdollah khan mentions:

‟If you ask me, your sister-in-law has done more
than well to be able to stand on her feet. Her anxiety and distress are quite natural. This is no
laughing matter. Those of you around her, just leave her alone” (Daneshvar, Savushun, 289).

Although Zari loved her husband, after his death she felt free from her marriage. At the end scene Zari and the doctor walk into the garden together. Dr. Abdollah morally supports Zari by standing by her and declaring her healthy state of mind to everyone. It can be implied from this scene that marriage in that era could have been harmful to a woman’s identity and self-esteem. Women were oppressed and didn’t have the ability to think or make decision because the authority and power to think was a process made by men and belonged to men.

B. Women in Zari’s Life

Through studying Zari’s relationship with the women in the novel, a picture of the status and situation of women during Reza Shah’s time can be depicted. The two prominent women in the novel, Ezzatoddowleh and Khanom Fatemeh represent other types of women in that era with different ideologies to that of Zari’s. Khanom Fatemeh is representing the traditional Iranian women, who believe she can gain some liberty by leaving Iran and living in the holy city of Karbala. Women like Khanom Fatemeh feared Iran’s political situation and thought scape is the ultimate solution. Khanom Fatemeh claims continuously:

“I’ll drop everything and leave this place…Then I’ll be free. I’ll be neither oppressor nor oppressed. It     won’t be my country, and I won’t be so heartbroken. Oh, Imam Hoseyn, summon this lonely slave to yourself!” (Daneshvar, Savushun, 77).

Many women of that era believed that the utopian land for freedom was Karbala. For, they would be able to serve Imam Hossein which was the higher ideal. They presumed religion would help unify people together regardless of their gender inequality.

Ezzatoddowleh represents women who betrayed their people and government to gain individuality, power and freedom. She has a complex character, she is evolved in the public sphere eventhough she is a women. Her daughter is jailed and to rescue her, Ezzatoddowleh would do anything. Maybe Ezzatoddowleh is an enemy for the society but, she is progressive. She has established a status in a world under the power of patriarchy and has managed to involve herself in the public sphere. Firoozeh Kashani Sabet argues in her article “Patriotic Womanhood: The Culture of Feminism in Modern Iran, 1900-1941” that women did not break away from domesticity, but they did try to venture beyond what to establish their patriotism and freedom: “…patriotic womanhood allowed women to remain loyal to the homeland by combining familial obligations with civic ones” (39). All three women have one feature in common, and that is widowhood. After Yusof’s death, Daneshvar leaves Zari’s developments in a progressive status. Zari’s personality is altered as she moves through various chapters. Before her marriage she was a young lady grasping knowledge and wanted to have an insight on life. But after her marriage she was suppressed and handicapped by male dominance. At present, she is a widow and faces long journey ahead. She must make her own decisions and build a stable path for herself and her children’s life. Hence, her status as a widow gives her the independence she needs to make use of the knowledge she had captured in her adolescence and use her previous experience for the life waiting ahead of her. Finally, the significant part of the novel is in the final chapter, when Zari’s public character is developed and strengthened after her husband’s death. She finds her voice and speaks confidently against the men in her home about her husband’s burial ceremony. She says:

They killed my husband unjustly. The least that can be done is to mourn him. Mourning is not forbidden, you know. During his life, we were always afraid and afraid of anymore? I, for one, have gone beyond all that…” Her voice was trembling” (Daneshvar, Savushun, 294).


Simin Daneshvar born in Shiraz, is a renowned feminist and Iranian novelist. Her husband Jalal Ale Ahmad was an outstanding novelist who claimed that his source of inspiration for writing his works was his wife, Daneshvar. She is popular for writing about Iranian woman’s situation. Her famous novel ‘Savushun’ written in 1969 is happening in Iran- Shiraz during the Second World War. The protagonist of the novel is Zari, a mother and a wife. Her character in the novel gradually develops as she experiences different settings and genders. The novel is located in Shiraz, and Daneshvar mentions famous locations of the old city of Shiraz, before the Islamic revolution. Spaces and gender have a noteworthy intention in the novel. Various spaces help the reader be informed about the political, historical issues occurring at Reza Shah’s ruling period. In addition, they help the reader understand the perspective of women and men of that era in different spaces and spheres. Gender also had an important role in this novel. The man focus of this paper was the influence of space and gender and speculation of the female situation and psyche under the patriarchal society. Zari’s spaces and her interaction with different genders were studied and her character development throughout the novel is investigated.

As an outlook for this work a study of Yusof’s (Zari’s husband) space and his gender interaction are suggested as another interesting subject of research.


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