Here is perhaps the most intimate portrait we will ever have of what it is like for a creative and ambitious girl to grow up in the repressively patriarchal culture of Iran. In Persian Girls, acclaimed novelist Nahid Rachlin traces her life from her childhood under the Shah, through the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which she witnessed from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to a bittersweet reunion with a family both shattered and healed by the tragedies that have befallen them.
Poignant, intensely personal and historically aware, Persian Girls offers readers a rare glimpse into the inner workings of Iranian family life and the creative development of one of its most renowned writers. It is a story of painful separations, heartbreaking losses, and hard-won freedoms.
When Nahid is just an infant she is given by her mother to her aunt Maryam, a devout Muslim who was unable to bear children. Now widowed, Maryam lavishes affection on Nahid for nine blissful years. Then, without warning, Nahid’s father appears at her school in Tehran and forcibly takes her back to her birth family in Ahvaz.
Coldly received by a family she has never known, Nahid chafes under the harsh rule of her dictatorial father, as she and her older sister Pari rebel against the traditional roles assigned to them by Muslim cultural laws. The girls sneak off to American movies, devour forbidden books, engage in secret romances, and dream of exciting careers—Pari as an actress and Nahid as a writer. And yet they know that the freedoms the Shah has promised are largely empty. “Those women can choose a career, marry the person they love,” Pari says after watching Judy Garland in A Star is Born. “We aren’t given any options.”
The truth of Pari’s statement is borne out when her father demands that she refuse the man she loves and submit instead to an arranged marriage with a wealthy suitor whom she despises. He promptly crushes her dreams of becoming an actress and makes her prisoner in her own home. After a bitter divorce, in which she loses custody of her son, she marries again but this marriage isn’t much better, as her second husband twice commits her to a mental hospital.
To escape a similar fate, Nahid convinces her father, after much pleading, to let her move to America. She graduates from a small women’s college, where she experiences American parochialism and bigotry, and then moves to New York City, where she studies psychology and literature and marries a Jewish student.
Now separated from her family and the strictures of Islamic culture, she gains clearer perspective on both, and begins to publish stories and novels about her life in Iran. But her literary success is darkened by her sister’s untimely death from falling down a flight of stairs in her home. Tormented by the thought that it might have been suicide, Nahid returns to Iran, now in the midst of the Islamic Revolution ushered in by Ayatollah Khomeini, to confront her past and try to solve the mystery of her sister’s death.
For fans of Nahid Rachlin’s fiction, and for readers who want a more intimate view of Iranian culture from a woman’s perspective, Persian Girls offers a wealth of insight, historical detail, and riveting emotional conflict. It reveals with unflinching honesty the suffering that many women endure in Islamic cultures—the limitations imposed on them by the legal system, by their families, and most of all by the husbands who rule over them with a power that is tyrannical, abusive, and nearly absolute. But in the bonds between the author, her sister, and her aunt, Persian Girls affirms the familial affection that survive all separation.
“Her voice is cool and pure. Bleak is the right word, if you will understand that bleakness can have a startling beauty.” --Anne Tyler, author of The Accidental Tourist and Breathing Lessons