Famous WomenA Brief Note on Parvin E'tesami's Life
by Iraj Bashiri
Parvin E'tesami was born in 1907 in Tabriz, Iran. Her formative years were spent in Tehran where her family had moved and where she lived an extraordinarily simple and tranquil life close to her father, Yusif E'tesami (E'tesam al-Mulk). Here she gained her knowledge of the Arabic language and a solid grounding in Arabic and Persian literatures. Reportedly, she started composing poetry when she was eight years old.
Within the second decade of her life (1920), E'tesam al-Mulk founded a literary magazine called "Bahar" to which Parvin contributed regularly. In fact, in the long run, this magazine became a main vehicle for the promotion of her literary talent in a male-dominated society. Parvin's themes of humanism and liberalism struck a special cord with her audiences.
E'tesam al-Mulk, however, was not satisfied with the amount of knowledge that his daughter had gained from his personal instruction. Neither was he satisfied with the traditional curricula offered at the public and private schools in Tehran. Eventually, he entered Parvin in the American College for Girls where she learned English and became familiar, first-hand, with the cultures of the West. Parvin graduated from the American College for Girls in 1925. Then, after a short stint as instructor at the College, she decided to return to her family and devote her entire time to composing poetry.
There seems to have been only three men in Parvin's relatively short life. The most important one, of course, was her father whom we can easily identify as the mainstay of her life. The second in importance seems to have been her husband of a very short time. The couple got married and moved to Kermanshah in 1934. Within two and a half months the marriage ended in divorce and Parvin returned to Tehran. The third man is her cousin, Abu al-Fath E'tesami, who assisted her in the publication of her divan in 1936. Her completed works were not published until 1954.
Parvin and her father traveled throughout Iran as well as visited Europe. It was during these trips that E'tesam al-Mulk passed on to his daughter the knowledge that he had culled over a lifetime by reading and translating materials about the cultures and traditions of the peoples of the West. In later times it was on this knowledge that Parvin drew for themes for her poems.
A learned man with a considerable amount of influence in Tehran of the 1930's, E'tesam al-Mulk held literary gatherings in his house. The participants, including Malak al-Shu'ara Bahar and Shahriyar, discussed aspects of Iranian life and culture, including education, the situation of the serfs, the plight of women, and the oppression of Reza Shah's regime. Parvin, reportedly, participated in these meetings and contributed to them by reciting her poetry.
Parvin was an unassuming young woman; some argue, correctly, that she was an exemplary Muslim woman. But that distinction, in no way, meant an easy young woman to deal with, especially when such germane principles as justice and fair play were involved. Parvin declined to tutor the queen in 1926 because of the high degree of blame that she attributed to the person of the sovereign, the queen's husband; and, in 1936, she refused to accept a third-rate medal offered her for contribution to Persian literature by the Ministry of Culture. That medal, she said, was motivated by the exploitative interests of those offering it rather than by a genuine appreciation of her poetry.
One would assume that the devastating blow to Parvin's life happened when she separated from her husband in 1934. But, in reality, her life did not begin its swift decline until four years later when, in 1938, her father died. The unexpected death shocked the poetess who, at thirty-two, realized that her tranquil and sheltered life had come to an end.
E'tesam al-Mulk's death affected Parvin in several ways. To begin with, it broke her heart, a loss that she could not accept and which left her empty and lonely. Additionally, she lost touch with the literary circles which had encouraged her and promoted her ideas. Furthermore, without her father, she did not have an agent who could present her works, the literary works of a woman, to a male-dominated literary society for recognition and approval.
Three years after the death of her father Parvin, too, died (April 1941) of typhoid fever. She was thirty-five years old. They buried her next to her father in Qum. The following graces her tombstone:
Beneath this soil which verdure refuse,
Lies Parvin, literary star and muse;
While suffering the bitterness of Times,
Composed charming, sugar-laden rhymes.
In her poetry Parvin uses monazere (debate) between two objects. The technique has been in vogue since the time of the chief poet of the Samanid and Ghaznavid courts, Abu al-Qasim Hassan ibn Ahmad Unsuri (d. 1040). Using conventional imagery, she develops the debate by providing a thesis and a corresponding antithesis. Her own observation then appears at the end as synthesis or conclusion. The major themes of Parvin's poetry are fatalism or predestination; introduction of liberal measures for enlightening the masses; poverty of the masses vis-a-vis the exploitative schemes of the upper class; and the plight of the orphans, the aged, and the destitute. A most important theme in her later compositions, however, is the plight of Iranian women, especially their lack of access to education, the key to entrance into society and professions therein.