Review: The Women of Deh Koh-Lives in an Iranian Village by Erika Friedl

Review:  The Women of Deh Koh-Lives in an Iranian Village by Erika Friedl

Tragedy and Independent Women

This was one of my favorite ethnographies to read, not only for the content, but for the lens that the author gives us to view through.  I love ethnographies that act as a sort of verbal photograph that lets the reader use their imagination and relate to the characters in the story, instead of interpreting the data for you.

Friedl, Erika.  The Women of Deh Koh-Lives in an Iranian Village.  Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.  1989.

Written:  January 30, 2002

In Erika Friedl’s book, The Women of Deh Koh, we are shown a portrait of an Iranian mountain village and the characters that inhabit it.  Rather than interpret her experience for us, Friedl attempts to make us use our imaginations to see into the hearts and souls of these people; she does not spell out her theories of how this society functions, she wants us to draw our own conclusions.  Acting much more like an artist than a scientist, the ethnographer skillfully paints for us rich and colorful images from this village’s daily life and its intricacies of interpersonal relationships.  After reading this book I could not help but feel relieved; nobody has a perfect life, and when problems arise it is not the problem but how one deals with it that matters.  I believe the function of social rules is to show how one’s society prescribes their moral honor code to deal with real life.  This brings into question the idea of the marginality in society; if everyone is so busy with trying to follow the rules, then how do some end up in the marginality?  I believe that Friedl has shown us by not being present as a character in her own research that rules certainly are broken, and quite often.  In this article I want to take a look at three women whose lives got derailed by circumstances beyond their control, and how their society bent the rules to resocialize them.  Some of the questions I want to touch upon are:  what does “the marginality” of their society mean to them; how did things go wrong in their lives; and how do they function in society as a result of personal tragedy?  The three women I will be discussing are Sarah, Setara, and Parvane.  Their stories are in chapters 9, 10, and 11 respectively.

From my experience and prior research I have discovered the vital importance and function of marriage for women in most Middle Eastern cultures.  Marriage is a tool with which a woman can gain social honor through family and children; it is also a woman’s insurance for her old age, as she knows that her children will take care of her.  As I have been told, and as I have seen, not all women in these societies are able to get married, however; sometimes life has other plans for them, and society must create a space for them to live.  Sometimes a woman cannot get married because of family dynamics; there is an example in Guests of the Sheik, by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, of just such a circumstance.  Leila cannot get married because she comes from a family of 5 girls, and as she is the most industrious and hard working of them, she is chosen by her father to stay unmarried and to take care of her parents when they become old.  There are few moral excuses as to why a woman can be independent and unmarried; death of a spouse, criminal behavior of a spouse, and mental or physical illness of the woman are some of the reasons that these women were unable to sustain a marriage and bend the social rules that binds her to marriage.

Sarah did not come from the marginality of society, but was put into that position by her life circumstances.  Her first husband died in combat, and so her brother-in-law was forced to marry her as his duty.  Neither of them were in love, but for financial and social reasons they had to be married.  After years of misery together, her husband decides to take a second wife so that someone will take care of him and have sex with him.  Sarah is not interested in these roles; she feels that she did her duty by giving him children, and would love to live without him.  When her husband finally does find another wife, Sarah is relieved; she goes to live with her children, and is treated like a queen.  Being a widow in this society is not an admired position, but one can maneuver the odds against oneself to gain an advantage if this happens.  Sarah retained her social honor by staying married to her brother-in-law long enough to have the “normal” life of a wife and mother; once her child-bearing years were over, she was free to live independently without a husband.  This shows how social rules can be bent to conform to the circumstances of life.  By being a grandmother Sarah knows that she will be taken cared of; her children and their spouses replace the protective role of a husband.  Being a widow made her a part of the marginality of her society, but by following the rules Sarah gained a position of authority and eventually independence from her husband.

Setara has an unusually tragic story; there is more than one reason why her life is thrown into the borders of society.  She is married later than usual; she has very bad luck with proposals early in her life.  This in and of itself is enough to put her into the marginality; being an older bride she is considered “picked over”.  Sarah is finally married to a much older man, and it proves disastrous; she is returned to her family.  Now, not only is she older, but also she is already divorced, and no children.  Luckily, her virginity is still intact, that is her saving grace for her future.  Finally, her perfect mate appears; he is an outsider of the village, so this firmly plants him in the marginality of the town, even though he has a very respectable job at the hospital.  As they both have had a past that has made them unmarried in the present, they find comfort and solace together in a socially approved union.  Tragedy strikes poor Setara again when illness and death take her husband away, however; it seems she is destined to be alone.  She tries at marriage once again, but is deceived by her new husband; he is a criminal and bigot, and eventually their relationship ends.  Setara is lucky in that she has gained a few material things from her marriage to Tehrani, the outsider.  She also received a widow’s pension from the government, but that was taken away after her remarriage.  She has had to be very clever to make sure that she and her children are taken cared of, but she does this with social approval as people rather pity her now.  The fact that her tragedies are really not of her own doing, that they have come from outside her control, seems to have given her honor.  She is a survivor and has had to use her wits; this seems to also give her social admiration.  Even though women seem to take the blame most of the time in Persian culture when things go wrong, it appears to me that none of these three women carried that burden of guilt.  After Setara’s last failed marriage she is tolerated as an unmarried independent woman, even though she is chided that she should get married again, as she is still of child-bearing age.  As her luck has been poor, no one pushes her too hard to find another husband, however.  Setara finds a social loophole in her tragic life to maneuver more social standing and to gain power in her environment.

The story of Parvane is a particularly sad one, and my personal favorite of the entire book.  In Parvane’s case there is more than one factor that makes her a member of this village’s marginality; she is born with some form of mental retardation (it is never diagnosed), and then she falls ill after a series of pregnancies that prove physically and mentally debilitating.  Luckily, Parvane is a beauty; this assures that she can attract a husband, and in turn will be taken cared of and will not be a burden to her family.  However, fate has other plans in store for her, and eventually she ends up back at her father’s house, but the means to her arrival assure social approval.   If Parvane had chosen herself to come back home she would have lost face in the eyes of the village; however, unusual circumstances bring her there.  I would speculate that the best thing for her would have not to have gotten married in the first place, as she is “simple minded” and too slow mentally to live independently.  Her husband was not sensitive to the fact that she needed help with her chores, and that she was extremely fertile.  Her series of miscarriages, stillbirths, and dead babies catapulted Parvane into a whirlwind of post-partum depression that would eventually be the cry for help that she so desperately needed.  Also, her husband became injured and could not be at home with her; this was the straw that broke the camel’s back, as Parvane could not keep up with her chores and taking care of her children.  Finally, her mother comes to rescue her and bring her back home.  However, now that she had gone out into the world and tried, she had a moral standing for coming back to her father’s house; perhaps if she had stayed and never left she would not have the social approval that is necessary to her family’s honor.  Whichever the case, Parvane is another case of a woman that does not live with her husband and society has had to make a place for and tolerate.

The common denominator in the above stories is tragedy; while independence in women is discouraged in this society, it is tolerated if personal tragedy has struck.  A woman’s personal conduct ensures her survival; one can control one’s behavior, but one cannot control life.  Therefore, it seems to me that there certainly are independent women in traditional Iranian society, however, they have not chosen their lot; it has been handed to them by fate, and this is the only reason it is allowed.  If a woman chooses not to get married she is putting herself in a position to be ostracized; this would certainly make her lose honor, and she may not be able to survive and receive the social support she needs.  Tragedy permits a woman to be unmarried, but independence is not always coveted.  The role of a husband is quite important to a woman’s maneuverability in society; someone always “has her back” if she is threatened in any way.  It is a husband’s duty to protect his wife, and in his absence her children must fill this role; as the children cannot be had out of wedlock the importance of marriage for a woman is underscored.  While there are certain freedoms an unmarried woman has, there are certainly more hardships than with a husband; it would seem to me that wealth would be the only factor that could change the life of an independent woman.

In conclusion, I found this book refreshing in its approach and findings; the stories of the lives of these women made me realize how similar they really are to women in my own culture.  Even though we all try to avoid it, personal tragedy strikes us all; our future and our moral honor are found in how we respond to these crises.  Tragedy also shows us how important family is in this society; the family always takes care of each other no matter the circumstance, and public institutions are not sought out as much for help.  Even though a woman may be unmarried in this society she is still tied to her family for social and financial support; at least in this village no one is completely independent as in Western culture.  Even though a woman’s life may become derailed she still has opportunities for advancement in this culture; as long as she has her honor she can still survive as an unmarried woman.