Iranian-American Professor Devotes Teaching, Research to ‘Words, Not Swords’

Farzaneh Milani teaches Iranian women’s literature in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures.
September 17, 2015

University of Virginia Professor Farzaneh Milani says the common theme in her teaching and scholarship is “the genuine belief in the power of words, the conviction that while violence begets more violence, words are mightier than swords.” In fact, her 2011 book is titled “Words Not Swords: Iranian Women Writers and Freedom of Movement.”

A faculty member in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures, which she is chairing for the second time, and in the Women, Gender and Sexuality Program for almost 30 years, Milani has just been announced as the 2015 winner of U.Va.’s Elizabeth Zintl Leadership Award, which honors a female employee for her professionalism, creativity and commitment to the University and to her field.

“I am thrilled, humbled, grateful and honored,” she said.

The Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center presents the award annually in memory of Elizabeth Zintl, an accomplished writer and journalist who served as chief of staff in the Office of the President and made significant contributions to the University. The award carries a $1,000 prize for the honoree to use for her professional or personal development and will be presented at a reception on Oct. 22.

Milani – a renowned writer, inspiring teacher and leading scholar of gender and literature in Iranian language and culture – has published more than 100 articles and written opinion pieces and commentaries for such national publications as the New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Ms. magazine and USA Today.

In his message to the Iranian people for the Persian New Year in 2011, President Obama quoted from Milani’s translation of a poem by Iranian writer Simin Behbahani, known as “the lioness of Iran,” who died last year.

In addition to her book, “A Cup of Sin: Selected Poems of Simin Behbahani” (translated with Kaveh Safa), and “Words Not Swords,” Milani’s “Veils and Words: the Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers,” first published in 1992, is in its 16th printing.

Milani – born and raised in Tehran and educated in French and American schools – was named Woman of the Year by the International Iranian Women Studies Foundation in June 2012. That same year, “Words Not Swords” received the International Society for Iranian Studies’ Latifeh Yarshater Book Award, given every two years to a work that contributes to the improvement of the status of women in Persian societies. Milani received an All-University Teaching Award in 1998.

Colleagues and students who nominated her for the Zintl Award noted her continuing devotion to teaching and mentoring. Marie Ostby, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English, wrote that Milani has served as “an incomparable role model and an unparalleled source of wisdom, support and guidance.”

U.Va. French professor Mary B. McKinley said she nominated Milani not only for the prestige that Milani brings to U.Va. as an international scholar, but also for “the love that she has inspired in her students and colleagues, the gratitude for her unflagging dedication and generosity to the University.”

UVA Today asked Milani a few questions about her life and career at the University.

Q. You’ve been at U.Va. for almost 30 years. What keeps you motivated?

Farzaneh Milani and students. Photos by Sanjay Suchak / University Communications

A. First and foremost it is our students. They are a joy to teach and to learn from. This reciprocal intellectual interaction has been one of the great joys my profession holds for me.

I am also thankful for the opportunity to be a member of a truly devoted and world-class faculty at the University of Virginia, as well as for the sustaining friendship of several colleagues.

Q. What classes do you teach?

A. Over the course of these past three decades I have taught a variety of courses. For instance, soon after my arrival here, I started teaching courses on “Non-Western Feminisms” and “Women and Islam.” I believe they were among some of the first such courses offered in the country.

I also teach courses on Iranian literature – in particular, Iranian female writers and poets. Currently, I teach a course with about 30 students that I’ve taught before, “Border Crossings: Islam and Women Writers in the Middle East and North Africa.”

The common theme in all my courses is the genuine belief in the power of words, the conviction that while violence begets more violence, words are mightier than swords.

Q. Your scholarship has also focused on Iranian women writers. What are you working on now?

A. I am completing the biography of Forugh Farrokhzad, Iran’s iconic poet. She was born in Tehran in 1935 and died at the age of 32 in a car accident. She was at the height of her creativity.

This is a career-capping project, a labor of love for me. I completed my dissertation [at the University of California-Los Angeles] in 1979 on her and since then, I have gathered data on the life of this most controversial poet. I have interviewed more than 80 people – from her family, friends and lovers to some of Iran’s foremost writers, painters and cinematographers.

Alongside the biography, 30 of Farrokhzad’s hitherto unpublished letters will also be included in the book. These letters are invaluable literary documents, 15 of which are addressed to Ibrahim Golestan, Farrokhzad’s lover for the last eight years of her short life.

Q. You once entered a class wearing a veil. What happened?

A. Years ago, I team-taught a course, “Notes in the Margins: Women in Music and Literature Cross-Culturally,” with a dear friend, Suzanne Cuzick, who used to teach here. The second or third week of class, we studied “One Thousand and One Nights.” Suzanne did a great job discussing composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.”

Next, we were to discuss this masterpiece from a literary perspective. As you know, Scheherazade managed to tame a serial killer, King Shahriar, with the magic of her stories. Our students, however, seemed to be more interested in the issue of the veil. To make a point, to prove to my students we should stop fetishizing the veil and go beyond mere appearances, I wore a black chador to class. [The Iranian chador is a full-body-length cloak with part of the fabric draped over the head but not covering the face.]

As I entered the classroom, a wall of shocked silence greeted me. After a few long seconds and feeling disoriented like a cat without whiskers, I asked, “Why is everyone so silent?” Half the students were looking down, motionless and voiceless. The other half watched me with incredulous silence. There was not a peep. I repeated the question.

A student I knew well raised her hand. “We are afraid,” she blurted out.

I had thought about several possible scenarios. This one I had not expected.

“What are you scared of?” I asked.

“You might be carrying a gun under your veil,” she said with trepidation.

I had ceased to be the teacher she knew well. I had become an image – a gun-toting, menacing woman. I have to admit, never before had I experienced firsthand the boundless power of stereotypes. I learned a great deal that day.

Q. You have written about how Iran has been misrepresented in the American media. Is that still the case?

A. Since the unfortunate hostage crisis in 1979, Iran, once “the Land of the Rose and the Nightingale” and a valuable ally to the United States, became an enemy, a rogue nation, a node in the “axis of evil” [a phrase President George W. Bush used in 2002 to describe North Korea, Iraq and Iran]. Although the physical captivity of the American hostages ended after 444 long days, Iran was held captive to its hostage-taking ordeal for a long time. Its image as a stagnant place of violence dominated the media, popular films and bestselling books. Time, it seemed, had stopped in Iran, frozen in the hostage-taking days. In the last year or two, a more nuanced, a more layered image of Iran is emerging.

I want to clarify that I distinguish between the media and its one-dimensional portrayal of Iran and the large-scale hospitality and graceful warmth of the American people who welcomed a large number of Iranians to the U.S. Their generosity of spirit and much cherished friendship has sustained the traumatized Iranian community in diaspora.

Q. When did you last visit Iran? What’s it really like?

A. I left Iran in 1967, and the last time I visited my country of birth was in 2002. To me, Iran is a land of paradoxes: a land of great poets and despotic regimes, one of the oldest civilizations with one of the youngest populations. Iran to me is jasmine-scented gardens, exquisite cuisine and delicious tea. It is the land of great storytellers, from Scheherazade to my sweet mother and grandmother.

But Iran is no longer a geographic entity for me. It is the Persian language, it is the elegance and humanity of its art and literature, it is its long history and rich culture.

Iran lives inside me now. You might not believe this, but I still dream in Persian and the location of my dreams, at least the ones I remember, is Iran. Perhaps as a first-generation immigrant, I live in one place and dream in another. Perhaps as an Iranian-American, I have the luxury to reside in two places at once – one physical and the other in my dreams.

Q. Do you plan to return to Iran?

A. Yes, my plan is to visit next summer.

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

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