University of Virginia professor Farzaneh Milani has been recognized with two international awards this summer related to her career and the publication of her most recent book, "Words Not Swords: Iranian Women Writers and the Freedom of Movement."
Milani, who chairs the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures in the College of Arts & Sciences, is the co-recipient of the Latifeh Yarshater Book Award presented by the International Society for Iranian Studies.
The award, announced this month at the organization's annual conference in Turkey, comes after Milani was named "Woman of the Year" by the Iranian Women Studies Foundation in June.
"I'm grateful for the recognition for my book, the writing of which was a labor of love really," Milani said. "What I did was what I've always wanted to do; that is, to express my genuine belief in the power of words which are, in the long run, mightier than any sword – or its modern incarnation, the bomb."
The Latifeh Yarshater Book Award is given every two years to a work that contributes, directly or indirectly, to the improvement of the status of women in Persian societies.
In "Words Not Swords," published by Syracuse University Press in 2011, Milani challenges what she sees as the narrow Western stereotype of the shrouded, oppressed Muslim woman who is a captive of her faith and her veil.
Milani – born and raised in Tehran and educated in French and American schools – used the lens of poetry, prose and film to argue in the book that Iranian women's true struggle is not against the veil, but for freedom of movement – the ability to choose where to go.
Meredith Woo, Buckner W. Clay Dean of Arts and Sciences, said: "Professor Milani's work is engaged scholarship at its finest. It is sophisticated, erudite, courageous and incandescent in its wisdom. Hers is a cosmopolitan voice that also recognizes the importance of home, of beginnings, and of hopes of returning. I am thrilled that her new book is widely read and cited around the world."
Indeed, Cristina Della Coletta, associate dean of humanities and the arts, who is in Europe, picked up a French translation of "Words, Not Swords." She said it "renders all the depths, poignancy and simple beauty of Farzaneh's elegant English prose. This book is a testimony to the interest that Milani's research on Iranian women has elicited worldwide."
The Yarshater Award committee praised Milani's elegant writing and copious research.
"The committee noted with appreciation the book's vast coverage of the cultural geography of Iran's literature and art, from poetry, fiction, biography and autobiography to cinema and religious text," award chair Mahnaz Afkhami wrote in announcing the award. "The theme of freedom of movement running through the work, encompassing not only the oft-repeated need for women to have, in Virginia Woolf's words, 'a room of their own,' but also 'the freedom to leave it and return to it at will,' is fundamental to understanding the oppression Iranian women experience daily, as well as the significance of their resistance against and their engagement with the structures of power in Iran."
Kamran Talatoff was the co-recipient of the award for his book, "Modernity, Sexuality, and Ideology in Iran: The Life and Legacy of a Popular Female Artist."
Past winners of the award include: Simin Behbahani, Iran’s national poet, who Milani called "a distinguished voice of dissidence"; Mehrangis Kar, a prominent Iranian lawyer, celebrated human rights activist and writer; Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, one of the founding members of One Million Signatures campaign, a grassroots campaign fighting discriminatory Iranian laws; and Azar Nafisi, bestselling author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran."
"I feel honored to be the recipient of this award," Milani said. "If the significance of a prize is to be judged based on its previous recipients, then I truly feel humbled to be in the company of such people."
In June, when Milani was presented with the Iranian Women Studies Foundation "Woman of the Year" award, a dissident Iranian television station broadcast the ceremony live. The foundation produced a biographical film celebrating Milani's career, featuring her family, friends, students, colleagues and Meredith June-En Woo, the Buckner W. Clay Dean of Arts & Sciences.
Milani has been a professor at U.Va. since 1986, and will teach "Border Crossing: Women’s Literature Middle East & Africa" this fall. She's often cited in the media, most recently authoring two New York Times op-eds on the roots of the turban, and Saudi Arabia Freedom Riders. Her 1992 book, "Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers," is widely acclaimed and still in print.
– by Rob Seal