The Blood of Flowers

by Anita Amirrezvani

 

First there wasn’t and then there was. Before God, no one was.

So begins Anita Amirrezvani’s debut novel, which, set in 17th century Persia, follows a few years in the life of an unnamed girl of newly marriageable age. The simple statement is invoked each time a story, usually a fable, is introduced. These fables are used as framing devices throughout the novel, as each chapter closes with a story about love, temptation, or unyielding kindness.

The story is told from the point of view of the young protagonist, a spirited teenage girl who is her parents’ only child. The first chapter centers on her happy relationship with her father and her unparalleled skills as a rug-maker. Everything goes awry, however, when a comet appears over the village and signals bad omens for the year. The Blood of FlowersThough she is anxious to marry, she fears that a marriage forged in the year of the comet will be doomed. Before she has much time to get a modest dowry together, her father dies suddenly while working in the fields. She and her mother are almost immediately forced into poverty. The women are thereby forced to move to the capital, Isfahan, and live with their only blood relation, an uncle named Gostaham. Gostaham, a wealthy craftsman, and his wife Gordiyeh live in a mansion, with food and clothes to spare.

Despite the riches of the household, the two women are treated as servants rather than family, and are under constant fear of getting thrown out. After a few months of adjustment, however, the girl finds ways to be very happy with her life in Isfahan. She is inspired by the beauty of the city, and begins to cultivate her craft of rug making under the mentorship of her talented uncle. She makes friends with women in the city, both very rich and very poor, and dreams of one day running a rug-making workshop for women.

I mentioned that the girl is “spirited,” but perhaps a better word for it would be “rash,” because she constantly makes choices out of passion without thinking of the consequences.  A few rash decisions put an end to her dreams, and she and her mother are kicked out of their home.  The mother falls very ill, and the girl resorts to begging on the street.  I’ll try not to include too many spoilers, but in the end, she uses her womanhood to her advantage and her luck turns around, but not in the way I expected.

Despite the high level of drama maintained throughout the novel, I very much enjoyed this book. The writing is captivating, the characters are dynamic, and the story has so much depth that it is easy to forget it is fiction. Through all her poor decisions, it is hard to fault the main character too much because she is so morally pure. She makes the best of the hard hand she is dealt, and she a strong, powerful female character. I do believe this is a feminist novel, the kind of feminism that I fully support. That is, not all of the female characters are strong or good, and not all of the male characters are evil. There are strong, amazing, resilient women and there are sensitive, charitable men. There are also selfish and vain women and chauvinistic, unintelligent men.

The life of a Persian woman in the 1620s was not easy. It was nearly impossible to be either financially independent or respected by society, but the girl in this novel accomplishes both. As she matures, she learns that beauty, riches and social status do not create happiness. Her community, her faith, and her art are the source of happiness for her, and, though it is not much, she considers herself lucky. She works tirelessly to bring her mother and friends out of poverty, but she never loses her moral center.

If you are at all like me, and are interested in Middle Eastern feminism and social class dynamics, I recommend this book. You’ll have to forgive some of the dramatics as well as a few gratuitous sex scenes, but it is a quick and entertaining read, so prepare to be engrossed in this book for a few days. At the very least, you will never look at Persian rugs the same way again.

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Lean In

by Sheryl Sandberg

 

(A guest blog from Emily, highly employable sister.)

As is traditional in my household, a vast majority of Christmas presents exchanged this year were books. While I’m not a huge reader, I just finished my last semester at college, meaning I suddenly have the blessing (read: burden) of having way too much free time. I also have the burden of desperately seeking employment. Together, this adds up to the perfect time for me to receive Sheryl Sandberg’s new book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

Though Sandburg claims it is none of these, Lean In can certainly be classified as a combination of a self-help book, a feminist manifesto and an autobiography. Lean InI say self-help because it has already helped me. Throughout the book, she mentions a poster at the Facebook headquarters reading “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” which I find extremely inspirational. There are so many things that I want to do, but my fears hold me back every day. I’ve always assumed that it is because I’m shy and a little awkward that I’m afraid to move far away from home, raise my hand in the classroom, or apply to jobs for which I am not 100% qualified. In reading Lean In, I’ve realized that this is not just a product of me being shy, but is at least partly a product of me being a woman. Re-reading that sentence just made me feel a little brainwashed. Okay, so maybe I’m a little too willing to attribute my excessive anxiety about work and school to my gender, but it really is deeper than that. Sandburg points to multiple studies that show women are less likely to speak up in meetings, raise their hands in the classroom or negotiate for higher pay. I had never realized before that other people shared these apprehensions, and that the most apprehensive were usually women.

I definitely consider myself a feminist. This seems to be kind of a dirty word for a lot of women; they don’t want to be associated with those man-hating, bra-burning, no-nonsense lesbians. But for me, feminism is about being judged on my character and merits rather than my gender. In fact, I rarely have conscious thoughts about my gender, and I don’t tend to identify with other women simply because of our shared woman-hood. I see people as people, myself included. That is all that Sandberg is asking for in this book. She wants to point out that both men and women must take responsibility for breaking down social expectations based on gender. Women must stop criticizing other women for their career and parental choices, and men must stop encouraging “macho” stereotypes that reinforce the idea that males have no responsibility helping out at home. The assumption is that no woman can “have it all”, which causes a lot of women to leave the workforce even before they have a family, and Sandberg encourages women to fight that instinct, because it is very possible to have a successful career and happy, healthy children. Based on Sandberg’s desire to even out the playing field for men and women, I would absolutely include this in the “feminist” category. No, she doesn’t want to bring men down. And no, she’s not even blaming men. But that’s not what feminism is about. Sandberg looks forward to a time when being a female does not define one’s success, and hopes that “in the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.” She hopes that gender is taken out of the equation when skills and achievements are what really matter.

Most importantly, Sandberg admits that even she has doubts about her choices. After her first child was born she promised to take full advantage of maternity leave, and then was back on her work email within about a week. She worries that she doesn’t see her children enough and shared an anecdote about the pain she felt the first time her child cried for the babysitter instead of mommy. She acknowledges that not everybody has the luxury of being able to afford childcare or being able to take time off.  She doesn’t claim to have all the answers. Rather, she hopes that readers of Lean In will feel comfortable making choices, and give other women the opportunity to make their own choices without judgment.

I avoided reading any criticisms of this book until just now, because I didn’t want anything to affect my raw opinion of Sheryl Sandberg or her book, and I’m glad I did. Sheryl Sandberg on TimeThere has been some feminist backlash, accusing Sandberg of representing corporate America and ignoring the needs of women. She expects women to work hard to enhance their careers without any suggestions towards affordable childcare or equal pay rates. My main criticism is that Sandberg’s gender is the only thing not marketable about her; she is white, conventionally attractive, heterosexual, healthy, married, well-educated, thin, cis-gendered, etc. It would be refreshing to see this kind of success story from a woman who did not have everything else going for her.

That being said, Lean In has sparked a good discussion, which is all that I can hope for right now. Maybe she’s not the most likeable woman and her fight is limited to cookie-cutter businesswomen, and she definitely does not have all the answers. But nobody is perfect and it is a start, and as a young woman about to enter the workforce I definitely appreciate the solidarity demonstrated in this book. I have the privilege of thinking about my future and getting excited for opportunities that I can’t yet imagine. I know that other women are afraid to raise their hands, and I can consciously fight that by raising my own.

All in all, I’d recommend Lean In to anyone (man or woman) that feels overwhelmed when thinking about the future. Especially young people on the brink of a new career, this book will encourage you to put yourself out there and fight for the job that you want. Just remember that Sandberg is not evil and she is just trying to take action in the only way she knows how, which is by showing other women that rising up the corporate ladder is possible. And really, who can fault her for that?