Simin Behbahani: Formidable Iranian poet and fearless activist

image copyrightAP

Iran's most famous poet has died at the age of 87. Simin Behbahani was loved by many ordinary Iranians but drew the disapproval of the authorities, whom she challenged throughout her life, reports BBC Persian's Golnoosh Golshani.

Simin Behbahani was not only Iran's most influential poet but also one of the most important women in the long history of Persian literature.

Her main influence was her mother, Arghun, who also wrote poetry and played the tar, a long-necked lute.

Arghun was a progressive woman for her time and her house was a popular meeting place for writers and social activists.

It was she who discovered the poet in Simin when she was still a teenager.

Outspoken critic

In what proved to be her last media interview in 2013, Behbahani told BBC Persian how she had written her first poem at the age of 14.

image copyrightOther
image captionBehbahani's mother discovered her poetry when she was still a teenager

When her mother found it, she pretended it was nothing to do with her.

But her mother knew the truth and sent it to a poet friend. The next day the poem was published in a newspaper.

It was the beginning of a writing career that spanned more than seven decades.

Behbahani wrote about love and femininity, but most of her work focussed on social issues.

The Ballad Of The Brothel, a poem about prostitutes in Tehran, drew attention to the plight of a group of women who had previously been ignored.

In the early days after the Islamic revolution, Behbahani continued to write challenging poetry as chilling pictures emerged of people executed by the new regime, although it was not published until several years afterwards.

She was a member of Iran's Writers Association - a group always viewed with suspicion by the authorities, and some of whose members were victims of a series of politically motivated murders of prominent intellectuals in the 1990s.

Despite the risk, Behbahani remained an outspoken critic of the state.

The cost was continued defamation and harassment by newspapers close to the clerical establishment, a temporary ban on travel outside Iran and constant censorship of her work.

In 2009, Behbahani received the Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women's Freedom on behalf of women's rights campaigners in Iran.

image copyrightOther
image captionSome of Behbahani's poems have been used as lyrics by famous Iranian singers

She was also part of the "One Million Signatures" campaign, which asked that laws discriminating against women be reformed and brought in line with international human rights standards.

Popular songs

Some of Behbahani's poems are known by heart even by those who did not know her well because Iran's most popular singers have used them as lyrics.

One poem became popular again after Iran's 2009 disputed presidential election and the violent crackdown on opposition protesters that followed.

"My homeland, I shall build you again

With bricks of my soul.

I shall raise your pillars again

With pieces of my bone"

Years ago, Behbahani told a ceremony honouring her: "We [writers] will be truly honoured the day when no writer is in jail, no student is under arrest, when journalists are free and their pens are free."

To many Iranians, she was not only a formidable poet, but also a fearless social activist.

She died in Iran, a country she refused to leave in spite of all the attacks by hardliners whom she still called her children.

Related Topics