Role of women in Iranian science fiction and fantasy
Over the last two decades, the publication and sale of science fiction and fantasy literature has increased significantly in Iran. For a long time, these books have more or less only involved a male reading circle in the country, but something has happened. Behind the publications, the writings and the translations, there are today a majority of women. Mina Talebli, Iranian translator and editor of science fiction and fantasy literature, tells about the role of Iranian women in the development of these genres.
Until recently, science fiction and fantasy was called a genre of/for “white men”; this was referring to either the authors or the ideas and characters in the books. Searching key phrases such as “misogyny in science fiction” or “racism in science fiction” shows how much has been written about it. However, today the authors, characters, and ideas of such books are more diverse. The characters or the issues represent any sex, sexual orientation or race.
SFF books that do not comply with the old stereotypes are being accepted more and more every day, and in many awards, they are among the winners and finalists. Such books were so successful that some alt-right SFF writers with anti-diversity ideas tried to start voting campaigns in order to prevent the inclusion of books with diversity themes.
In Iran, science fiction and fantasy is relatively young. Only in recent years, has there been an increase in written works, and almost everything published has been translated. So it is premature to have a discussion about diversity in Iranian books; however, the role of women in publishing these works is a matter that can be talked about. Up until nearly 15 years ago (probably before the publication of “The Lord of the Rings” series in Persian), translation of fantasy works in Iran was limited to works for children and young adults. The situation was a little bit better for the science fiction genre; but even in SF, almost 90% of the works were those of Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke.
In 2004, on the website of the first Iranian group of SFF fans (www.haftom.org) a list was published called “Bibliography of Science Fiction and Fantasy Books in Persian”. In this bibliography, nearly 250 books were listed in which:
- only two books were written by female authors (Mary Shelley and Madeleine L’Engle)
- three books were written by two Iranian female authors;
- less than twenty books were translated by female translators.
In other words, less than 10 percent of the SFF books in Iran were written or translated by women.
In the early 2000s, publication of SFF books (and their print-run) has been slowed almost to a stop in Iran. Some Iranian authors and translators claim that before the presidency of Khatami (reform era), publication of SFF had some “legal” difficulties and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (which is responsible for censorship of books) was not buying such books for public libraries and schools, even though these purchases were financially crucial for publication houses. After a small boost in the publication of SFF books in the reform era, two things happened which changed the situation: first, the founding of the first association of SFF fans in Iran (haftom.org), and second, the publication of the “Harry Potter” series in Persian. Some members of the haftom.org assert that almost half of the translators and active members of the group were women. Most of the activities of this group were online and maybe that was one of the reasons for this change in the demography. Traditionally, in the discussion forums using aliases was a popular trend. With identity being concealed, the gender of the members gets less important.
Almost at the same time, the first book of the “Harry Potter” series was published in Persian. Iran is not a member of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, so any foreign book can be translated multiple times. According to the National Library and Archives of Iran, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stonewas translated by 18 publishing houses! The “Harry Potter” series was the first fantasy book in Iran that could be called a bestsellerand J. K. Rowling was the first female SFF author to become famous. The interesting point is that of these 18 translators six were men and twelve were women. With the second book of the series, i.e. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the ratio was 10 women to 4 men. Right now, the most favored translation was done by one of these women (Ms. Vida Eslamieh).
These two incidents revitalized science fiction and fantasy in Iran. Allegedly, the publication of SFF literature decreased during those years. But after that, some publishing houses dedicated all or most of their works to SFF. In the years prior to that, only two publishers had dedicated their works to science fiction and there was no publishers of fantasy works.
Right now, there are at least ten active SFF publishers mostly publishing translated works. The four most prolific publishers of SFF (Ketabsaraye Tandis, Baazh, Behnam, and Vida) have more female than male translators and the number of foreign works originally written by female authors are almost as many as those by male authors. These statistics are almost the same for other publishers. But the statistics of Iranian SFF (not translated books) are different. As mentioned earlier, writing Iranian SFF is in its infancy. Publishing such books is not considered a “news-worthy” matter in the media and gathering statistics is hard. A publisher rarely publishes more than one or two Iranian SFF books each year. For example, Mowj Books, which in recent years has been the most prolific Iranian publisher of Iranian fantasy, has published less than 20 books; among these only two books were written by female authors. The proportion is the same among other publishers, too. Nevertheless, compared to recent decades and the absolute absence of SFF female authors, this is a better situation.
It is said that when Joanne Rowling was signing the contract for the “Harry Potter” series, the publisher was afraid that boys (the main target audience) might not want to read a book written by a woman; so they suggested that she should use the name J. K. Rowling. Thankfully, it does not seem that such discrimination exists among Iranian publishers. Famous publishers work easily with Iranian women, even in genres like SFF. For example, Cheshmeh and Qoqnoos published works from Zoha Kazemi and Ofoq published a successful fantasy series by Maryam Azizi.
Some of these changes can be seen in science fiction and fantasy awards, too. Despite the short life of Iranian SF, there are several literary awards; right now, three awards are active and at least three more were active in past years. (It seems these awards did not have that much effect on publishing SFF books, and with a few exceptions, none of the winners or runner-ups ever published a book; however, merely holding such awards could keep the Iranian SFF fans in contact with each other.) SFF awards in Iran are usually held for unpublished Iranian short stories and sometimes for commemorating translators or publishers for their life-long achievements.
An interesting point is that the founding of the first Iranian science fiction award was done less than a year before haftom.org started, by a women’s rights activist, the poet and writer, Ms. Khatereh Hejazi. Unfortunately, this award called Tose’eh was not well-known even among SFF fans; partly because none of its contributors or judges were SFF enthusiasts and their criteria for choosing stories were not clear. There are not many traces of Tose’eh and the other two cancelled awards, so finding statistics about women’s presence is almost impossible, but the archives of other active awards are available. The contributors of the Afsaneha award say that in their first year only 30 percent of the authors were women (13 women vs. 24 men). But in their second year, the percentage is almost 50/50 (47 women vs. 51 men). In the third year, they had 25 women and 38 men; but in the fourth year for the first time, women contributed more (113 women vs. 111 men).
The statistics for the Ayaz award, are unique: last year, 106 authors were women and 55 were men. The interesting point with the Ayaz award is that children and young adults can take part too; so, optimistically, the next generation will have more female authors.
The Noofe award, which is in its first year (and at the time of writing this piece works are still being received), the statistics are: in the category dedicated to the first chapter of an unpublished novel there are works by 32 women and 31 men and in the category for published books there are 46 women and 38 men. These statistics show that following the international increase of the involvement of women in the SFF genre, the same happened in Iran (both female translators and female authors of SFF).
However, there is a twist in these figures that is difficult to explain. The international bestsellers, which are usually from different genres, are almost never bestsellers in Iran. Perhaps apart from some romantic works, almost no SFF books (or other genres) have a place on Iranian bestsellers lists. SFF is not an exception either. Other than the “Harry Potter” series no other SFF books have ever appeared on Iranian bestsellers list.
The increase in Iranian women’s presence in the production of SFF books led to the translation of many feminist works from this genre; for example, other than Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin is the most translated SFF author into Persian. Many critics think that Ursula K. Le Guin probably is the most prominent figure in feminist science fiction and fantasy. But apart from Le Guin’s “Earthsea” series (which is a children fantasy work) none of her other books were reprinted (in other words, they have sold no more than 1000 copies at best). Iranian feminists and women’s rights activists were completely indifferent to her works. Even other authors who write about gender/sex issues, like N. K. Jemisin and Ann Leckie, were entirely unsuccessful in the Iranian market and neither the critics nor feminists talked about them.
But this should not be a matter of concern. The whole SFF is a relatively new phenomenon in Iran, let alone the presence of feminist SFF. It needs time to grow and find more audience, either among ordinary readers or among certain groups who can examine the themes and subjects of the book more thoroughly. Other than that, numerous economic crises in Iran have weakened the economy of book market, too. One can be sure that in due time the Iranian women active in SFF can change the face of this genre entirely.
Author’s note: Due to the word limit, this piece has been shortened. Anyone who is interested in having more detailed information about the SFF genre in Iran, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For example, see “Sad Puppies”, a campaign of alt-right authors who from 2013 tried to boost their own books (or the books they liked) in Hugo Awards. The campaign was utterly unsuccessful and after the alterations in the voting system of Hugo Award was canceled at 2017.
Authors of the bibliography had admitted that their list is not complete, especially in fantasy and science fiction books for children and young adults. The number of female authors and translators in young adult literature seems to be higher; however, even considering this flaw will not change the statistics of Iranian women’s effect on SFF in those years.
Before the “Harry Potter” series, only “The Tripods” series by John Christopher was a bestseller in Iran (partly perhaps due to the fact that it had a government-affiliated publisher and public libraries and schools “were permitted” to buy that). Anyway, “The Tripods” were science fiction, not fantasy.
Recently, an award has been founded, called Noofe. The number of Iranian SFF books has increased so much that eventually, one award decided to focus on published Iranian SFF novels. The other two active awards, Afsaneha and Ayaz, are still for unpublished short stories.