Sima Sharifi is a Vancouver-based writer.
My sister and I lead radically different lives in countries as dissimilar as they get, she in Iran and I in Canada. After almost four decades of physical and emotional separation, a novel renewed our broken sisterly bonds.
I came across Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale translated into Persian while doing research for my PhD. Ms. Atwood’s book is a critique of religious-based dictatorship and its lethal effects on women. Yet, the autocratic Islamist government of Iran endorsed the novel’s translation and publication. Why was the translation of such a story allowed, and how was it translated?
I began comparing the English and Persian versions, and noticed language in Persian that overturned Ms. Atwood’s intent. I wondered what message women readers in Iran would receive from such a manipulated story. I decided to reach out to my estranged sister, who had lived all her life in Iran.
To my pleasant surprise, she said she would love to engage in the project, and had the same question: “I want to know if the story of a famous writer like Atwood’s was altered by the translators to manipulate readers, or if what I read in Persian is accurate.” We began our weekly chats about The Handmaid’s Tale as read in two different languages, interpreted from the perspective of two Iranian-born sisters now living in dramatically different cultures
I was imprisoned as a young adult living in Iran for protesting against the Islamist government of Ruhollah Khomeini’s misogynistic policies. The age of marriage had been lowered to nine years for girls, or even less with the consent of paternal male guardians. The custody of children was unquestionably given to the husband, and the civil and penal codes had placed the value of women at half that of a man in legal matters such as inheritance, court testimony and blood money.
My younger sister unfortunately followed my footsteps, and was also imprisoned for distributing pamphlets among her classmates protesting the regime’s violence against girls. After being released, we took different paths: I fled the country, came to Canada, and learned about my rights to liberty and freedom. She remained in the land of our birth and married, her life as a housewife reduced to the four walls of her home. Yet, she did her best to cope with those women-unfriendly circumstances by quietly resisting the regime’s ideological indoctrination, not unlike the female characters in The Handmaid’s Tale.
I used to have a warm, close relationship with my sister. But as the years went by, our physical separation degraded our personal relationship, nearly severing our emotional connection. Our revived weekly conversations highlighted what we had lost – and they began to bring us back together.
At one point, we focused on the passage about the protagonist’s mother, who tells her daughter how female activists suffered but eventually succeeded in claiming their rights, benefiting the next generations of girls and women. We both knew that Iranians were actively discouraged from reading anything about women fighting for equal rights, and found that this section was deleted in the translation.
Based on her lived experience, my sister insightfully concluded that whoever made these alterations did not want to put the idea in women’s heads that they would be rewarded for activism. We both laughed at her perceptive sarcasm, and simultaneously were plunged back into our own turbulent pasts, captured and caged in solitary cells between 1983-84.
She said, her voice trembling, that “it was awfully painful to witness the daily execution of my cellmates as young as 13 years old whose only sin was attending peaceful rallies or spraying anti-revolutionary graffiti.” She herself was a mere teenager at the time and I was terrified that the same fate could befall her.
She reminded me that I had also lost most of my friends for demanding their human rights. A heavy silence hung in the air. “But we defeated the prison-keepers, didn’t we?” she said with a defying upbeat tone.
In our next session, I asked why the word “veil” in English was translated as “burqa.” While a veil just covers a woman’s hair, a burqa is a full-body gown, cloaking a woman from her head to her feet. I thought of one possible reason: to sever the negative associations between veils, which are required attire for women while in public in Iran, and women’s captivity. “The burqa,” my sister added, “brings up in the Iranian reader the image of women from Saudi Arabia, the quintessential enemy of the Iranian regime.” The unfavourable associations between Iran’s obligatory veil and oppression against women is purposely muddled. The English word veil becomes burqa in Persian and the reader’s attention is diverted from Iran to Saudi Arabia, a shift intended to vilify the Saudis.
Wearing a veil in public isn’t the only rule women are expected to follow in Iran, of course. My sister, like all women, is supposed to know the proper colour of her veil, the height of her shoe’s heels and how much makeup she’s allowed to wear, without being given any clear instructions. These unwritten rules are stringently enforced wherever women attempt to exist in public, in schools, universities and workplaces. I have choices and free movement; she has to maneuver around constraining realities designed to handicap and reduce her to a constantly surveilled object.
At this point, we concluded that the translation of The Handmaid’s Tale had two simultaneous goals. The regime hoped to rebrand itself as pro-feminist in the eyes of the international community by publishing the book, while reinforcing their anti-feminist stand to its citizens by eliminating all pro-feminist content in the translation.
As we finished reading the story, she began to imagine, as I often do and Ms. Atwood herself acknowledged, that the fictional dystopia could become reality, even worse than that of the already restrictive Islamic Republic of Iran where my sister lives. And that frightens her deeply.
It took us 99 days to delve into this fictional tale, one that resonated with our real stories, shared with each other for the first time in many years. Reading Ms. Atwood in Tehran and Vancouver slowly helped us restore the treasure of trust and closeness we took for granted during our troubled youth. And for that, we are grateful to The Handmaid’s Tale.