In 1889, a short book by an anonymous author made waves in Iran. Published at a time when European values were beginning to challenge traditional Iranian values, The Education of Women served to educate women about what their roles at home and in society should be. A book called The Vices of Men was written in response to the ridiculous demands that The Education of Women called for.
Originally published in Persian, this edition is the first time the books have been translated in English. The translators, Hasan Javadi and Willem Floor, worked to preserve the informal, humorous tone of the book. Following the two books, Javadi includes a fascinating essay about the history of satire in Persian literature that gives The Education of Women and The Vices of Men more context.
You know you’re in for a real treat when an author explains that he realized the need for such a guide upon the death of his wife:
Eleven years of my dear life were wasted until she died because she did not have a good temper, which is a requirement of womanhood…I thought that I was the only man who had to cope with a shrewish wife and that no one else had suffered from the same problem. But I did not know that humankind is the same and that this affliction is common to all, except women.
The author proceeds to instruct women on proper behavior, talking about everything from how to sit at the table to how to act in the bedroom. The book is written in flowery language, and several of his examples are ridiculously over-the-top and portray women as little more than uncivilized animals. A few of my favorite gems:
She must not be without eye shadow and must use rouge, but not excessively, so that her face will look natural, not like the red bottom of monkeys.
She should take each piece daintily and avoid bad-smelling or flatulent dishes so that her belching, either from above or below, occur not together; it does not make any difference whether it is the smell of radish or cabbage or wind from the belly.
Some men are infatuated with vulgar concubines. This is why the wife should not act so haughtily. She should be ready whenever the husband wants her and in whatever manner, even if she is in the restroom or the vestibule of the house. Whenever husbands ask for such women, these women are always ready, wherever it happens to be.
When you go to the restroom, you have no choice but to put up with bad smell, and there is no escape from it. But sitting with your wife should not be life going to the restroom, and her breath should not be like its smell.
Total charmer, no?
Admittedly, I laughed a lot while reading this section; the advice given is ridiculous. At the time it was published, though, a lot of people didn’t find it so funny and were rightfully outraged over the “advice” given in the guide.
One woman, Bibi Khanom Astarabadi, took it upon herself to write a response. Astarabadi was an outspoken trailblazer of her time and an advocate of education for everyone; she started her own school for girls (though she was eventually forced to stop teaching older girls), and sent her daughters to school in America so they could learn how to teach as well. I was completely fascinated by her short biography in the book.
Mirroring the style of popular satirists and the flowery writing in The Education of Women, Astarabadi crafts a biting response. She writes:
[T]his humble author did not consider herself able to educate men; therefore, I wrote The Vices of Men in answer to The Education of Women so that men’s failings would be known. Perhaps now they will refrain from educating women and devote themselves to their own education.
Even though a lot of her writing is sarcastic, she injects a much-needed reality check into the conversation. She talks about the vulnerability of many women, especially those who are poor and uneducated, who were trapped in abusive marriages, and rips into the author of The Education of Women for writing something that would encourage this abuse to perpetuate:
You lowly wretch who have come of late to become a counselor to women, may it be that you are one of those devils, and with this device and deceit you have printed this book, making yourself their counselor so that they will end up in your trap. It is strange that this ignoramous, who considers himself one of those so-called westernized and civilized people and an imitator of European teachers, nevertheless clearly is not even half-civilized.
I read this book on a whim (sparked by my growing interest in Middle Eastern literature), but I was pleasantly surprised by the humor and sarcasm. Originally, I didn’t know about Javadi’s essay on Persian satire, but that was also a very illuminating thing to read; it added a welcome layer of context to the two books. I realize the target audience for this is pretty small, but if you’re into history, this book provides two very interesting primary sources.
The Education of Women and the Vices of Men was released on September 30, 2010.