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Sunday, February 20th, 2011
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The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother's Hidden Life

by Jasmin Darznik

Pre-Modern Family

A review by Persis Karim

Using her mother's recollections, culled from cassette tapes and her own childhood memories, Darznik shows how the lives of three generations of Iranian women were proscribed by politics and patriarchy. Her book distinguishes itself from the plethora of recent Iranian American memoirs, most written by women who use the 1979 Revolution as their departure point, by instead focusing on her mother, Lili, who embodies the experience of women caught between tradition and modernity in 20th century Iran.

The daughter of a loveless marriage, Lili was adored by her father, and he wanted no less than a proper Western-style education for her. But even though Reza Shah, in the 1930s, had raised girls' marriageable age from 9 to 16, the law still allowed those deemed "mature" enough to marry earlier, and the women in Lili's family believed that education couldn't guarantee security the way marriage would. So in 1949, at age 11, she was promised to 26-year-old Kazem. They married the day before she turned 13. Despite her father having negotiated for continued studies as part of the marriage bargain, the birth of her daughter Sara ended any hope for Lili's education. But Kazem was a sadist, and when Lili's father saw that her life was threatened, he petitioned for divorce on Lili's behalf. Under Iranian family law, men were favored in divorce and children belonged to their father's family. Lili, scarcely 14, had to trade her weeks-old infant for freedom.

As she struggled to remake herself as a modern woman, Lili needed to conceal her past. Being divorced was tantamount to being a prostitute; having a child jeopardized her chances for remarriage. Ultimately, she managed to study midwifery in Germany, where she met and married Johann. They returned to Iran in the 1960s, only to flee with 5-yearold Jasmin in the aftermath of the revolution. But it was in northern California, where she and Johann ran a motel, that Lili's travails cast their longest shadow. She was haunted by her forced abandonment of Sara, whose existence Darznik discovered many years later from a photograph she found in her mother's house after Johann's death.

The "Good Daughter" -- the one left behind -- had dictated Lili's obsessive protectiveness toward Jasmin. "My mother conjured her often," Darznik writes, "the daughter who stayed by her mother's side, the daughter who knew not to wander off by herself. I still believed in her back then. I believed she could steal my mother away from me. The Good Daughter terrified me, and my mother counted on that terror to keep me safe."

Women's attempts to reform marriage and family laws have been the backbone of Iran's pro-democracy movement for the past decade, and Darznik's memoir vividly elucidates why: Living in a history largely written by men, in a culture of male privilege and dominance, Iranian women have faced a continual struggle to adjust. The Good Daughter, which tells how some of them had to contort themselves and their families to simply survive, is a testament to their resilience.

Persis Karim is a professor of literature and creative writing at San Jose State University and editor of Let Me Tell You Where I've Been: New Writing by Women of the Iranian Diaspora.

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