Being A Woman In Iran

An interview with Azar Nafisi, professor of English literature at Tehran University, by Jacki Lyden, a reporter for the U.S. National Public Radio (NPR) during Nafisi’s visit to Washington , D.C., to attend a women’s conference. The interview aired on May 19, 1996, on NPR’s All Things Considered.

JACKI LYDEN: Azar NafiSi is a Ph.D. of English literature who teaches in Iran. She is not a political person. But a woman’s position in Iran is very much determined by the politics of the Islamic Republic, which demands that women cloak themselves on the street. Indeed, it’s expected that voluntary paramilitary troops will be checking women’s dress this week because it is an especially religious month in Iran.

In a society that demands such rigorous public conduct, Nafisi finds that literature and the imagination are one of the inalienable human freedoms, and her students seem to agree. On a trip to Washington, she brought with her the writings of her female students who come from all walks of life, and she shared their essays and thoughts about being female in Iran with us.

Dr. AZAR NAFISI: In order to be able to express yourself publicly, you have to be able to create for yourself private spaces and to be able to look at yourself creatively, you know, recreate yourself through knowledge of yourself. That is what literature partly does to us. So I asked them to keep a diary, and in that diary they could say anything they wanted to and not to me. At first it was very difficult to get them not to talk to me but to talk to themselves and to talk to themselves as themselves. And this led to a lot of great discoveries.

LYDEN: Let’s start with this lovely poem written by one of your students. We’ll call her Maryam, not her real name. This is a young woman who is talking about herself as an individual, as a woman. I’d like to read it.

NAFISI: Great.

LYDEN: “To breathe my own air out of the darkness of the shell. To see with my own eyes and talk with my own voice. Not to be overshadowed by larger wings. And not to be unheard in the chaos of strange songs. To carry my nest on my own wing. To have my own window to break and to hear the sound of it. To lose my wing and to regain it. To open my wing in the clouds whose scent I cherish. And to float and to float and to float until the last song. ”

That’s just a beautiful poem.

NAFISI: Yes, and, you know, this student that you are talking about, she once told me that she was really afraid. And I said, ‘Who? Of what?’ She said, ‘Well, I’m afraid of the world, but more than anything else, I’m afraid of myself. I’m scared of myself’. And once they express their ‘sacredness,’ then I think they’ll be free of it. They’ll be able to control it.

LYDEN: These are young women, who, we should remember, every time they step out of the house, and often when they’re in it have to wear head scarves and chador.

NAFISI: Yes, and they have this sort of paradoxical feeling about themselves. Another extremely talented student of mine, who wrote her thesis- dissertation on [Samuel] Beckett, she paints, and she does these paintings where everything is really beautiful – beautiful flowers or drawings. And then these drawings are either torn or the beautiful vases are broken. So it expresses both her feelings of herself as a beautiful, unique entity and an entity which is so fragile and vulnerable to the world.

LYDEN: And to the state.

There’s another (writing) here that I really liked about the realization of oneself as a woman, the first thoughts that she has as a woman, again, in a very patriarchal society:

“Days and days I thought about it, but I didn’t remember any single day as the beginning. As far as I could go backward in my memories, I remember that I always knew I was a woman, not as a man. I knew that my name was – we’ll say Geeti. Besides, I have always loved my being a woman, and as a long as I can remember never, ever have I wished to be a man. I suppose the point is that I have never felt that my being a woman could make a difference in my being what I want or how I will do what I want to do. And my husband believes that this is my real problem in life since I have never accepted that because of my being a woman I should do or should not do certain things.”

NAFISI: This again came up in a lot of class discussions we had, you know, that you should celebrate your difference. You should celebrate your sense of yourself. And a lot of us, especially women, we don’t have a sense of our own location, our own self. We always see ourselves as the world sees us, as the outside world sees us, and we define ourselves in relation to that. And that student whom you read she’s really quite outrageous anyway, and she has a great sense of herself.

But I found that in a very younger student, who is just in her second year, and she’s in love with literature and she already wants- knows that she wants to be a great writer, you know. And she started out as just rebelling against everything, and at the end of one of the classes she told me that she has discovered that it is not just rebellion against something that makes a difference, it is finding your own spaces and then turning those spaces into rights, that is what that matters.

LYDEN: Are these women who want to have careers or will they be housewives, or will they be both?

NAFISI: Well, all of them almost, maybe because I’m a career woman, when they talk to me they say they want to have careers. One of them was telling me about this suitor she had who came from America and he was an engineer or something and he was very Westernized.

But as soon as they started talking about marriage, he started asking her questions which were very traditional, wanting his wife to be in a certain way. And she had to think really hard which way she wanted to live – the security of that sort of a life or, you know, the insecurity of being a career woman – and she decided that she wanted to be a career woman. Some of them already do work part-time or full-time. They all claim to want to be career women.

LYDEN: You have some text here, though, another journal entry from a woman who’s a practicing Muslim who talks about wanting the veil. And I think we should realize that you have those voices in Iran as well.

NAFISI: Yes. And, you know, it is- for my students, I don’t want to impose, and I don’t think anybody should impose what they are upon others because the beauty of it is this variety. The point about is that they should be conscious of their choices and they should know why they’re doing it.

And this woman student of mine has always been a Muslim. Before the revolution she also wore the veil. And- but the thing that really struck me about her and her honesty was that she was trying to express herself and be also self-critical of herself. If you want to, you could read part of it where she’s talking about how the taste of wind is pleasant for her and she likes to feel the wind and the rain and everything on her body.

And then she says, “But, alas, I can’t. Why can’t I? What happens if I do not wear the scarf? Men will look at me? But they look anyway, no matter who they are, believer or non-believer. I can’t forget the look of a man who claimed to be a believer in Islam through the half-open door of my room while I, wearing the chador, was cutting cloth and he was sitting on the armchair in front of it.

“At first I was not aware of what he was doing. But when unconsciously I lifted my head, I saw him bending his head the right way to see inside, to see me. Would this happen if I didn’t cover myself? Yes, of course, I have no doubt. This is what men are. But are they all like that? No. Women all over the world are not safe.”

This is her feeling, and I think the most important thing is that she sort of allows herself to come out and say why she does it, and we don’t intimidate her into trying to hide that aspect of her.

LYDEN: It’s interesting – in a couple of these writings women talk about surreptitious touches on the knee when they’re riding in taxis. I mean, the chador doesn’t protect them from some of what we would call sexual harassment here.

NAFISI: Yes. That is one of the problems. And one thing which is most important is that this would happen to them in taxis, in the streets, in movie houses. But I think the most important thing, in reality as in fiction, is to try and voice your protest. And a lot of them, of course, say that when they say it other people look at them as if they’re the guilty party. And this gives them added guilt. But-

LYDEN: -I’m doing everything I should and it’s still not right.


LYDEN: But you given them a counterweight to their voices here, a new kind of assertion, I think.

NAFISI: Well, this is the poem by one of my students. They have all written about the invisible woman, and we picked up this one to read.

“I’m nothing visible. I touch the russet fall of the leaves and feel the scent of the last light upon the sky. The crushed sound of the bygone leaves I hear. The last song of the sparrows deep down the sycamores I see. The breeze taking the lifeless leaves I taste. I am nothing visible.

“The night hears me engulfing my voice. The shadow of a cypress sees through me covering my look. The gray of the clouds cloaks my skin all over. The veiled sound of a cricket bears my breath. The silence of the dark carries my cry. Stretch your hands, I am in the wind. Call me, I am in the echo of the veils. Follow me, I am in the last vanishing notes of a seagull.”

LYDEN: That’s an absolutely beautiful and powerful poem. And these young women that you are teaching in Tehran have very, very powerful voices. Thank you so much for sharing them with us.

NAFISI: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

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