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Poignant surprise
Re-reading Lolita in Tehran

Azadeh Azad
September 1, 2004

Reading Lolita in Tehran, A Memoir in Books (Random House, 2003) is an eloquent and enticing tale of Azar Nafisi's English literature class at her home in Tehran, where she passionately taught the forbidden Western works of fiction to a group of seven young women from different social and religious backgrounds.

Nafisi's clandestine class than ran every Thursday, from 1995 to 1997, became a "place of transgression" against the absolutism and aberration of the Islamic regime. The memoir is also a chronicle of the 1979 Revolution and the way it affected these Iranian women's lives, which are expressed in parallel with, and woven into, novels by Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Jane Austin.

Reading these works of fiction and interpreting them from the perspective of life in Iran, served several functions for the free-spirited women. It allowed them to escape from the harsh realities of life under the Islamic Republic, to invigorate their murky and monotonous lives, and to gain insight into their personal predicaments.

But most importantly, it allowed them to celebrate imagination, individuality and democracy, as literature by its very nature promotes divergent views and multiple lifestyles. Finally, it allowed them to accurately define dictators as those who are interested only in their own vision of other people, those who turn other people's lives into "the figments of their own imaginations."

I felt that Nafisi's class had gradually turned into something that resembled the 1960's and 1970's encounter groups or consciousness-raising groups in the West. Yet, the peculiar thing about this class is that the coming together of the women in an all-woman group was not so much a conscious choice made by Nafisi or her students as it was an accidental configuration, a result of the mandatory segregation of the sexes under the Islamic Republic.

At some point, the constant depiction by the author of what each of the female students was wearing becomes annoying to the reader as it begins to evoke the trivial content of gossip magazines. But the uneasiness is outweighed by the realization that Nafisi's obsession with her students' attire is probably an attempt to portray the individuality of each of them in the face of a totalitarian regime that denies it to its subjects.

But as soon as this uneasiness fades, another one emerges: the author's unrelenting resolve to call her students "my girls." My very uncomfortable feeling about this expression came from the fact that while Nafisi was trying to give her students an individuality of their own by giving each one of them a separate nick-name such as "our comedian" or "the wild one," she was also putting them back into a new category: "my girls."

In other words, Nafisi chose these particular young women because "they were what you could call loners, who did not belong to any particular group or sect," and because she "admired their ability to survive not despite but in some ways because of their solitary lives." But simultaneously she took away from them their isolated lifestyles by putting them in a "space of [their] own," "a sort of communal version of Virginia Woolf's room of her own."

I also believe that calling any group of young women "my girls" is paternalistic and contrary to the very spirit of Nafisi's thinking that wishes that each of her students remain her own person at all times.

Although her students break the middle-class taboo of discussing their private lives "in public," Nafisi overlooks the domestic tyranny in Iran and focuses exclusively on the State tyranny. She does not pay much attention to the thousands year-old domestic tyranny practiced by many Iranian men under the Islamic regime, the Shah's regime and all Iranian regimes before that.

Three of Nafisi's students are oppressed by their male relatives in a flagrant way. Sanaz is being harassed by her brother before everyone's eyes, Azin is being regularly beaten by her husband, and Nassrin has been sexually molested as a child by her "pious" uncle. These men who oppress their sister, wife or niece, are not the agents of the Islamic Republic, but ordinary Iranian men, probably as much opposed to the regime as Nafisi and her class are. The despotism of these men is certainly as confining as that of the regime.

Women's lives in Iran have always been confiscated not only by the brutal kings, sultans and khalifs (mullahs) who ruled the country but also by the no-less brutal men who ruled their homes. And the "perverse intimacy of victim and jailer," as Nafisi describes the relationship between Lolita and Humbert, seems to apply more to the male-female relationship in Iran than to the citizens-Islamic Republic relationship. In the same vein, Nafisi alludes to the tyranny of some Iranian traditions without elaborating on them.

Not only Nafisi does not elaborate on the devastating impact of many Iranian misogynistic traditions (as distinct from religion) on women's lives, but also she fails to see that so many of the Islamic Republic's fascistic practices have their roots in these traditions.

When the author describes Sanaz and her friends' experience of being arrested by the morality squad and submitted to the virginity tests by a woman gynecologist, she writes as if the IRI has invented this practice.

In reality, this degrading custom has existed in Iran for many centuries. The majority of Iranian women would have to go either through the "virginity test" done by a midwife or a doctor on the eve of their nuptials or exhibit a bloody sheet as a sign of their virginity on their wedding night. It is important for an Iranian man to make sure that his wife-to-be has her hymen intact.

This manifestation of the "right" of an Iranian man to the ownership of his wife's body even before having known her, has been appropriated by the Islamic State as a self-appointed representative of the Iranian male and his "natural" rights vis-à-vis his female counterpart. The connivance between the Islamic Republic and the Iranian male regarding the latter's female relatives is evident in admonitions that Sanaz's younger brother displays. "How could they let six unruly girls go on a trip without male supervision?"

Nafisi relates Sanaz's disappointment in her brother but leaves it at that. Instead, in the next paragraph, she goes back to "they," the agents of the Islamic Republic. Nafisi forgets that to preserve one's individuality as the only way not to be complicit in the crimes of the totalitarian mind-set applies as much to a woman's male relatives as it does to any totalitarian State.

There is a certain disdain and contempt towards ordinary people that one notices in Nafisi's book. Nafisi feels as much separated from these ordinary people who live in the city "below" her upper-class house as from the Islamic Republic. The reader wonders what happened to the "empathy" whose absence Nafisi so rightfully identifies with evil and despotism. Didn't Nafisi defend Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" by announcing that "Empathy lies at the heart of Gatsby, like so many great novels - the biggest sin is to be blind to others' problems and pains?"

Furthermore, for someone who genuinely believes in democracy and personal freedoms, it is quite strange not to have evoked the 1953 CIA coup against the democratic government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh; a coup that brought the despotic and misogynistic Mohammad Reza Pahlavi back to power. Is this calculated censorship? A lapse of judgement? Or an unconscious self-delusion?

The irony is that whichever way, by precluding it, Nafisi only makes us see, on every page of Reading Lolita in Tehran, this dark side of American foreign policy as one of the historical reasons behind what is happening to Iranian women today. By its absence from Nafisi's otherwise delightful book -- that was published on the 50th anniversary of the coup -- the shadow of this anti-democratic American intervention into Iran's domestic affairs jumps into the reader's mind.

It is also disturbing that Nafisi does not mention the repressive atmosphere of the Pahlavi era and the reality of life experienced by Iranian women under the Shah during the 1960's and 1970's. The author's silence on the tyranny of the Shah's regime is even more puzzling in light of her father's 4-year incarceration as mayor of Tehran.

Nafisi speaks of her students as having had "both a real history and a fabricated one." I have a problem with Nafisi's contention. Young women of my generation under the Shah's dictatorial regime, too, had both a real history and a fabricated one. We were defined by the Shah's regime as Aryan women and our personal histories were irrelevant.

We were defined also, like Nafisi and her students, by Iranian men. Nafisi's argument is truthful only when it is applied to all dictatorial regimes of Iran and to most Iranian men for the last three thousand years. Why is it that Nafisi gives us the impression that women's lives in Iran have been confiscated for the first time and exclusively by the Islamic regime? I truly wonder.

All I can say is that Reading Lolita in Tehran is a witty source of intellectual stimulation and insightful learning about life under the Islamic Republic of Iran -- not only for what it portrays poignantly but also for what it leaves out so surprisingly.

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