Azar Nafisi’s ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’, the story of an University Professor who resigned her post and began secretly to teach her seven students about Western Literature in her own home in post-revolution Iran, was New York Times Bestseller for one hundred and seventeen weeks. Critics argue that its depiction of everyday life in Iran is obsolete, but the message about both the power of literature and of the individual can never truly be ‘dated’.
As I write this, I am wearing a tomato-red cardigan, a striped blue shirt, the colour of the sky on a bright summer’s day, lime-green socks. My hair is loose around my shoulders and mascara paints my eyelashes, earrings the size of pebbles hanging either side of my face. The women in Azar Nafisi’s ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ – a book which is both a testament to the power of literature and the imagination as much as it is a testament to her seven students, her fellow readers – wear similarly colourful clothing. The book opens describing a photograph of her students gathered together: “Each has become distinct through the colour and style of her clothes, the colour and length of her hair; not even the two who are still wearing their headscarves look the same”. Yet it is only within the confines of Nafisi’s home in Iran in a “room of transgression”, a “wonderland” – the space in which she and seven of her female students gather to discuss predominantly Western literature – that these women can remove their scarves and veils to reveal such colourful clothing as they discuss works by writers from Austen to Hemingway. Nafisi, who now lives in Washington D.C. and teaches at John Hopkins University, herself resigned from her university post to teach these students because of the restrictions placed not only her teaching and her actions but even her body, because of her sex. Colours cannot peep from beneath these women’s scarves or robes, as their hair cannot show and colour cannot flash on their nails, glinting in the sun, for anyone else to see; colour cannot even flush their cheeks, or illuminate their eyes, or grace their lips. Even the length of their eyelashes are regulated. Manna, one of Nafisi’s students, a poet herself, becomes greedy for colour, desperate for “shocking pink” or even the “tomato red” of my cardigan.
Because Nafisi and her students live in the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1995. That they are prohibited from wearing such colours as “shocking pink” is not the fault of their faith (Nafisi in a recent article for the Guardian writes of the “tenderness of my grandmother’s Islam”, a tenderness we need in today’s world) or their choice to wear a hijab or chador but instead the fault of a regime which allows women no freedom of choice – in a week in which a woman was forced to remove her burkini on a beach, it is all the more important to note this. One of Nafisi’s students, Mahshid, wore her scarf before it became a compulsory piece of clothing as a statement of her faith, a mark of her conviction and belief. The decree that all women had to wear a scarf does not strengthen her faith; instead it weakens it. The students read Lolita together, having removed their scarves, and Nafisi writes her own critical analysis of the novel, an illuminating study in itself – yet Lolita also serves as a metaphor for life in the Islamic Republic for women. Just as Humbert steals away Lolita’s identity, so does the Islamic Republic leech both the colour and with it, the identity of the women living in Iran. In ‘The Veiled Threat’, an essay written in 1999, a mere two years after I was born, Nafisi wrote about the presence of women in Iranian society. Women, she said, had become ‘tremendously visible and powerful’, every gesture a political statement, because of the efforts to render them invisible. Prints of Degas’ paintings were censored when Nafisi lived in Iran so that they showed only the rooms in which ballerinas danced; the peony pink of the ballerinas has been erased. By 1979 women had become active in all spheres of life in Iran; ‘women were scholars, police officers, judges, pilots, engineers’, but post-revolution this activity would decline. Morgan Shuster says ‘The Persian women since 1907 had become almost at a bound the most progressive, not to say radical in the world’. They – and their radicalism – did not merely disappear in 1979 but answered, and continues to answer in this book itself, the radical Islam of the theocracy that persecutes women.
Nafisi herself knew the Iran of the 1960s, with its pro-Western, secular stance. But the Islamic Revolution in Tehran in 1979 changed Iran, with the ascension of Ayatollah Khoemini and the implementation of laws she, and her female students, would have to abide by – or not abide by. Her students Nassrin and Mahshid have both spent in jail when they first arrive at Nafisi’s door for their literature classes, whilst in her new work ‘The Republic of Imagination’ Nafisi writes about her friend Farah who fled Iran after participating in demonstrations). After 1979 the legal marriage age for women was lowered from eighteen to nine. A man could take up to four wives but a woman could only marry once and adultery was punishable by stoning to death. Women could never forget the “subversive potential of a single strand of hair”. At one point, clerics even proclaimed a fatwa on women’s education despite the fact that before 1979 there were more girls in schools than ever before. Nafisi has been attacked for her own seemingly Western leanings, but in ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ she is always torn between Iran and America, unable to choose definitively between her two homes. Nafisi says “I thought I might tell the story of (a) young girl, a young Muslim girl in fact who had never left Iran but who wrote poetry in three languages and composed on of the best essays I have ever read by a student on Woolf and the Impressionists”.
Nafisi’s work is not a memoir, or not a memoir only. It is not a history of Iran and Iranian women, although perhaps in part. It is not fiction, yet it verges on fiction, another student Manna (a pseudonym in itself) writing an epilogue in which she proclaims “I have become fixed like a Rodin statue. And so I will remain as long as you keep me in your eyes, dear readers”. How can any reader forget Manna? Or any of the ‘characters’ on the page of Nafisi’s work? It would be impossible, like forgetting the colour of the sky, the ‘swimming pool blue’ of Manna’s paradise, of Scheherazade’s dress. These women are not black marks upon a page but coloured in our imaginations, in the “absurd fictionality” they learn to live in and in reality, Mahshid with her skin “the colour of moonlight”, her “jet black hair”. Henry James, Austen, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Nabokov – all these names can be read on the spines of the books on my bookshelf, all these names signify so much to me. I am a reader. But I am also a young woman and it is the women in ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ I cannot forget. I am also an English student, a student just like Yassi or even Razieh, one of Nafisi’s students who was executed.
Women in Iran today still face such discrimination and violence – and they are not the only group to. According to Human Rights Watch, Iran is also one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists, bloggers and social media activists. In September 2015 the story of Niloufar Ardalan, the captain of the Iranian football team, demonstrated the legal discrimination women must confront in Iran. She was unable to play in a tournament in Malaysia because her husband had forbidden her from doing so; according to the law in Iran, married women cannot leave the country without their husband’s permission. Today the age of criminal responsibility for girls remains at only eight years and nine months. A man’s testimony automatically still carries more weight than a woman’s. In a world where it appears as if Hillary Clinton will become President of the United States, women in Iran cannot run for President. Karl Vick’s article ‘Sorry, Wrong Chador: In Tehran, ‘Reading Lolita’ Translates as Ancient History’, published in the Washington Post in 2003 argues that in Tehran Nafisi’s book appears “dated”, as he interviews students wearing eyeshadow and carrying lime-green handbags. Nafisi herself, years before Karl Vick’s article, in her epilogue to ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ writes that already “much has changed in appearance since … I left. There is more defiance in Manna’s gait and those of other women; their scarves are more colourful and their robes much shorter; they wear makeup now”. But she also reminds readers that “parallel to this the raids and arrests and public executions also persist”, raids like those her students had to endure. Nafisi was a critic of the next President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Khatami, even though in Vick’s articles the interviewees see his election as a point of change in Iranian society, writing that his rule was characterised by periods of peace and then of ‘crackdown’. Earlier this year I read an article on Masih Alinejad, a womens rights activist in Iran whose movement My Stealthy Freedom began when she posted a picture of herself on Facebook; in the photo, she wasn’t wearing a hijab, which is still enforced in Iran.
Nafisi grew up reading French, in the time of Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir, Duras and she also read Bergson, Inesco, Barthes. Her father was the Mayor of Tehran and her uncle, Saeed Nafisi, wrote the first French-Persian dictionary and also translated both The Illiad and The Odyssey into Persian. Yet Azar herself does not see literature as merely accessible to some, to the privileged. Instead she sees – she writes in ‘The Republic of Imagination’ – a “nation of readers”. For her, we experience the colours of literature and in turn, literature colours us. This process continues exponentially; Nafisi says “stories are similar to hothouse flowers” in all their beauty “they need the alternative and curious eyes of others, of readers from all backgrounds, ages and places to reinterpret and in doing so give them a new name and a new life, otherwise they will be forgotten and simply wither and die”. Her view of literature reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s, who writes “once you’ve visited other worlds” in fiction “like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. And discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different, if they’re discontented”. Her work creates a world we can visit and return from, in order to better our own world, one that persecutes women such as Nafisi, one in which literature is not accessible to all. Gaiman writes that individuals “change their world, over and over”. Nafisi changes her world not only through her teaching, but also through her writing.
A reader of Nafisi’s ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ is left with an huge sense of sorrow at the loss of glittering, bright, colourful women like Razieh, at the idea that many of Nafisi’s students felt forced to move to America or abroad to escape the repression they endured in Iran, that Nafisi’s yearning for her homeland will never again be fulfilled. But it is impossible not to gain from Nafisi’s work as her students have gained from Fitzgerald, from Nabokov.
Azar Nafisi’s ‘The Republic of Imagination’
The Hijab in Iran here: https://www.theguardian.com/world/iran-blog/2013/dec/19/iran-hijab-islamic-veil
Neil Gaiman on the power of literature here: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/08/03/neil-gaiman-view-from-the-cheap-seats-reading/
On the attempt to ban the Burkini: http://www.vox.com/2016/8/25/12644846/burkini-ban-sexism-women-clothing-illustration-muslim-france