Azar Nafisi is visiting professor of literature at Johns Hopkins University, specializing in the study of Iran, Middle East culture, and human rights. She was formerly a professor at Tehran and Allemeh Tabataba'i Universities in Iran. Ms. Nafisi received her Ph.D. in English and American literature from Oklahoma University. Her latest book is Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, Random House, 2003. (Excerpts from the book were recently published in the Middle East Quarterly.) She spoke to the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia on June 6, 2003.
Iran has received considerable attention in the news lately, so I hope my book can provide answers to the pressing questions concerning developments within Iranian society and politics. Indeed, Reading Lolita seeks to clarify the larger challenges of human rights, Islamic fundamentalism, and especially the status of women in a theocracy by connecting these critical issues to important literary themes.
The Crisis of Islam and the Iranian Revolution
At the core of Islamic fundamentalism is a repressive totalitarian ideology. This ideology is the manifestation of a great faith in crisis, where fanatics have perverted religion into vicious doctrines of intolerance, control, and hatred. Examining the ideological nature of the Iranian revolution is, therefore, vital to understanding Iran, for it was the first state captured by the forces of militant Islam in the twentieth century. In 1979, an astonished world watched as the ayatollahs merged the machinery of a state with a fundamentalist ideology. Radical clergymen turned their cruel fantasies into the law of the land. Their fundamentalist vision transformed the country of my childhood, known simply as Iran, into the brutal Islamic Republic of Iran.
In one respect, the struggle against the Iranian regime goes far beyond the narrow realm of politics. Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers targeted basic human rights including cultural rights, women's rights, and the rights of minorities. Under the guise of instituting cultural purity Iranian women were made to suffer indignities – the age of marriage for women was reduced from 18 to 9, adultery was made a crime (punishable by stoning), and the veil became mandatory in every sphere of public life. Anyone who stood against the one-sided beliefs of the new regime was labeled an agent of imperialism or someone seduced by "westernization" or "decadence." Modern clothing even became synonymous with heresy, and many more previously acceptable activities became harshly punishable offenses. Writers, authors, poets, artists, women and anyone else unwilling to accept the regime's black and white views of right and wrong fought and still fight to maintain intellectual relevance in the face of murderous repression.
Failure and Change
Today, Iran is still held under the strict control of the Islamic fundamentalist regime, but in the war of ideas their bankrupt vision has failed. Contrary to the views advanced by so many Middle East studies specialists at American universities, the rhetoric of the Iranian government is hollow, as the revolution has not achieved a single objective. Aside from occasional calls for reform, many Iranians, for almost twenty-five years, have only known individual and collective misery and unrest.
Across the republic, regular people, not the elites or the so-called "reformers," are restive in their demand for change. The same students who took hostages during the 1970's and 1980's are now thoroughly disillusioned and find what modernity has to offer appealing. As was the case in the past, young Iranians are spearheading an ideological transformation as they are increasingly drawn to the language of secular liberalism and its architects; Alexis de Tocqueville, Hannah Arendt, et al. … Once strictly forbidden authors and literary masterpieces are beginning to see the light of day and are consequently growing in popularity. Activists, questioning the very pillars of the revolution, are also pressuring the regime to hold a referendum on the constitution.
Why Lolita? Why Literary Characters?
Nabokov once said, "Readers are born free and they ought to remain free." Grasping this simple yet profound statement is essential to understanding why I chose Lolita and why my book is both a celebration of reading, as well as a window into a stark world offering few choices. Contrasting sharply with daily Iranian life, Lolita stands tall as a literary figure symbolizing personal choice and the freedom of thought – precisely what Iranians are denied. The revolution didn't just seize their political rights and the right to own private property, it stole from millions of readers a fundamental freedom to imagine and think for oneself. The Iranian readers' plight is akin to those who have suffered under communism and fascism, where the regimes' conception of the world, imposed on an entire nation, eradicates any contradictory voices. The morality police still raid homes, and national censors strive to maintain the most stringent conformity through every facet of an individual's public and private life. Iran's totalitarian regime not only deserves condemnation for establishing torture chambers and using police state tactics, but we must also hold them in contempt for suppressing the Iranians' sense of self-worth and individual aspirations.
The other chapters in my book, Reading Lolita, contain similar connections to the realities of the struggle, taking place within Iran. The chapter titled "Gatsby" is an account of my personal experiences while teaching at the University of Tehran shortly after the revolution. Many of my more radical students, at that point in time, became increasingly intolerant of some of the finest 20th century novels. For example, many of my students denounced Gatsby as "decadent" and all that was wrong with the West. They, like many adherents of militant Islam, seemed unable to differentiate between the fictitious world of the novel and real life. I even suggested and participated in a class exercise where my pupils put Gatsby on trial. In the pages of "Austin," I draw upon the strong experiences of a brave woman who said no to her family, society, and all who stood against her choices. Such boldness does exist among Iranian women where they have refused to accept forced marriages, or rebuffed wearing the veil, or rejected the Iranian regime's self-appointed right to dictate the shape of their future lives. These women are true heroines, risking expulsion, isolation, and persecution to preserve their sense of identity.
Reading Lolita may be read a number of ways. Some consider the book an expression of dissent against a repressive regime, whereas others simply gain pleasure from reading a poignant, albeit painful memoir. Whatever one takes from it, my sincere wish is that readers understand that what is happening in Iran isn't a cultural phenomenon but a grotesque distortion of culture and history implemented to suit the political ambitions of powerful religious fanatics. This is a battle against militant Islam's ideology; the Iranian people are courageously fighting it and will continue until they regain greater freedom for themselves and their country.
This summary account was written by Gil Marder & Zachary Constantino, research assistants at the Middle East Forum.