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Beyond the bluster

As her home and homeland square off, Iranian-born author Azar Nafisi urges Americans to think


  • Photo by Getty Images

Before Azar Nafisi left Iran for the United States, she created a kind of cocoon existence in the living room of her apartment in Tehran.

There, despite or, rather, because of the stifling day-to-day restrictions in post-revolutionary Iran, she fashioned a haven for herself and a select group of female students. Long exiled from her professorship at the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the veil, Nafisi opened her home to seven Western literature devotees. During weekly sessions, they shed their state-mandated robes, revealing long hair and hoop earrings, as well as ideas about sex, love and the notion that Muslim women should hide themselves so as not to arouse men.

"What I realized is that, ironically, the more attached I became to my class and my students, the more detached I became from Iran," Nafisi wrote of those private classes in her best-selling 2003 memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran. "The more I discovered the lyrical quality of our lives, the more my own life became a web of fiction." Ultimately, it was this duality the tenuous living-room freedom within a society that sought to eclipse her that led her to the United States in 1997.

Today, as a traveling lecturer and visiting professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C., Nafisi has undertaken the delicate work of unfolding Iran in the presence of outsiders.

Through Reading Lolita and a series of published articles, Nafisi has posited Iran as a nation itself under a veil, where writers, painters, feminists and academics soldier on beneath the ruling elite's coverlet of suspicion.

In her writing, she recounts her days as a young girl in pre-revolutionary Iran, when women worked alongside men. Her own family exemplified that parity; her mother was one of the first six women elected to Iran's Parliament, and her father was the mayor of Tehran. At the age of 13, her parents sent her to England to complete her studies. She returned to Iran as an adult on the eve of the 1979 religious revolution that stripped rights away from her and so many others.

Now Nafisi seeks to demythologize both East and West through her Dialogue Project at John Hopkins, a series of lectures and workshops with American students and Iranian booksellers, musicians and intellectuals.

The Independent spoke with Nafisi earlier this month in anticipation of her March 30 speaking event at Colorado College. With the United States possibly edging toward a military campaign against Iran, Nafisi expounded on the need for conversation and debate.

Only creativity and self-critique can prevent violence and preserve freedom at home and abroad, she said. Subversive book groups help, too.

Indy: You returned to the United States shortly before Sept. 11, when Islam was thrust to the forefront of the national consciousness. Talk about the need for dialogue between our cultures.

Nafisi: It is crucial that people learn, because what would surprise them is not how different we are, but how much we have in common.

First of all, Islam has so much in common with Judaism and Christianity. Their roots go back to the same place. Second of all, these countries that we call "Muslim" are so different culturally and traditionally and historically. They have far less in common than the U.S. and England, or England and France have. Yet we don't call them "Christian countries." ...

People who call themselves Muslim are as various as those who call themselves Christian. Who is a Christian? Jerry Falwell? George Bush? William Jefferson Clinton? Who is a Christian? Or that Mormon guy they just arrested who believes in polygamy? ...

What I had hoped 9/11 would teach us is that we need to connect in order to destroy terror. And I think the U.S.'s weapon in this war is not military. It is cultural. It is ideological.

Bin Laden keeps telling us that what he hates about this culture is its freedom. He hates the women here, the way they are. He hates the fact that some can drink alcohol and some can't. He hates that this is a Christian majority country but you can make fun of Jesus. And nobody can do anything to you.

The specter of Ayatollah Khomeini still lingers over Iran - and its women, who deal with considerable oppression. - PHOTO BY GETTY IMAGES
  • Photo by Getty Images
  • The specter of Ayatollah Khomeini still lingers over Iran and its women, who deal with considerable oppression.

Those people kill if you insult them. These are the things that he hates.

And this is what makes the U.S. dangerous. If we lose that and we become like bin Laden, we lose our power.

Indy: Some say that the United States has become like a police state since George W. Bush was elected. Does this country compare to Iran in that sense?

Nafisi: Neither fundamentalism and terror, nor democracy and human rights, are geographically oriented. You have these tendencies everywhere. In democracies, if you allow them to grow, they grow. After all, fascism and Stalinism were at the heart of Europe; they didn't come out of the East, they came out of the West. What people forget is the context.

The United States is not Mr. Bush. Bush is one aspect. The United States is based upon certain principles. The system itself is a system of checks and balances. Despite his force, I can come out and disagree with Bush go and protest in front of the White House, write nasty articles, call him all sorts of names and I am still having a good time. ...

Americans should not reduce a system to a person or a group. It is very dangerous. Then on the other hand, they should all be vigilant. If they feel there is a group that is trying to take away their rights, then they should try to create spaces to ensure that their rights will not be taken.

I don't like the panic aspect of it. This is what makes this time so dangerous, where everyone is polarized. If you are against the war, you are not a patriot. If you are for the war, you are not a patriot. Let's have debate. In a democracy, you need debate, rather than these polarizations.

I tell you, I have a lot of criticism about this country and the system and the administration. But Iran is not the U.S. All you have to do is go to the laws ... In Iran, a man can marry four wives. Most of our active dynamic dissidents are in jail.

Indy: Women in Iran are arguably more persecuted than women in this country. But here, women fight battles of their own. What are the similarities and differences?

Nafisi: Sometimes American women forget that in 1920, they gained the right to vote for the first time. It is not even 100 years since women gained that right, which now we don't even think about. At the time when they got the vote, women in Iran and Lebanon and Turkey were fighting the same battles. ...

American women need to understand that freedom is not something you gain and go home. Second, they should understand that their freedom is dependent on the freedom of women in Afghanistan or Iran or Iraq.

... An Iranian woman might be Muslim or not. But she doesn't like to be flogged. That is not her culture. No woman likes her husband to have the right to marry four wives. It is like saying burning witches in Salem is the culture of this country.

And if we understand that, then we support the women in other countries who are fighting...

Right now, Iranian women have started a big campaign where they are trying to get 1 million signatures to protest the laws against women in Iran. How many women in this country know about it? How many women's organizations are saying, "Let's go behind that 1 million. Let us add our voices to the Iranian women"?

You see [ABC-TV's] Diane Sawyer going to Iran and coming back and saying, "Oh, it is their culture." Obviously, you go to Iran how many women would risk coming on television and saying, "We are oppressed"? All you get on television is those people who are not going to be telling the truth. And that is what we get through the media. And people don't care until it is too late.

Indy: Have things changed for women in Iran since you left?

Azar Nafisi says it is a very sexist argument that a - woman should hide herself in order to confront a man. - Yet the author respects Iranian women who choose to - cover themselves and not wear makeup. - PHOTO BY GETTY IMAGES
  • Photo by Getty Images
  • Azar Nafisi says it is a very sexist argument that a woman should hide herself in order to confront a man. Yet the author respects Iranian women who choose to cover themselves and not wear makeup.

Nafisi: As I wrote in my book, living in present-day Iran is like the month of April. You keep having sunshine and then rain.

The society as a whole is dissatisfied with the way things are. People are constantly pushing the envelope. There are constant divisions within the ruling elite. They become liberal and then they close down. When they become liberal, like during the [Mohammad] Khatemi period, the former president there, they became more open about appearances. All of a sudden in the streets, you see these young girls with makeup and their hair showing, holding hands and there is music. The question for the regime is, "How far can we allow this?" They try to clamp down.

Indy: Your female students in Iran seemed to cherish seemingly superficial or mainstream freedoms, like wearing makeup, showing a bit of hair and reading Western literature. What did you make of that?

Nafisi: The issue is not whether makeup is good or bad, or whether the veil is good or bad. The main issue is that people should have a right to express themselves the way they want.

For the state to tell me that because I live here or I was born here, I should look a certain way is very demeaning. Of course, when you live under such a system, you do become reactionary. I never wore lipstick until I went to Iran. I would wear a very, very light shade of pink. It is a reaction to them, a way of telling them, "You are not the boss of me." And so for people over here, there is more freedom; nobody forces you to wear or not to wear lipstick.

Sometimes some of the women who call themselves traditionalists argue that the veil gives them more protection. I think it is a very sexist argument that a woman should hide herself in order to confront a man. And still, I respect women who say we shouldn't wear makeup, we should cover ourselves. But I also reserve the right for each side to be able to debate. ...

We can debate how much of a sex object we become. The worst kind of a sex object is a woman who cannot show herself. To say that your body is a source of temptation is turning you into a nonhuman.

Indy: The women you taught in Iran asked more important questions than the men, who saw the world through a black-and-white, moralistic lens. What did the Iranian Revolution do to relationships between men and women?

Nafisi: It inadvertently brought women to the foreground. It started depriving them of certain rights. They became the object of discussions. If we say that the way I look is so dangerous to the well-being of society, that my look should be eliminated, it means that as a woman, just being the way I am is dangerous. That paradoxically gave Iranian women a lot of power.

On the one hand, they were progressive. If you read the history of the Iranian women's movements, you go back to the 19th and the early 20th century, women were asking the questions that today we are asking. We had active women. They fought for their rights. The society had reached a stage where you couldn't tell women, "Go home."

You had women judges like Shirin Ebadi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize, one of the first women circuit judges in Tehran. The revolution came and told Shirin, "You can't be a judge. You are weak-minded, you should stay home." We had women ministers, we had one minister for women's affairs, something this country still doesn't have.

These women, who now were told to go home, had a consciousness that was far in advance of the system. They started resisting through different ways. Shirin and women like her became lawyers for women's rights...

A lot of very sophisticated Western men would tell me things like, "Oh, this [veil] is just a piece of cloth." Which really would drive me nuts. I would tell them, "This is an insult to a traditional woman. For my grandmother, the veil was not just a piece of cloth. It was a sign of her belief and faith, and if you reduce the veil to a piece of cloth, you are not insulting me, you are insulting those women who choose to wear the veil."

For us as women, all of these questions came to the fore. Even traditional women now had to question. A lot of them changed. A lot of them became very ardent feminists. So women became more interesting. For them there was much more at stake. I think that some men realized that their health and well-being would depend on the health and well-being of the women.

Indy: What was it like to return to the United States to teach Western literature, a subversive act in Iran, but something rather mainstream in this country?

Nafisi: Literature is always subversive, no matter where you teach it. That is one of the main problems in the U.S. or in the West, this lack of imaginative thinking, which can be very dangerous. That sort of thinking comes with curiosity about ourselves, taking the risk of being questioned rather than questioning others, which is more difficult.

Azar Nafisi, whose father once was mayor of Tehran and - mother was one of the first women elected to Irans - Parliament, now lives in the United States and travels - extensively lecturing about her native countrys life, - culture and issues. - PHOTO BY TOM SLOCUM
  • Photo by Tom Slocum
  • Azar Nafisi, whose father once was mayor of Tehran and mother was one of the first women elected to Irans Parliament, now lives in the United States and travels extensively lecturing about her native countrys life, culture and issues.

Gaining knowledge makes you restless. It makes you take responsibility. If people in this country, for example, had the knowledge of culture and literature in my country, they would have not allowed their politicians to do certain things in relation to Iraq.

... The Great Gatsby is not fresh for me because I was born in Iran. But it should be fresh for an American to look at himself in that context. Or Jane Austen, she seems very prim and proper, yet the whole idea behind each novel by Austen is the issue of choice. There is always a woman at the center saying, "No, I am not going to act according to the conventions or what my parents want," or "I am ready to risk my future, but I will marry the man I want." Choice is at the center of life in this country as we speak.

Indy: Have you gone back to Iran?

Nafisi: No. I can't go back. As friends say, you can always go back. It is leaving again that becomes problematic.

Indy: Is your book allowed in Iran?

Nafisi: No. One of the things about a country like Iran is that as soon as something is forbidden, everyone goes after it. I think that Persian is the fourth language on the Internet... So people download it, and then there are travelers who go to Iran or journalists who go and through them the book gets sent. They do with it what they do with many other books. They Xerox it.

Indy: In Iran, your greatest teaching challenge was to overcome the moralistic duality with which your students approached the novels. What is the biggest mind block that your students here face?

Nafisi: In Iran, you could talk on Madame Bovary and hundreds would come. Over here, the first thing you notice is the blas attitude.

You assign The Great Gatsby and people say things like, "I read this in high school. Why should I be reading this again?" The first challenge here has always been to go through that facade, to challenge that almost indifferent attitude. Or the attitude that is very opportunistically pragmatic: If it doesn't relate to you personally, then it shouldn't matter. But literature and knowledge never relate to just you. It always relates to something else....

On the other hand, one thing that I love about teaching here is that no one is afraid of authority. Everybody becomes open about who they are and where they are at. They are not afraid of pressuring you as a figure of authority. It keeps you alert and on your feet. Because you cannot take it for granted, and you know most of the students sitting there are not going to just accept you because you are their teacher. Some do. But a lot don't. And even those who are indifferent are challenging. You have to find out what makes them tick. And that is what I love about teaching here. I enjoy that freedom.

Indy: You have been criticized for your defense of Western freedoms. Most recently, a Columbia professor insinuated that your book helped to soften the American public to a bombing campaign in Iran.

Nafisi: What he said would be like saying [Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Harvard professor] Samantha Power should not talk about Saddam because Bush might have used it to attack Iraq. Amnesty International is the organization that has consistently brought up the crimes of Saddam's regime. When the U.S. and the U.K. went into war against Iraq, Amnesty was against the war. The fact that you say there is a violation of rights does not mean that you are supporting attacks. And it is a very dangerous argument and a very intimidating argument. I am not going to be shut up by someone like him. If the Islamic Republic wouldn't shut me up, definitely this guy isn't going to.

Indy: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Nafisi: I always say at the end of my talks that we should all create our own subversive book groups. Reading should be a joy. It should not be a duty. In colleges and universities and schools, we should be having our subversive book groups. I have a slogan, which is, "Readers of the world unite." In this country we should pay attention to our libraries and the state of our libraries, the state of our education, the fact that humanities is not getting funding. We think that we don't need history and philosophy and literature.

This country was built on imagination. Look at Benjamin Franklin. How are we going to fight for our survival if we don't have imagination and the power of thought? These are the things I keep thinking about now that I live in this country, which I love so much. If there is any message, this is my obsession right now.

Azar Nafisi lecture

CC's Gates Common Room, Palmer Hall, 1025 N. Cascade Ave.

Friday, March 30, 7:30 p.m.

Free; for more, call 389-6607 or visit

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