Author fights for women's rights in her native Iran
Arizona Republic - By Janie Magruder
Feb 4, 2004

Azar Nafisi is uncomfortable with conformity.

She was expelled from her teaching job at the University of Tehran in 1981 for refusing to wear the mandatory Islamic veil. In 1995, she resigned from a teaching job at Allameh Tabatabaii in Tehran, where she had been wearing the veil incorrectly, rather than bow to pressure to change.

But what Nafisi did the next two years most reveals her courage, unwavering dedication to women's rights and unquenchable thirst for literature. She formed a book group in her Tehran home with other Iranian women, all former students who had few, if any, outlets for discussing their lives and their government's oppressive treatment.

Those conversations, and Nafisi's past, are the basis for her book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, (Random House, $23.95) which is No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for paperback non-fiction. She'll be in Tempe on Thursday and Friday to discuss the book, which provides a rare glimpse of women's lives in revolutionary Iran.

Nafisi, 55, who immigrated to the United States in 1997 with her husband and two children, teaches at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

QUESTION: Your book is said to defy categorization as memoir, literary criticism or social history, yet it succeeds as all three. How do you define it?

ANSWER: It is difficult. The idea came out of an urge when I was writing my first book on Vladimir Nabokov (author of Lolita). I had this obsession - can I write a book that will be about fiction and reality simultaneously?

Q: You grew up in Iran as the daughter of a former mayor of Tehran and became one of the first six women elected to the Parliament in Iran. Can you compare your upbringing in the 1950s to that of women in the revolutionary times of the late-1970s, the late-1990s and even today?

A: Women have taken such a giant step back from when I was growing up. Even my mother, who believed herself to be a good Muslim, never wore a veil. The generation that came after me was never given a choice about expressing who they were. It's not so much the women who've taken a step back, it's the government that tried to impose backward rules. . . . The laws are terrible - a woman is counted as half a man on a witness stand, and there are some jobs there women still cannot get - but Iranian women have resisted them.

Q: Examples include your refusal to wear the veil in 1981, then wearing it incorrectly later.

A: I felt my own dignity as a person was endangered. I knew I would be forced to wear it but I wanted to make a statement. It's wrong when a chosen symbol of your faith becomes a political token.

Q: You eventually quit teaching in Tehran because you felt "irrelevant" in the classroom.

A: They took away from me everything that defined me as a human being or as a woman. I was forced to look a way I didn't want to look and act a way I didn't believe in.

Q: In 1995, following your resignation, you invited seven women to meet weekly in your home to read forbidden fiction from the West. Who were they, and what was your purpose?

A: They were a mixed bag. Two were practicing Muslims, and they wore the veil, and some were quite secular. What we had in common was our love for books. The purpose was to talk about books of fiction, but what happened was we started to tell about ourselves or write about ourselves, our own stories, and that gives you power.

Q: You met in secret, sharing photocopies of novels that had been banned by the Iranian government. Had you been found out, were repercussions possible?

A: It's not that our class was in danger, but that these women, the way they looked, the way they acted in that living room, just by existing were in danger. If one of my students wore lipstick outside, the way she did in my class, she would be jailed.

Q: You read, among others, The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice and, of course, Lolita, all books about people who become autonomous despite great odds. During the two years that you met, how did you and these women change?

A: The classes kept me going. We discovered things about ourselves that we didn't know. How, as women, we never could have an image of ourselves, but always seeing ourselves through eyes of people who were shaping us. My students thought about their everyday experiences. One had been sexually assaulted in a taxi, and once or twice she started loudly protesting, but no one paid attention. The contradiction is they tell us to wear the veil to protect ourselves, yet we are not protected.

Q: Which books stand out in your mind?

A: Lolita meant so much to us. A man stealing a young girl's reality, imposing himself on her life. But each book was liberating and amazing.

Q: What would you like American readers to know about your homeland?

A: I would love for them not to give in to the stereotypical images that come from my country. They would find out that though we are from different lands, (it) doesn't mean that we do not aspire to certain universal values. They lump all different cultures and societies in the Muslim world, as if Christians and Jews and Bahais are all different, but Muslims all want the same thing.