Muslim Women and the Politics
as a Tool of Civic Awareness
Dr. Azar Nafisi
is a story about the power of stories to shape reality and to teach
what responsibility has to do with imagination.
famous story goes like this: Once upon a time there were two
brothers who each ruled over a different kingdom. One brother,
Shahzaman, decided to visit his elder brother. Shahryar.
On the way there Shahzaman realized that he had left behind his
present for Sharyar, and turned around. Back at his palace
Shahzaman found his queen making love to a slave. He killed
both and with aheavy heart traveled to his brother's palace.
There the brothers caught Shahryar's queen also making loe to a
slave in an orgy attended by other slaves. The two
disappointed kings left their kingdoms and roamed the countryside.
day, wandering by the Gulf of Oman they noticed the sea part and a
black column rise from it that turned into an ifrit (a demon).
The ifrit opened an iron trunk out of which climbed a beautiful
young woman whom he had abducted onher wedding night.
Frightened, the two brothers tried to hide up in a tree. While
the demon was sleeping with his head in the woma's lap, the young
woman noticed them. She lifted her captor's head from her lap
and under the threat of exposure and sure death forced the brothers
to come down and have sex with her. Afterward, she added their
two rings to the 570 she had already collected from her previous
victimes and explained that this was her revenge onthe ifrit.
incident had such an unsettling effect upon the two brothers that
Shahzaman renounced the world and became a hermit while Shahyar had
his wife, her lover, and the slaved killed, and then for three years
married a virgin every night, only to have her killed in the
morning. Soon the country ran out of virgins: they either had
been killed or had fled with their families. In the end the
vezir's wise and learned daughter, Shahrzad, offered herself as a
bride. On the wedding night she got the king's permission to
tell a story to her younger sister, Dunyazad. Shahrya himself,
though, became curious about the tale and let Sharzad live to hear
the end. Cleverly, she strung him along with her stories
until, after one thousand and one nights, the king, who by then had
three sons with her, decided to stop the killings and to live with
Shahrzad as his beloved queen. According to some accounts, his
brother married Dunyazad. Obviously, they all lived happily
many others of my age and nationality, I do not remember when I
first heard this tale. It is one of those stories one seems to
have been born with. I do remember the last time I read it,
though. It was for a literature class with six of my best and
brightest women students. I used Shahrzad for a discussion of
the relationship between fiction and reality before reading some of
my favorite great novels with women as their central characters,
such as Pride and Prejudice and Loitering with intent.
Before we began reading the main texts we formulated questions that
were on our minds, such as, how could these great works of
imagination help us in our present trapped and helpless situation as
women? Obviously, novels did not provide a blueprint for an
easy solution, but it just as obviously, the joy of reading them
helped us to recreate our lives in the face of a seemingly
unchanging and oppressive reality. The vezir's wise daughter's
story seemed s good a place as any to begin an exploration of
literature's power to change reality.
own story contains a hidden theme, old and timeless - the theme of
what can happen when reality closes all doors; when life seems
uncontrollable and unchangeable; when live means death; when one's
own life appears to be an insoluble puzzle and only one's own
imagination can lead one out of a predicament. I could relate
to this theme, and so I chose to use my own realit-puzzle as the
frame for probing Shahrzad's tale. The connection between my
puzzle and Shahrzad's is, perhaps, also a reason for my obsession
with the tale. Over time Shahrzad had truned up in various
cameo roles in my articles and talks, until I finally decided to ask
her to play the major role in the present script.
remember the morning we heard of Ayatollah Khomeini's death.
Our family had gathered in the living room, lingering in that state
of shock and bewilderment that death always brings with it.
And this was no ordinary death. My daughter, who was five
years old, was looking intenftly out of the window. Suddenly
she turned around and shouted, "Mummy, Mummy, the Imam is not
dead, woen are still wearing their scarveds." There was
something in her words that has remained with me. It continues
to come back every time I think about hte so called situation of
women in Iran or about my own situation in my country. Why
should one think somebody has to die for woemn to cast off the vedil?
What gives equal weight to both, Ayatollah Khomeni's death and
veiling, matter that surely are not of equal magnitude? This
question demonstrates how dependent political and social problems
are are upon the attitudes one takes toward private spaces and
individual rights and how directly linked these rights are to what
is commonly called the "woman question."
Episode always brings to mind another, seemingly unrelated ,
incident at the beginning of the revolution when I had first
started teaching at the University of Tehran. At that time
the university was torn by conflicts among vaious rival
political groups. very little was said about academic
literary work and much about literature as an instrument to be
used in the service of some "higher" political
goal. The relatived importance of goals and issues was
debated. I remember a speech by a well-known leftist
historian in which she declared her readiness to wear the veil
for the sake of liberty. And I remember a photograph in a
government-affiliated newspaper, Johurie Islami, which shoed a
group of women belongings to a Marxist-Leninist organization,
all veiled from head to toe, and raising a flag with the hammer
and sicle. Like the historian, these women sacrificed the
"trival" matter of the veil for larger, more important
Khomeini's death was like a problem that, although influencing
and changing my life in radical ways, was not really mine.
I was obliged to make it my own because those whose problem it
really was - politicians and their ideologues - disputed women's
right to occupy private and imaginative spaces created by
reading great works of literature and by taking seriously
women's personal experiences as women. I could understand
why the most serious threat to those who desired absolute power
was the demand for such imaginative years. To give in to
such a demand would be tantamount to the dangerous admission
that reality could be viewed and lived differently and that the
present state of affairs need not be a permanent one.
Rather than eft to contemplation and inspiration, reality was
crated and shaped according to the dictates of those who held
the power to define things for others.
then, was my predicament: How is one to act under restrictive
circumstances? How is one to be a woman? A scholar? A
reader of works of art? The opposition provided no
answer. The stance taken by those in opposition did not
essentially differ from that of those in positions of
power. For both, individual rights and private spaces were
trivial when compared to the "larger" political
issues. They both spoke and acted within the same
framework; only their political positions differed. If I
wanted to solve my predicament, I had to view it differently,
and to frame my questions differently, had to step outside the
rigidly defined reality.
discovered that my dilemma, no matter how directly related to my
daily life, could only be answered inadequately by that
life. Reality can only be experienced and analyzed as it
changes, and it cannot change without recreating itself through
the mirror of imagination. This point is where Shahrzad