Muslim Women and the Politics of Participation

Imagination as a Tool of Civic Awareness

by: Dr. Azar Nafisi

This is a story about the power of stories to shape reality and to teach what responsibility has to do with imagination.

Shahrzad's 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.

One 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.

This 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 ever after.

Like 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.

Shahrzad's 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.

I 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." 

This 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 causes.

Ayatollah 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.

This, 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.

I 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 enters.


To be continued