As Iranian women continue their fight for equality in public and private life, we turn to Azar Nafisi, the author of the bestselling Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (Random House), which recalls her teaching at the University of Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War and the impact of a book club she formed with students to discuss controversial Western literature.
In her latest memoir, Things I’ve Been Silent About (Random House), Nafisi recounts her life story around the rise of the 1979 Islamic Republic — and the realization of the freedoms she took for granted during her upbringing.
While a young Nafisi witnessed her mother govern in Parliament, her daughter was forced to live with the same oppressive laws that had been repealed during her grandmother’s and mother’s lifetimes. As political and private abominations continue to strip away women’s freedoms today, Nafisi talks to wOw about the latest generation of Iranian women and the obstacles they face.
WOWOWOW: Who would you describe as role models for Iranian women?
AZAR NAFISI: The writers of the feminist movement — Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Mary Wollstonecraft — are active voices in the Iranian movement today. Their works have been translated. Women very courageously translated all of them. Those women were at the forefront of the movement.
WOW: How accessible is their literature and other Western works?
AN: Sometimes they allow books to come in, and sometimes, the most innocuous and unimportant-looking books are suddenly banned — like DaVinci Code and Girl With a Pearl Earring. Right now, they’ve clamped down but people still get their hands on books. People smuggle books into Iran and others will Xerox them. You can also find interesting books at the Tehran book fair.
WOW: Are Persian books banned?
AN: Yes, since the beginning of the revolution, a lot of Persian books have been banned. A progressive poet named Forugh Farrokhzad, who died in 1967, was at the forefront of the movement. She’s one of the most widely translated Persian poets, but her poems are sensual and erotic. They are constantly censored or banned.
WOW: How do authors inspire action?
AN: They pave a way. As late as the 1960s and 1970s, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem were being ridiculed as bra-burning female hoodlums. (Laughing) But they were the ones who paved the way for many women in the U.S. and abroad. Their writings set a tone and a stage so women like Hillary Clinton can take action. And Hillary, who we accept as a progressive force forever, paved the way for traditionalists, like Sarah Palin, to come along and say that she can go into the White House and her husband can be the stay-at-home spouse. You can’t imagine some traditionalist saying this 30 years ago. So women have always had this mettle of understanding that their freedom means freedom of others.
WOW: You talk so passionately about Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, but what do you think of America’s next president, Barack Obama?
AN: President Obama has a genuine sense of culture. World leaders concern me when they don’t have such knowledge of the arts and history. Obama, on the other hand, keeps linking to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. who, in their own ways, were poets.
WOW: Why is that important?
AN: Can we have good policymakers, good politicians and responsible businessmen if they don’t have that core knowledge of humanity?
WOW: What’s the biggest misconception most Western women have about Iran?
AN: People have a homogenous image of Iran. I want people to understand that in Iran, like in the United States, you have to differentiate between the government and the people. Mr. Bush is not "all America." So why is Mr. Ahmadinejad "all Iran"?
WOW: How do most women feel about their situation in Iran?
AN: They feel raped. I describe in my book when I was molested at the age of six. The ruling Islamic regime has taken away their sense of integrity as human beings — much like a child feels when sexually abused.
WOW: Who is the true spirit of Iran?
AN: If you look at our history, you’ll find the spirit of Iran. Before 1979, we had women ministers, women judges, a female Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi. After the revolution, Shirin was told she could no longer be a judge, and rather than leave the country, she became a lawyer for women’s and children’s rights.
Mehrangiz Kar was an active journalist and lawyer. After the revolution, she started writing for an Islamic magazine. And through her journalism, she worked with this cleric to start questioning the Islamic laws against women. The cleric, while working with Mehrangiz, became so outraged at the laws, that his writing became so radical, they jailed him and de-flogged him. These women are having a lot of effect on those people who were once, themselves, pro-Islamic revolution and sometimes clerics. They’re changing people’s minds.
Then there’s Simin Behbahani, who is one of the foremost feminist poets. Since the inception of the Islamic republic, she has been writing poems against both political oppression and liberation on a political and personal level. She has been taken to jail, interrogated and harassed. Today, at over 80 years old, Simin will protest on the streets with women against the repressive laws.
This is what makes Iran exciting.
This is the spirit.