In Iran, the most systematic repression continues to be borne by the female half of the population, whose sexuality has always been the Islamic Revolution’s driving obsession. The Islamic Republic of Iran’s founding firebrand, Ayatollah Khomeini, launched his political career in 1963 by leading a protest against women’s suffrage. Today, the figure-obscuring dress code known as hijab remains the Revolution’s most visible and enduring legacy. Azar Nafisi, formerly a literature professor in Tehran and now director of the Dialogue Project at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies in Washington, has tethered her own exuberant digressions on living out this paradox to a memoir about a group of seven selected female students who, for three years, gathered in her apartment every Thursday to discuss banned works of Western literature. “I formulated certain questions for them to consider, the most central of which was how these great works of imagination could help us in our present trapped situation as women,” she writes. “We were not looking for blueprints, for an easy solution, but we did hope to find a link between the open spaces in the novels provided and the closed ones we were confined to. I remember reading to my girls Nabokov’s claim that ‘readers were born free and ought to remain free.'”
The poignancy and importance of a handful of middle-class Iranian women rebelling by reading Nabokov is eloquently described in Reading Lolita in Tehran. One has to keep in mind the conditions these women faced when they walked out the door each day. “The streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities are patrolled by militia,” writes Nafisi, “who ride in white Toyota Patrols, four gun-carrying men and women, sometimes followed by a minibus. They are called the Blood of God. They patrol the streets to make sure that women like Sanaz (a student in Nafisi’s class) wear their veils properly, do not wear makeup, do not walk in public with men who are not their fathers, brothers or husbands.” The literature Nafisi and her students read offers a nimble vehicle for negotiating terrain that can be heavy going. “Take Lolita. This was the story of a twelve-year-old girl who had nowhere to go. Humbert had tried to turn her into his fantasy, into his dead love, and he had destroyed her. The desperate truth of Lolita’s story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man but the confiscation of one individual’s life by another.” Lolita is indeed a fitting parallel for the confiscation of millions of Iranians’ lives to satisfy the mullahs’ politico-sexual fantasies.
At the same time, it’s misleading to think of the Islamic Republic as a wholesale confiscation; the theocracy is at once more durable and more offensive to many Iranians precisely because it is articulated through a religious idiom that is shared by almost everyone. None of the women in Nafisi’s class fits the American stereotype of Iranians as being either religious zealots wholly committed to the regime or irreligious hedonists aping pious behaviors because the mullahs force them to. Nafisi’s students represent seven different attitudes toward Islam, toward the regime, and toward the future.
Not surprisingly, some members of the group are more concerned with matters of love than their political fortunes, though the two are inextricable linked. Nafisi describes Nassrin, a tough girl, permanently caught between two worlds, tradition and modernity, the daughter of a Western-educated mother and a stern and devout father. Sexually abused by a “pious” uncle when she was 11, she is preoccupied with understanding relations between the sexes. Another, Sanaz, a romantic well-practiced in avoiding Tehran’s militias, hides her nail polish with black lacy gloves. Mahshid, with her European style hair, is the most religious of the group. Mahshid chose to wear hijab before the revolution as a mark of her faith but now resents the regime for forcing the scarf on others, as it makes her own gesture meaningless. Imprisoned by Khomeini’s regime for five years for her involvement with a dissident religious group, she seems world-weary and bitter about the distortion of her religion. Possessing a strong sense of responsibility for her country, Mahshid is contemptous of those who simply want to escape.
The petty rules of the regime are effective in curtailing threats from the most oppressed half of the population. With their energies devoted to working out strategies of defiance, such as how to show more hair, or to conduct secret meetings with the opposite sex, grown women are forced into a permanent state of adolescent conniving. As a window on Iranian society, the book triumphs in revealing the psychological complexity and diversity of the beings who glide along Iran’s streets as anonymous shrouds.
The book is least interesting in terms of the genres under which it will be marketed: “women’s studies” and “memoir.” Ironically, the book falls under “women’s studies” only because Nafisi considered it too risky to include men in her clandestine seminar. In its memoir mode, Reading Lolita is riddled with distracting solipsisms. “Six a.m … the first day of class. I was already up. Too excited to eat breakfast (who but taxi drivers, bakers, and garbage collectors are hungry at six?), I put the coffee on and then took a long, leisurely shower.” Such asides distract from an otherwise steady flow of edifying intimacies about a fascinating and troubled country usually veiled to outsiders.
Reading Lolita in Tehran is not unlike the character of the country it describes: often intelligent and involving, as well as elegant, but still too often cloying and oppressive.