A Book and Theme review Part 1: Reading Lolita in Tehran, The Islamic Republic of Iran and bland feminism.
Trigger warning: sexual abuse and political violence
Reading Lolita in Tehran is a wonderful book, there is no doubt about that. Its unique approach compares the state of Iran during the years preceding, during, and after the Iranian revolution in 1979 with famous literary works. This creates a great readership experience; offering readers a chance to empathise and delve into the world of literature and foster a more nuanced perspective on the lives of people amid political upheaval. The handling of microcosmic situations in classical literature to highlight the underlying similarities on a macro national perspective is imaginative, intriguing, and intelligent.
However, this does not take away from the fact that this book is also littered with problems. The West has equipped us with a perception of the rest of that world through a reductionist lens, which includes using literature on the ‘orient’ as facts. Westerners mistake literary world’s of the exoticised east as factually accurate, rendering a dangerous imagination of the depicted worlds. This becomes an especially dangerous game, especially when writers play into the Oriental method too. Whilst Azar Nafisi may not have intended to be political, politics couldn’t help but be present throughout all the issues she was discussing.
Azar Nafisi’s memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (2003), describes her experiences living in Iran from 1979 to 1997. The country had just undergone a revolution when she returned in the late 1970s from schooling abroad, and an oppressive theocracy took the place of a western-influenced monarchy. Nafisi, a native of Iran who had received much of her education in Europe and the United States, found nearly every aspect of her life was constrained by the social, cultural, and political conditions under which she lived. Though she was demoralized by her increasingly diminished status as a woman and by the restrictions placed on her as a university professor, Nafisi never lost her love and appreciation of literature. (Summary from Encyclopedia.com)
I will now summarize the arguments I understood from the memoir. There is a wealth of knowledge to be learned from the book and I urge readers to discover their own opinions on the book.
Reading Lolita in Tehran is separated into 5 sections, all revolving around 5 literary pieces, the first is the controversial novel Lolita written by Vladimir Nabokov.
Azar Nafisi uses Lolita as a metaphor for the Iranian state, its innocent citizens, and especially the women.
Humbert Humbert, the predator in the novel, adopts Lolita, whom he then sexually abuses. A theme throughout the novel is the protagonist’s imagination of what Lolita should be. He controls her not only by becoming her legal guardian and keeping information from her but by controlling the readers’ understanding of her true character and understanding of her past.
Small glimpses of her true character are highlighted by his repulsion when she acts in a way he doesn’t think she should. This shows how much he hides from us. In fact, her real name Dolores, which he diverts our attention away from by calling her Lolita, comes from the Latin word for pain, is just the tip of the iceberg. The name Lolita exudes seduction and temptation, he posits the innocent girl as the perpetrator, and him the the victim of the child’s temptation. He reinvents her, painting a new image of the crime, thus, denying certain audience’s the truth as he paints himself as the victim.
Azar Nafisi brilliantly compares this to the Iranian revolution and what the Iranian state does to its citizens specifically the women. The revolution ushers in an Islamist government retaliating against a government of aristocracy and Western Imperialism. The new laws stifle women for just being born. The forcible wearing of the chador and the policing of women’s looks just scratch at the surface of power men were permitted to exert over women.
Similar to Humbert’s repulsion, when Lolita acted like herself, the Iranian government repulsion is manifested through imprisonment, torture, and rape of women. The lack of autonomy, the constant policing of their very breathing leads women to rely on men and a system that abuses them. There are no avenues of escape and similar to Lolita’s situation as the child-ward of Humbert, women cannot be themselves, are seen through the lens of the male state, and must bow to the authority of men.
Here, I respect the strength and bravery of Azar Nafisi and her student’s show at the hands of the state, university, and men. The women show incredible resilience and Nafisi does them a great justice composing descriptions that make you fall for each character’s true personality.This is a direct contrast to Humbert’s view of the character Dolores.
However, I do seek to reveal Nafisi’s subtle attack on Islam as a religion. Nafisi understands the way the Islamist Iranian imagination manipulates and molests the image of women. The repressed anger and distaste are sensed throughout the pages. Yet, Nafisi doesn’t extend the same analysis at how Islam has been manipulated and molested by centuries of Western prejudice and patriarchal powers.
My issue lies in the hypocrisy (perhaps a strong word) of her work. As a writer disseminating her work internationally, she should have been aware of the political implications in her book regarding Iranian Muslim Women. She does not extend the same courtesy to the Western Imagination of global Islam that she does to the horror men inflict on women. She should have also been aware that regardless of the Iranian nationality, the world sees all Muslim women as the same, so her work, would equally impact us all.
I searched for an understanding throughout the pages of her book, of the Western knowledge production of Islam and what centuries of colonialism and orientalism have done to the perception of Islam and politics. Nafisi fails to separate Islam from Muslims, the actions of the men seem to represent Islam in her writing. She under-handedly supports the Islamophobic views of Islam’s outdatedness, barbarity, and anti-feminism. Her Western education and nationalist Iranian loyalties, highlight her lack of knowledge on the rights of women in Islam, as well as her general ignorance of the globality of Islam.
As an Iranian woman with Western education, she participates in the neo-orientalist wave, of authors from ‘eastern’ background pushing orientalist views forward. The characters in ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ which she should be defending are Iranian Muslim women, not just women. The issues she grapples with are complicated and while she admits this, she does very little to break the stereotypes of these intersectional issues the women face. Nafisi does not explore the political orientalism within her own imagination of Islam. She unwittingly feeds into the image that Muslim women have no rights in an Islamic state. A perspective that is both, violent and damaging, and continues to affect visibly Muslim people daily around the world. It feeds into a dangerous trend of increased hate crimes, the rise of right-wing parties across Europe and the crippling notion that Islam is a curse and must be eradicated.
This rhetoric pushes Western readers to accept Nafisi’s literary arguments as political and religious truths of Islam. Hence, Nafisi’s orientalist views whether conscious or not, place her particular brand of feminism into the wider trend that excludes other social intersectional factors from feminism and gender equity. Her bland feminism stems from her appreciation of Western literature and her attempt to humanise and understand white males. This limits her from seeing the multi-layered issues surrounding Muslim women and how she participates in propagating them.
Nafisi’s primary focus is the comparison of her nation’s state to a literary masterpiece. This both a blessing and a curse; blessing as it opens our mind to finding connections across fields, but a curse as Nafisi, takes a euro-centric approach to view the world, which inhibits her understanding of the very women she tries to defend. The result is a book that takes away a huge part of their cultural heritage. Whether they are Muslim or not, it cannot be denied that Islam and a corruption of it, by the patriarchy was part of their current situation. Nafisi’s failure in analysing this feeds into a wider trend of neo-orientalism and the propagated disseminated image of Muslim women. This is increasingly dangerous in a world where Islam’s status as public enemy number 1 is rampant and women are the most vulnerable.
Assia Hamdi is the Spotlight and Newsletter Editor for The Muslim Women Times. She is a graduate of History and Arabic at SOAS University of London. She is also a lover of travel, writing, spirituality and food.