Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Reading Lolita in Tehran

I just finished this book today: it's by Azar Nafisi, an account of living under Ayatollah Khomeini's regime under sharia law, told partly through discussions of literature.

To read this book was, for me, slightly disorientating: for I felt like I was reading dystopian fiction, having a window into these women's lives under the regime. Yet it is autobiographical.

I guess what hits hardest about the novel was that prior to Khomeini's accession, women were on a similarly liberated footing in Iran as in the West:

"At the start of the 20th Century, the age of marriage in Iran - 9, according to sharia laws - was changed to 13 and then later to 18. My mother had chosen whom she wanted to marry and she had been one of the first six women elected to Parliament in 1963. When I was growing up, in the 1960s, there was little difference between my rights and the rights of women in Western democracies. But it was not the fashion then to think that our culture was not compatible with modern democracy, that there were Western and Islamic versions of democracy and human rights. We all wanted opportunities and freedom. That is why we supported revolutionary change - we were demanding more rights, not fewer.

I married on the eve of revolution, a man I loved. [...] By the time my daughter was born five years later, the laws had regressed to what they had been before my grandmother's time: the first law to be repealed, months before the ratification of a new constitution, was the family-protection law, which guaranteed women's rights at home and at work. [...] My youthful years had witnessed the rise of two women to the rank of cabinet minister. After the revolution, these same two women were sentenced to death for the sins of warring with God and spreading prostitution. One of them [...] had been abroad at the time of the revolution and remained in exile. [...] The other, the minister of education and my former high school principal, was put in a sack and stoned or shot to death." (Reading Lolita in Tehran, Nafisi, p.261-262)

With its atmosphere of surveillance, propaganda and morality squads, it felt like I was reading something along the lines of Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale, because it seems so alien. Yet it is autobiographical. As you can probably tell, I didn't know much about the subject, and indeed, still know passing little.

I liked the way that books are reference points, memoirs, to the book. Nafisi taught literature and her enthusiasm for the texts translates well, (to the point I have a new list of books I wish to read or re-read) while also throwing the repressiveness of the regime into sharp relief.


Primitive Person said...

Sounds like a great book, but a shocking one. Having read "The Bookseller of Kabul" recently, I'm depressed by the grim reality of what happens in fundamentalist nations - it's almost prehistoric, and it's hard to know what to do in response.

Hippernicus said...

The horrors were told very matter of factly rather than hideously graphically, but the import was still there. I think what I found most shocking about it was the realisation of how modern the society was, with women active politically and in careers, and how that seemed to be swept away so quickly.