Reading Lolita in Tehran


In her book “Reading Lolita in Tehran – A Memoir in Books”, Azar Nafisi, a female academic, tells of her life in ayatollah-ruled Iran. In 1997, having had enough of the ayatollahs, she packed her bags for the USA, where she today teaches English literature at Johns Hopkins University.

Azar Nafisi, who was educated largely in the USA, and so became quite American in her values, had originally returned from the USA to Iran in 1979, full of idealism for the revolution when the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah. But Iran’s new rulers soon showed themselves even more repressive than the Shah had been. Individual freedoms, particularly those enjoyed by women, were done away with, including the freedom not to wear the veil. Azar Nafisi was, consequently, told to wear the veil – or else, which, in her case, meant losing her job as a professor of literature at the University of Tehran if she didn’t knuckle under.

Well, she didn’t, and, after much pleading from the university authorities that she relent, was fired.

What to do? On the principle that if Mohammed won’t (or cannot) go to the mountain, the mountain must come to Mohammed, Azar Nafisi, out of her love for western literature, arranged that seven of her most dedicated female students come to her home one morning a week to study and discuss important works of Western literature, particularly the novels of Vladimir Nabokov, Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Jane Austin. Nafisi wanted to explore with these seven women how these books defined their lives within the reality of revolutionary Iran, and how Iran re-created these books for them.

For Nafisi, Vladimir Nabokov was particularly important, since he lived most of his life as an exile from his native Russia, moving from country to country until he finally settled in the US. Nabokov’s lifelong exile resonated with Nafisi, since, living in an Iran which had taken so many of her rights away, she felt like an exile even within her own home.

Nafisi experiences Nabokov’s novels as

“……….shaped around invisible trapdoors, sudden gaps that constantly pull the carpet from under the reader’s feet. They are filled with mistrust of what we call everyday reality, an acute sense of that reality’s fickleness and frailty………..”.

In Nabokov’s “Lolita”, the middle-aged Humbert’s obsession with the 12 year-old Lolita, was, for Nafisi, a symbol of Iran’s lowering the minimum marriageable age for girls from 12 to 9. Humbert wanted to mould Lolita into his ideal of her, telling her how to behave, and what clothes to wear, and continually interrogated her about where she went, and what she did with her friends.

Nafisi thinks of Lolita as a

“………half-alive butterfly pinned to the wall. The butterfly is not an obvious symbol, but it does suggest that Humbert fixes Lolita in the same manner that the butterfly is fixed; he wants her, a living breathing human being, to become stationary, to give up her life for the still life he offers her in return. Lolita’s image is forever associated in the minds of her readers with that of her jailer. Lolita on her own has no meaning; she can only come to life through her prison bars………….”.

Nafisi saw how Humbert’s confiscation of Lolita’s life, of her individuality, mirrored how Iran’s new leaders tried to confiscate the individuality of Iranians through imposing upon them their vision of an ideal society, which included decreeing to women what clothes they could and could not wear, and telling them how to behave. Men had to have beards and not wear ties. Even shaking hands with someone of the opposite sex was forbidden. As Nafisi explains:

“……….Not wearing a beard, shaking hands with members of the opposite sex, clapping or whistling in public meetings were……..considered Western and therefore decadent, part of the plot by imperialists to bring down our culture………”.

In her chapter on Fitzgerald, Nafisi dwells on “The Great Gatsby” which is about the “American Dream” and how it ultimately destroyed Gatsby, just as, for Nafisi, the Iranian dream of revolution destroyed many individual Iranians.

Nafisi’s chapter on Henry James is about ambiguity, something which totalitarians, like those in Iran, hate.

Nafisi saw Jane Austen’s world as about choice, a woman saying “no” to an arranged marriage, and accepting the consequences of a life of poverty for the sake of her right to choose. This provoked discussions in Nafisi’s seminars about women in Iran being forced into arranged marriages, or marrying simply for financial stability, rather than for love.

Nafisi says of Jane Austen’s protagonists, that they are

“………..private individuals set in public places. Their desire for privacy and reflection is continually being adjusted to their situation within a very small community, which keeps them under its constant scrutiny. The balance between the public and the private is essential to this world……….”

This issue, wrestled with by an 18th century English female novelist, couldn’t have been more relevant in the Iran of the ayatollahs.

The western canons of literature, of which these novels are a part and parcel, were condemned by the guardians of the Iranian revolution as promoting western decadency. When still teaching at the University of Tehran, Nafisi had had many arguments with her student ideologues who were deaf to her arguments that although, for example, “The Great Gatsby”, appeared to glorify the rich, Fitzgerald also painted them as selfish and duplicitous, and thus anything but admirable.


But, leaving aside whether or not a particular work of literature speaks to the condition of the society to which the reader belongs, reading literature is a wonderful avenue down which to escape an unbearable reality, if only for an hour at a time. So for Nafisi and her seven female students, her home on those Thursday mornings became a sanctuary, where an essential part of their lives went underground. They were engaged in the most subversive of activities, given that reading literature is inherently subversive of an established order anywhere, let alone in the Iran of the ayatollahs.

Thus many of the great works of world literature were either banned in Iran, or denounced. Instead, Iranians were encouraged to read texts, like the “Political, Philosophical, Social, and Religious Principles of Ayatolla Khomeini”, parts of which one of the seven women, Nassrin, had translated for her own edification. Another of the women, Manna, asked her why, since this text by Khomeini had already been translated.

Nassrin explained:

“…….Yes….parts of it have been translated, but after it became the butt of party jokes, ever since the embassies abroad found out that people were reading the book not for their edification but for fun, the translations have been very hard to find. And anyway, my translation is thorough—it has references and cross-references to works by other worthies. Did you know that one way to cure a man’s sexual appetites is by having sex with animals? And then there’s the problem of sex with chickens. You have to ask yourself if a man who has had sex with a chicken can then eat the chicken afterwards. Our leader has provided us with an answer: No, neither he nor his immediate family or next-door neighbors can eat of that chicken’s meat, but it’s okay for a neighbor who lives two doors away. My father would rather I spent my time on such texts than on Jane Austen or Nabokov?’ she added, rather mischievously…………”.

Nafisi says that she and the others in the group weren’t startled by this, since other Iranian holy men had said similar things. But what disturbed her was that

“……. these texts were taken seriously by people who ruled us and in whose hands lay our fate and the fate of our country. Every day on national television and radio these guardians of morality and culture would make similar statements and discuss such matters as if they were the most serious themes for contemplation and consideration………..”.

The privations and oppression suffered by Azar Nafisi and her seven female students, must be seen as manifestations of a war on women, fuelled by the male fear of female sexuality. Thus women in Iran were, and still are, when in public, required to wear veils and chadors, for the ayatollahs consider that the outline of female contours and the display of too much female flesh will get males all afire, thus sapping their moral fibre. Even to shake a woman’s hand is too much, and this has accordingly been banned. Nafisi tells of a young woman being hauled in by the police for eating an apple too seductively.

But “Reading Lolita in Tehran” should make us ask ourselves whether the war on women is the sole preserve of Iran and certain other Islamic countries. Perhaps the war on women is also being waged in the USA and in other countries of the “developed” world, despite the outlawing of overt sexism and the repealing of discriminatory laws against women, which may simply have driven underground the male fear and hatred of women, so that it now re-appears in various disguises.

Consider that pornography – arguably the clearest expression of men’s fear and hatred of women – has become a multi-billion dollar industry, and shows no sign of abating.

Consider all the demands over the years from religious and social conservatives in the USA that abortion be made illegal, for the stated reason that all life is sacred. Since conservatives (read Republicans) tend to be warlike, and that wars kill lots of people, it would follow that concern for human life isn’t why conservatives oppose abortion. Because opponents of abortion are mostly middle-aged family men, it seems clear that they oppose abortion because they wish to keep women barefoot and pregnant, which makes them easier to control.

And the unstated wish to keep women barefoot and pregnant is doubtless why the male-dominated Catholic Church opposes contraception as vehemently as it does.

Why do women in the business world feel they must perpetually starve themselves in order to look good? This question was tackled by Naomi Wolf in her book, “The Beauty Myth”, which pointed out that the criteria for female beauty are set by the fashion industry, most of whose executives and CEOs are male.

Since the fashion industry decrees that women must be thin to look good, they must consequently live on third-world diets if they wish to get ahead in the business world, where image is everything. Living on a third-world diet means that women in business are usually drained of energy, which Naomi Wolf saw as the result of males exacting their revenge on them for being successful.

Saudi Arabia is arguably numero uno in the world in its apartheid-style subjugation of women. Yet the US has Saudi Arabia as a trusted ally, and ordinary Americans see nothing too much wrong in this. But why should apartheid-style subjugation of women be OK, given that apartheid-style subjugation of people on the basis of their race is universally agreed not to be OK? What’s going on?

I put it to you, dear reader, that a war on women perpetrated by men is, mutatis mutandis, as real in the US and “developed world”, as it is in the likes of Iran and Saudi Arabia, since we men are in essence much the same, no matter where in the world we live.