Reading Lolita in Tehran

By Azar Nafisi

Random House | 2003 | 343 pages | $13.95

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

It’s hard to write about something as complex as Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. In fact I approach this review with trepidation. I know that others won’t agree with Nafisi’s position, and I fear that so much has been written about the book already. Is it necessary to write another review? Reading Lolita in Tehran was published in 2003 and became a best-seller. The world of Iran that Nafisi depicts—post-revolutionary Iran—is bleak, chaotic, and indisputably bad for women, yet Nafisi writes with a tenderness that is extraordinary.

I try to avoid best sellers, even when I think their subject may be of interest (hence my objection to Eat, Pray, Love, which undoubtedly I would have enjoyed if it hadn’t gotten so much attention). And so I avoided Reading Lolita in Tehran, a book that I felt was force-fed to freshman and women in reading groups alike, until the stars aligned and I felt that I could avoid the book no longer.

The cover depicts two women, eyes downcast wearing the veil or hijab, which is a requirement of all Iranian women when going out in public. With heads bowed, they look at once composed, serious, and submissive, yet the women are beautiful and alluring—perhaps more mysterious to western eyes because of the veil.

I bring up the veil, not because as a westerner I gawk at the cultural and religious symbol, but because the veil is crucial to Nafisi’s own position. She couldn’t stand being required to wear a veil. A brilliant scholar and popular teacher at a university in Tehran, she balked at the restrictions placed on female students and faculty alike and eventually quit her job.

To her, wearing the veil is a symbol of the imposed male hierarchy of the state, an unwelcome pulse-heightening, threating mandate that she finds excruciating. Nowhere in the book does she describe her religious beliefs but I believe her to be agnostic. Being forced into religion is simply not her style. It’s interesting that the veil becomes a crucial point for Nafisi.

After all, she could simply ignore the veil or wear it haphazardly as she does when forced to wear it with her hair streaming out of the cloth, or by bringing it up, she has been accused of drawing attention to a minor inconvenience, rather than a true social problem.

But the veil is not an empty symbol. Let’s remember that in France, schoolgirls are not allowed to wear the veil. And in Iran earlier generations of women were forced to take off the veil—Nafisi’s own grandmother was one of these women.

But it’s not the veil alone that Nafisi describes. The women in Iran are simply persecuted for everything--from wearing nail polish to having male friends, to carrying blush in their purses. In fact, one scene that stands out to me is when Nafisi’s daughter is inconsolable because her friend has been punished in grade school because her fingernails exceeded the acceptable length requirement. The world Nafisi describes is so painful, so raw, so brutish, and so impossible that it’s surprising that the women choose to go on at all. But of course we know that they do; they do go on

After Nafisi quits her job at the university, she urges some former female students and one male to join a secret book club. The books they read are censored in Iran —Lolita, The Great Gatsby, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Daisy Miller, and some books by Jane Austen.. Reading these illicit, western, so-called “corrupt” novels adds a heightened excitement to the meetings. 

The girls arrive at Nafisi’s home, covered, jittery, and eager. Nafisi’s role, as subversive teacher, is to stretch them, to teach them, and to ease them into themselves. As they shed their robes and scarves, the girls emerge as bright butterflies—observant, intellectual, and, most importantly, willing to see how the classic novels relate to their own lives.

Their lives have not been easy. One young woman had spent several years in jail and suffered unspoken harm; another woman was married to a man who abused her and then would beg forgiveness; another was followed constantly by her younger brother, the male in her family, who controlled her every move. And there was a lot of tension in the group between girls who followed religion devoutly and those who only wore the veil only because they had to. But, all shared one thing—a great curiosity and love of books.

I really love the way Nafisi describes literature. This to me—even more than the personal qualities of the students, which Nafisi relates very eloquently, is the key to the book. I have rarely read a book that describes with such passion the vital importance of reading. It gave me goose bumps to read her unique description of reading, and how reading and living can be so deeply and fully connected.

One thing that, of course, seems startling is the choice of the book, Lolita.  Because Nafisi is a feminist and because she was teaching girls to be feminists (in the broadest sense of the term, to accept themselves as women in all parts of their lives—emotionally, sexually, academically, and economically), I would expect a more forthright feminist novel, a novel that perhaps was a classic feminist text, one of oppression and redemption—but Lolita?

To me that had always been an “anti-feminist” text; a book about a brute, Humbert Humbert, who turned a young girl into his sex slave. How could a book like this appeal to a reading group of oppressed young women in Iran? Instead of focusing on the rape of the underage girl in Lolita, Nafisi focuses on the life of the girl, a life that became empty and lacking in agency.

So, in showing how Humbert Humbert conquers his prey, the author is showing what’s wrong. What Humbert Humbert lacks is empathy. He doesn’t understand the child he rapes and has no interest in her inner life. When we, as humans, are so selfish as to ignore another’s inner life, we are not truly living; we are dead within our own clouded, deluded vision.

At one point one of the young women questions her own interest in reading about flawed characters (in this case Madame Bovary who has committed adultery). In the college in Iran where many of these women had studied, a book with a main character who has committed adultery was considered a filthy, dirty book with “western ideas.” I thought the question of why we like flawed characters very interesting. Here is a bit from Nafisi:

“Every great work of art, I would declare pompously, is a celebration, an act of insubordination against the betrayals, horrors, and infidelities of life. The perfection and beauty of form rebels against the ugliness and shabbiness of the subject matter.”

And so it is in The Great Gatsby; instead of looking at the book as a book about lurid decadence, the book becomes a novel about the privilege of being beholden to a dream and the way a dream of any sort, whether it be the dream of great wealth or the dream of being free from the oppressive Islamic state in Iran, can be a noble way to live. Similarly, rather than seeing Daisy Miller as a silly girl, the girls in Nafisi’s reading group see her as brave, outspoken, a multitude of layers.

(At the end of Reading Lolita in Tehran, the author presents a suggested reading list. I have just begun to read it—the first up was the surprisingly refreshing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.)

Nafisi threads the lives of these girls throughout the book, and the girls share their joys and sorrows with the reading group. During one poignant scene a woman returns from her fiancé’s betrayal. She was supposed to leave Iran and was going to marry a young man who was studying in England. She walks freely in western clothes without her veil and feels light and expansive on their dates. But then the boy breaks up with her—was he a coward for not wanting a “non-traditional” Iranian wife?

The question of identity and how to behave is constantly being addressed in this book. As a western woman, I feel that I have a lot of choices but my choices are not as deliberate and consequential as the ones that these Iranian women have to make. Will they go to school where their handbags are searched at a checkpoint for a tube of lipstick? Will they look a man in the eyes even though that in itself could be cause for punishment? And, most pressing for this particular group of women, will they leave the country for a more “free life?”  And, maybe most excruciating of all: What does it truly mean to be free? This is an existential question that is raised in the book, but resonates exponentially.

The author and many of the girls/young women in the book eventually leave Iran—Nafisi for America and John Hopkins and the girls for other foreign lands. The book ends right at that juncture.

Reading Lolita in Tehran now seems timely. Though the book was set in the 1990s and was published in 2003, many of the issues the book raises seem consequential. I’m still reeling from the shock of watching the documentary about Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban for attending school. I do not want to conflate the two situations, but what Malala faced and what the young women in Reading Lolita in Tehran went through have similarities (though Malala had it worse). Also, just this week, one of NPR’s stories featured a discussion about American women and the veil.

Should non-Muslim women wear it as a form of solidarity? Is the veil an inherently oppressive symbol? Even The New Yorker weighed in with an article about a woman’s complicated relationship with the veil. What all these women seem to agree upon is the importance of education…and how education, and especially books, can strengthen our deepest, truest sense of ourselves.

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