Books · Colonisation · Gender · Political

Reading Nafisi in the White gaze

Reading “Lolita” In Tehran by Azar Nafisi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is very personal and my enjoyment of it is very much rooted in my experience of living with Iranian people in the UK and fascination with the country’s history and culture. When I first read the book about ten years ago, I was astonished to read about how the 1979 revolution, which is seen by most Westerners as the triumph of Muslim extremists and had been described to me as the British/American led replacement of the insufficiently compliant Shah, looked to Nafisi on the ground. Whatever the international machinations (she doesn’t discuss them), it’s clear that the internal push to unseat the dictatorial monarch was anti-imperialist, whether Marxist, nationalist or ‘Islamist’. As Edward Said tells us, Orientalism ignores political and economic factors in the Middle East, tying every narrative to the rigid structure of its construction of Islam.

What struck me on this reading, actually, was how closely aligned with Western ideas of Iran and of Islam Nafisi’s perspectives seem to me. I recognise that it’s totally ridiculous of me to say that but I’m going to say it anyway (she did spend 17 years studying in the USA before the period of teaching in Tehran described here) Of course, I’m not here to defend the regime that, as Nafisi says, reduced the age of consent for women from eighteen to nine, prescribed death by stoning as punishment for adultery, disappeared its dissidents and spat out their corpses, not to mention exiled my friends, but I am sceptical that things were really so great before the corrupt clerics came to power, especially for people of a lower social class than Nafisi. I’m also a bit depressed by her caustic dismissal of ‘Islamic feminism’ as an oxymoron. I know numerous Muslim feminists so I believe in them wholeheartedly.

For Nafisi the veil, and specifically the imposition of the veil, is of great importance, and naturally I agree with her that imposing the hijab on women (NB the Quran does not tell women to veil and, I understand, characterises law as open to interpretation) robs them of meaningful self expression; women who choose to wear it cannot use it express their devotion to Islam, and women who otherwise would not are forced into a limiting uniform. I feel moreover, and I wish Nafisi was more nuanced on this, that the choice to wear the veil is more than self expression – I understand it not only as identity symbol but as an active part of a woman’s faith practice and relationship to her faith and to society. To some wearing the veil is a feminist act (NB feminism is a multi-stranded ID-in movement so back off). All the more reason to despise a regime that strips women of agency, but not to question the integrity and agency of those who veil…

This review is coming out all wrong! I sound like I don’t empathise with Nafisi and her students, unable to dress the way they want in public, to write and say what they want without fear of incarceration, to sit in a cafe with unrelated men, to dance to music or watch films unmutilated by the censor. And also, this is Nafisi’s memoir and I suspect I am engaging in cultural imperialism by complaining about how she chose to share her truth. Repeatedly, she talks about the regime’s colonisation of public space and discourse. Surely I’d share her vehemence in her position. And her memoir is not devoid of nuance. Her students have different views and she respects them, and worries that she is painting the USA as a paradise for them and making them long to leave Iran. And of course, her love for traditional Iranian culture runs deep.

Anyway what about the book? Is it good? Well, yes I think so. It reflects on classics of Western literature through the prism of middle-class academic women’s experience in revolutionary Tehran. Or on the experience of living in Khomeini’s Iran as an English teacher and mother via the values and metaphors of great authors of the Western tradition. And of course, the true stories of a diverse group of young women. Whichever way you want it, it’s quite interesting. On her discussion of Austen, Nabokov et al, having read Decolonising the Mind I’m interested that she considers the ‘universal’ emotional aspects of the books AS their politics of liberation; in her situation the right to love and to feel is more keenly desired than, for example, economic equality; I’d like to witness a discussion between Nafisi and Ngugi wa Thiong’o about liberation!

View all my reviews

Important note: a friend pointed me to this article on Ajam for much more informed perspectives and book recommendations on gender in Iran.

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4 thoughts on “Reading Nafisi in the White gaze

  1. Your review puts me in mind of the opening of the film ‘Argo’. Despite its many Islamophobic elements, it has a great opening where it gives a summary of the ’79 revolution, with a lot better context than the way it is normally taught to us.

    1. Thanks for reading Shane = ) I should check Argo out = ) Reading bell hooks ‘Outlaw Culture’ and it makes me hungry to watch movies and critique!

      1. No worries. ‘Argo’ functions really well as a taut thriller, and Ben Affleck is clearly a fine director, but sadly it’s completely through a white, kyriarchal, American prism, which is a disappointment after such a promising opening.

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