Azar Nafisi is an Iranian academic and bestselling writer who has resided in the U.S. since 1997 when she emigrated from Iran. Her field is English language literature. She has published two memoirs: Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, and Things I've Been Silent About: Memories.
In her 2003 New York Times best-seller Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, Nafisi opened up her world to readers around the globe, offering a vibrant portrait of women’s lives in Iran. Now she tells her own stunning story in Things I’ve Been Silent About, a moving narrative of her family’s life that crosses all cultural boundaries. In this new memoir, Nafisi delivers a compelling story of a family’s life lived in thrall to a powerful and complex mother, and the mesmerizing fictions she created about herself and her past. But her daughter, Azar, soon learned that these narratives of triumph hid as much as they revealed.
The history of feminism and women's movements is neither new nor unheard of in Iran. The feminist discourse in Iran has historically been split along ideological lines between left-secular and religious feminisms. "The woman question" has a long history and even now is the burning issue in Iran, where feminists are demanding their fair share of justice and rights in a fundamentalist state. In Iran, the status of women is measured in pre- and postrevolutionary terms. In the prerevolutionary era, questions of feminism were determined by elite, western-educated, and socialist feminists in relation to western feminism. The emphasis was on individual rights in terms of clothing (abandoning the veil) and equal access to education and employment within a secular state and western framework. In the postrevolutionary era, questions of feminism shifted to reclaiming women's rights as prescribed in Islamic texts, especially through the Quran.
Recent political debates, Nafisi said, primarily show candidates who seem to be talking only at one another, rather than with one another. Nafisi said that unwillingness to learn about opposing perspectives, and to acknowledge the commonalities between human beings, undermines civil discourse. She cited two examples of the lack of civility in political advertising and commentary: A series of ads by Christine O’Donnell, a candidate for U.S. Senate in Delaware — the first in which O’Donnell proclaimed, “I’m not a witch,” and another in which she proudly stated, “I didn’t go to Yale” — and comments by comedian Joy Behar, who called Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle the “B-word” on television’s the view.
While many critics commend Nafisi for the use of literary analysis, she is also criticized for the selection of books she discussed in Reading Lolita in Tehran. Critics from the Complete Review feel that Nafisi concentrates too much on Western literature and fails to include Persian writing. Perhaps it is because she writes for an American audience and readers would be unfamiliar with prominent Iranian writers. Nonetheless, by excluding Iranian literature, the reader is only exposed to Western ideas of literature.
"Part of the urge to write memoir for me is first of all, whenever I want to express an idea, I cannot express it except through a narrative. And so narrative itself, which is mainly based upon your own experiences, becomes for me a vehicle of talking about the ideas and the passions and the feelings that I have. But memoir, I think it is because of my experiences in the Islamic Republic. Having lived there for 18 years, and, you know, when you live under an absolutist regime, the first thing that happens is the confiscation of your voice, and the fact that now, you're not the one acting out your story or telling your story or being who you are. Someone else tells you that this is who you should be, this is what you should do. And there has been in Iran, as the years progressed, this urge to both read about the past, memoirs, history, and also to speak about the experiences."
What Nafisi finds both in the regime that exerts so much control over her life and over the lives of her students and in the literature that she and her students spend two years of their lives reading closely is that blindness is "the most unforgivable crime in fiction," and that blindness prevents us from seeing others in any terms but our own and that, in turn, makes empathy impossible. She writes, "Lack of empathy was to my mind the central sin of the regime, from which all the others flowed" (224). What is most frightening of all is her observation that none of us is immune to the loss of our ability to empathize: "We are all capable of becoming the blind censor, of imposing our visions and desires on others" (315). Ultimately, Nafisi realizes that to maintain her integrity as a teacher and as an intellectual, she has to leave Iran, and her secret class ends.
After years of fighting her own battles against university administrators...Nafisi selected seven of her best students, all of them women, and put together a private class. For nearly two years, this small group talked about forbidden works of literature and their own lives as women in an Islamic republic. Every week, when they came into Nafisi's living room, they "shed their mandatory veils and robes and burst into color," sharing with each other their private beliefs and their struggles with anger, anxiety, loss, confusion, fear, and self-loathing.
"Those in the west who dismiss the repressiveness of laws against women in countries like Iran, no matter how benign their intentions, present a condescending view not just of the religion but also of women living in Muslim majority countries, as if the desire for choice and happiness is the monopoly of women in the west...For Iranian women the issue is not religion, but the fact that no power, no state should dictate to its citizens how to worship and connect to their God. Islam, like all other religions, has many interpretations and it should not be used – in this case abused – as a political ideology. Women in Iran are proving once more that human rights recognise no boundaries and are not exclusive to certain societies. We should be reminded of the Noble laureate Shirin Ebadi, when she said that she was a Muslim and she believed in human rights."
Azar Nafisi held a fellowship at Oxford University, teaching and conducting a series of lectures on culture and the important role of Western literature and culture in Iran after the revolution in 1979. She taught at the University of Tehran, the Free Islamic University, and Allameh Tabatabai before her return to the United States in 1997 – earning national respect and international recognition for advocating on behalf of Iran’s intellectuals, youth, and especially young women. In 1981, she was expelled from the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the mandatory Islamic veil and did not resume teaching until 1987.
Azar Nafisi is best known as the author of the national bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, which electrified its readers with a compassionate and often harrowing portrait of the Islamic revolution in Iran and how it affected one university professor and her students. Earning high acclaim and an enthusiastic readership, Reading Lolita in Tehran is an incisive exploration of the transformative powers of fiction in a world of tyranny. The book has spent over 117 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Reading Lolita in Tehran has been translated in 32 languages, and has won diverse literary awards, including the 2004 Non-fiction Book of the Year Award from Booksense, the Frederic W. Ness Book Award, the 2004 Latifeh Yarsheter Book Award, an achievement award from the American Immigration Law Foundation, as well as being a finalist for the 2004 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for Memoir.