problems of degree: a review of azar nafisi’s “reading lolita in tehran”

“There was not much difference between our jailers and Cincinnatus’s executioners,” writes Azar Nafisi, comparing the plight of ordinary Iranians (and women in particular) to the arbitrary execution of a man in Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading. Many incredible explorations of totalitarian states exist—1984, The Trial, Darkness at Noon—and Nafisi would have us believe her Reading Lolita in Tehran belongs on the list. It doesn’t.

Nafisi, a former Iranian professor of literature, left her post following years of administrative infringement and interference with her syllabi choices.

Azar Nafisi subtly explaining how modern Iran is Stalin.

Azar Nafisi subtly explaining how modern Iran is Stalin.

Her memoir, written and published in 2003, chronicles her extracurricular literary discussions held with several female students. These sessions emerged in response to Nafisi’s inability to teach certain Western classics. Reading Lolita in Tehran follows the discourse between Nafisi and her students, interweaving their personal stories of oppression with the professor’s own theorizing about Iran as an essentially totalitarian state— one that effectively shackles half its population.

Nafisi’s bedrock metaphor derives from a narrow reading of Lolita: “the desperate truth of Lolita’s story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man but the confiscation of one individuals’s life by another (italics original).” In this connection, as in many others, Nafisi attempts to explain life in Iran by way of literary lessons learned, and to convince her reader, with mere anecdotal evidence, that Iranian women are both oppressed and complicit in their own oppression.

Two ugly problems arise. First, Nafisi’s structure and example bank are unrepresentative of Iranian society: of the eight young women in attendance, only one could be classified as a severe conservative. Her arguments are torn to shreds by her Westward-looking classmates and Nafisi herself in a manner reeking of condescension. One does not simply invalidate an opponent’s arguments by declaring them reactionary.  For instance, Nafisi accepts the fact that many women rather enjoy their hijabi status or even extract power from covering up, but she dismisses their claims to authenticity. In other words, the old “you’re too stupid to realize your own captivity” trope, which Nafisi wields over and over again throughout the memoir.

Few of her negative tableaus of women’s status in Iran offer any evidence, and many conflate the political repression practiced upon Iranian citizens with internal conflict within Shi’a Islam. One parochial example of gender oppression extrapolated society-wide does not an accurate assessment make. Of course, the personal anecdotes relayed by her students—domestic violence, legal discrimination, harassment—occur in Iran, but not to the extent Nafisi would have the reader believe.

Nafisi’s portrayal of Iranian society remains problematic for two reasons: first, because it is by far and away the best-selling English-language book about Iran, and second, it is set in the second half of President Rafsanjani’s second term—before the relative liberalization of social and gender metrics of the Khatami era. Readers are stuck with a picture of Iran that no longer applies; it’s a historical impression billed as a representation of today’s Iran. No one reads The Gulag Archipelago to understand Russian society in 2013.

The book also runs the risk of incorrectly painting women solely as recipients of oppression in need of Westernization. While certainly an option or preference of some Iranians, much better to understand Iranian women through the a more thorough and nuanced portrait of Shi’a women, as in Lara Deeb’s Enchanted Modern, which follows a group of Lebanese Shi’a women as they organically meld and mold tradition and modernity—just as Western women have done for two centuries.

Misrepresentation can be ignorant or tendentious, and often both. Nafisi’s is far more the former than the latter, despite Columbia’s Hamid Dabashi alleging that Nafisi herself acts as a sort of fifth column for American imperialism. But itinerant American writer Gideon Lewis-Kraus responds by binding them both together with “their shared overemphasis on the politically salutary effects of reading novels and writing literary criticism.” This is almost certainly true, as literature and literary criticism rarely affects politics anywhere: in the U.S., few authors, critics, and professors of literature could credibly claim to have an outsized influence on the national political discourse. Similarly, political criticism—especially gender rights criticism—exists primarily within film in Iran, as Northwestern’s Hamid Naficy explains.

In the end, Nafisi simply doesn’t do a comprehensive job on either Iranian society or the experience of women therein. To do so would have ruined her entire meta-narrative, that of “living under a totalitarian regime,” because contemporary Iran cannot be meaningfully compared to any of the cited dystopian regimes.As a memoir, Nafisi’s narrative is readable enough. But for anyone looking to genuinely understand modern Iran, it falls far short in almost every area.

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