Reading Lolita in Tehran

by Azar Nafisi

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Historical Context

This memoir takes place during the revolutionary situation in Iran and describes the tension in the area during the 80s and 90s. Many westerners are uninformed on the topic and specifically the effects it has on the Iranian people, from the reduction in civil liberties to the mandatory veil. Nafisi makes many references to Ayatollah Khomeini, the dictator of Iran from 1979 to his death in 1989. Similarly, she alludes to the Iran-Iraq war that occurred from 1980 to 1988 and describes the bombs and missiles that threatened Tehran during that time. In addition, the Islamic Republic's attacks on education and eventual closure of universities play a great role in Nafisi's story as she is forced to choose between her morals and her passion. Her struggles with fundamentalists and radicals alike in her classroom forms the backdrop for her dialogue on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and to a less detailed extent James' novels.

The Government's Treatment of Women

Another major theme is her focus on the Iranian government's treatment of women. Nafisi describes two situations: her grandmother's refusal to unveil and her own refusal to veil. Both are systematic oppression of women, but in very different ways. The main similarity, however, is the removal of choice. In addition, Nafisi describes the 'morality police' who drive around looking for people to punish for being western and 'decadent'. She implies that they focus more on victimizing women. On buses, women are made to sit at the back as if it were a racially segregated American bus in the 1950s. Women are punished for wearing the slightest trace of makeup, or too ostentatious jewelry, or wearing nail polish. Through the inclusion of all these anecdotes, Nafisi is able to describe the reality of women's position in Iran at the time.

Nafisi's Use of Literature

A major theme of the novel is the effort by Nafisi to force her audience, westerners, to recognize the conditions of civilian life, specifically women, during this time of revolution. Through her inclusion of literature familiar to many westerners, Nafisi is able to connect and make more relevant her own experience. For example, the novel Lolita describes a young woman who lives her life in helplessness and desperation because of an abusive and oppressive stepfather. The girls are able to personify with Lolita because of the similarities between the stepfather and the Iranian government. In addition, Nafisi is able to include analysis and connections with The Great Gatsby and James' novels and the Iranian mindset under the guise of her class's curriculum. Lastly Austen's novels, specifically Pride and Prejudice, provide the backdrop for conversations with her book group about gender relations and the female social sphere. Nafisi states that it is because of the Islamic Republic that she is able to rediscover and appreciate all things she once took for granted, including books.

Important Quotes

"The worst crime committed by totalitarian mind-sets is that they force their citizens, including their victims, to become complicit in their crimes. Dancing with your jailer, participating in your own execution, that is an act of utmost brutality."

"She resented the fact that her veil, which to her was a symbol of her sacred relationship to God, had now become an instrument of power, turning the women who wore them into political signs and symbols."

Azar Nafisi: Is Islam hostile to women?