A veil of oppression covered Iran after the 1979 revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power. Azar Nafisi describes the degrading repression and suffocating loss of freedoms during this time in her memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran (Vintage).
Educated in the Switzerland and England, Nafisi taught literature at the University of Tehran, at the Free Islamic University, and at Allameh Tabatabai in her native Iran. She was expelled from the University of Tehran in 1981, for refusing to wear the mandatory Islamic veil. She resumed teaching in 1987, but resigned her post in 1995, as the arbitrariness of University officials had become unbearable: a multitude of harassments, her actions controlled, her visitors monitored, her long overdue tenure denied.
Azar Nafisi went on to defy the law of the land in order to fulfill a long-cherished dream. For two years, before she left Iran in 1997, she led a reading group in her house for seven of her former female students. Risking jail or worse from the “Islamic morality” police, the women found release and hope in the two hours together on Thursday mornings. Discussing the classic but forbidden works of Austin, Fitzgerald, James, and Nabokov, their lives became intertwined with the ones they read. They could converse freely, flex their minds, and laugh and talk about their relationships with men, within the sanctuary of her walls. Outside this world of fiction and ideas, Iranian women could seldom relax from the daily ordeals of reprimands for eating fruit “too suggestively” or allowing a strand of hair to escape from a head scarf. Disobeying the “rules” could lead to jail, flogging, fines, or even rape and execution.
Having grown up in Iran before the mullahs came to power, Nafisi writes of living in “two different time zones simultaneously.” Her father had been mayor of Tehran and her mother was one of the first six women to be elected to the Parliament. After studies abroad and living in the U.S., she returned to Iran in the late 1970s, just as the revolution was cresting. By the time her daughter was born several years later, “the laws had regressed to what they had been before my grandmother’s time”: the age of marriage was lowered to nine (from 18); adultery and prostitution were to be punished by stoning to death, and “women were considered to have half the worth of men.”
“My youthful years had witnessed the rise of two women to the rank of cabinet minister. After the revolution, these same two women were sentenced to death for the sins of warring with God and spreading prostitution….the minister of education and my former high school principal, was put in a sack and stoned or shot to death. These girls, my girls, would in time come to think of these women with reverence and hope: if we’d had women like this in the past, there was no reason why we couldn’t have them in the future,” Nafisi writes.
Azar Nafisi has lectured and written extensively in English and Persian on the political implications of literature and culture, as well as on the rights of girls and women and the critical role they play in the process of cultural change. She has earned international recognition for advocating on behalf of Iran’s intellectuals, youth, and, especially, young women.
Dr. Azar Nafisi was interviewed at Kentucky Author Forum by legendary civil rights reporter Karl Fleming. As Newsweek’s lead civil rights reporter he covered all of the major events of the Civil rights Movement in the 1960’s, including the church bombing in Birmingham, the Selma demonstrations, and the assassination of Martin Luther King. In 2005, his memoir, Son of the Rough South, was published.
Dr. Nafisi was also the featured speaker at the 2005 Annual Minx Auerbach Lecture in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Louisville. Dr. Sy Auerbach’s generous endowment was established in honor of his wife, Minx, who served the University and the greater Louisville community in numerous ways.