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Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness


Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness Reading Lolita in Tehran in Connecticut

Simon hay

Azar Nafisiʼs bestselling Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (Random House, 2003) has become a popular choice for required summer reading for incoming students at many colleges and universities across the USA, including my own. It has also been immensely popular with book clubs, library organizations and the like. Translated into thirty-two languages, it has remained on the New York Times bestseller list for over two years. Clearly, it offers a message that ʻresonatesʼ for a significant portion of the US – and world – reading publics. As a choice for incoming first-year students, Nafisiʼs book seems compelling because, as a reviewer from the New York Times is quoted on the cover as saying, it is an ʻeloquent brief on the transformative powers of fictionʼ. But what kind of reading practices is the book describing and encouraging, and what reading practices are being declared significant intellectual engagements with literature, and with Iran, in this positioning of Nafisiʼs book?Reading Lolita in Tehran tells the story of Nafisi herself and a small group of Iranian women who joined her once a week, after she resigned her job at the University of Allameh Tabatabai, for private discussion classes on a series of Great Works of the Western canon. Each of the four chapters of the book is built around the discussion of work by a canonical Western writer: Nabokovʼs Lolita, Fitzgeraldʼs The Great Gatsby, Jamesʼs Daisy Miller and Washington Square, and Austenʼs Pride and Prejudice.

Nafisiʼs book establishes early on that what is at stake for the young women who join her to read Lolita is the possibility of establishing a sense of individual identity, otherwise impossible (apparently) in the Islamic Revolutionary State of Iran. Only on entering Nafisiʼs house, she says, and removing their outer robes, did each student ʻgain … an outline and a shape, becoming her own inimitable selfʼ. As the women become more confident in themselves, they wear lipstick, nailpolish and jeans. In the early stages of the book, both high and mass Western culture allow the young women to establish selves that the Iranian – Islamic – world disallows. [1]

In Nafisiʼs memoir, the classes allow the girls to develop their identities precisely because the classes themselves are forbidden: ʻThe room, for all of us, became a place of transgression.ʼ The transgressive activity is a collation of unveiling and reading, both of which offer, according to the bookʼs logic, a particular kind of freedom, one that establishes identity in the face of the ʻtorturous rituals … governing what I was forced to wear, how I was expected to act, the gestures I had to remember to control … [t]he daily struggle against arbitrary rules and restrictionsʼ that living as a woman under a reactionary Islamic law has come to entail in Iran.This is the bookʼs central argument. At a literal level it follows these young women through a gradual progression of disrobement, accompanied by the application of Western accoutrements, and we are taught to understand this as a voyage of selfdiscovery. At a more abstract level, the book disrobes Iranian – and Islamic – culture for Western eyes, and by implication teaches us to understand this looking not as scopophilia, voyeuristic desire and desire-for-power, but as a healing, caring, freeing exercise. That the book is crucially concerned with the staged uncovering of female bodies is established early on, before the students have arrived for the first class, with Nafisi taking ʻa long, leisurely shower. The water caressed my neck, my back, my legs, and I stood there both rooted and light.ʼ In the next few pages Nafisi asks herself a series of questions and muses about teaching in Iran, from time to time reminding us of her nakedness: ʻI smiled as I rubbed the coarse loofah over my skin, remembering…ʼ In Nafisiʼs self-description – as in the collapse for her students of unveiling and reading – thinking and nudity are emphatically associated. And when she gets out of the shower, of course, like her students, ʻI applied my makeup with care and put on bright red lipstick.ʼ

There is nothing lewd about thinking in the shower. But this scene draws our attention to a central feature of Nafisiʼs project: the insistence on her – and her studentsʼ – right to disrobe, their right to be naked, and a refusal of a politics that understands the naked female body as inherently sinful. That project is without doubt an important one. But the covering and uncovering of ʻEasternʼ womenʼs bodies for the benefit of Western audiences has a long colonial and Orientalist history. As Leila Ahmed argues in ʻThe Discourse of the Veilʼ, Western contests over the political meaning of Islamic dress codes extend at least as far back as the difference between, on the one hand, colonialists of the nineteenth century like Cromer, who ʻbelieved that unveiling was the key to social transformationʼ, and, on the other hand, feminists like Mary Wortley Montagu, who argued in her letters that the veil ʻwas not the oppressive custom her compatriots believed it to be and in fact it gave women a kind of liberty, for it enabled them not to be recognizedʼ. [2] The basic point is made most succinctly by Fanon, in the context of the veiling and unveiling of Algerian women before and during their war for independence: ʻRemoved and reassumed again and again, the veil has been manipulated, transformed into a technique of camouflage, into a means of struggle.ʼ

Fanon describes the way that, early in the war, revolutionary women hid arms and messages beneath both the voluminous folds of their robes and the presumed docility, submissiveness, and harmlessness of their identity as Islamic women. Later, when precisely such a costume and pose singled women out for the suspicion of French guards at checkpoints, Algerian revolutionary women dressed in Western clothing and hid bombs, guns and messages in make-up kits and handbags, the unveiled Algerian woman now newly invisible to power in a way the veiled Algerian woman no longer was. Fanonʼs point here is that the veil expresses no truth in and of itself, but is rather a means by which other struggles are waged, and takes its meaning in any given context from those struggles.

A ‘non-ideological’ position

In her embrace of make-up and unveiling and her faith in her own nudity as revealing a truth that her veil conceals, Nafisi erases any history or politics to practices of veiling. This is something like an exaggerated version of embodied critique, where the refusal to abandon the body, the refusal to pretend that critique happens in a disembodied space, has become a claim whose truthfulness needs no guarantee other than its embodied location. The womenʼs identities, unveiled, are truthful representations of the women because unveiled, because they wear make-up and jeans and reveal their faces and hair. But it is not only that Nafisiʼs stance produces truth-claims without evidence or argument. There is an ideology to her project of unveiling that plays up to Orientalist scopophilia at the same time as it celebrates the values of Western capitalism.

In Iran in the early sixteenth century, dominant interpretations of the Quran did not legislate veiling, which was practised mostly only by the wealthy. [3] By the late seventeenth century, however, it seems that the seclusion and veiling of women had become widespread, as the form of Islam embraced by the dominant classes changed. Veiling remained part of a largely repressive set of attitudes to women until the early twentieth century, when Reza Shah began his Westernizing reforms. Under Reza Shah, class attitudes to the veil reversed, with the upper class embracing Western reforms including Western dress, while the working poor saw the veil as a sign of propriety. Reza Shahʼs legislation banning headgear other than European-style hats provoked working-class demonstrations that were ruthlessly crushed, and poor women stayed home rather than face police who would pull the veils from their faces. Reza Shahʼs unpopularity was strongest among the working class and the religious Right, and with his abdication most urban women began wearing chadors again, though without face veils. Eventually, the leaders of the religious Right insisted on a more patriarchal repressive version of Islamic law, and after the 1979 revolution, whatever its initial progressive ideals, the combination of the dominance of such patriarchal versions of Islam with strong anti-Western sentiment meant that veiling became once again mandatory. Even so, some religious and secular leaders continue to oppose mandatory veiling. In other words, at any given moment in Iranian history the meaning of the veil is contested across different religious practices and Quranic interpretations, across different class positions, and as a means of expressing different relationships to the West. Part of what has happened recently is that the question of the veil – as earlier in Algeria – has been reduced in public discourse to a question of Westernization versus Islamic culture, in ways that are obviously debilitating to forms of Islamic feminism.

Clearly, since 1979, in Iran, there has been drastic reduction in womenʼs personal, political, cultural, legal and social rights. Legal changes have reintroduced polygamy, lowered the legal age of marriage for women to thirteen, pressured women out of the workforce, reduced or removed womenʼs ability to inherit or own property, to divorce or gain custody of their children, as well as enforcing the wearing of the Islamic hijab.

All of these represent steps backwards in the rights of women from the regime that had preceded it. But, as Nashat points out, ʻthe immediate impact of the regimeʼs policies has been felt mainly by the educated professional and secular women and by female students, primarily in urban areas, and they constitute only a small part of the female population.ʼ [4] Nafisiʼs book draws attention to this segment of Iranian women, educated, wealthy, with links to the West (she herself was educated in part in Switzerland, and is the daughter of a pre-1979 mayor of Tehran), who come to stand in for Iranian women as a whole, or at least become those for whom our sympathy is demanded. (A late section of the book, describing the suicide-by-immolation of a university student who, she declares, only got into university because his rural family is appropriately fundamentalist, makes clear Nafisiʼs contempt for and dismissal of those who donʼt ʻdeserveʼ our sympathy, as well as making clear who these are: the rural, the fundamentalist, the uneducated, the poor.)Reading Lolita in Tehran insists repeatedly that true transgression and rebellion are neither political nor ideological.

To me, Yassi [another of her students] was the real rebel. She did not join any political group or organization. As a teenager she had defied family traditions and, in the face of strong opposition, had taken up music.… Her rebellion did not stop there: she did not marry the right suitor at the right time and insisted on leaving her hometown of Shiraz to go to college in Tehran.

ʻReal rebelsʼ donʼt join political organizations, but learn classical music and read the Western canon. Clearly these are rebellious acts, but in defining rebellion as antior a-political, Nafisi follows the Manichaean logic of her argument about the veil: a stance against the veil is a stance against Islam, and a stance against Islam is pro-Western. To reject the repressive patriarchal forms of Islam dominant in her moment in Iran is, she suggests, necessarily to embrace a romanticized bourgeois Western consumerist life. The most rebellious things Yassi can imagine are ʻlong walks holding hands with someone she loved, even [having] a little dog perhaps?ʼ Rebellion produces not some radical new way of being, but rather a return to the class privileges that Nafisiʼs family possessed before the revolution.

That the bookʼs ʻnon-ideologicalʼ position is a version of US capitalist individualism is seen most clearly in the last few pages, when the various stock phrases of Americana are thrown around wilfully to describe all that is good about American life and, by contrast, what is lacking in Iran: ʻlife, liberty, and the pursuit of happinessʼ, ʻthe rights of all individualsʼ, ʻdemand for freedomʼ, and, perhaps most significant, the claim that ʻpeopleʼs choices were their ownʼ.

Nafisi discusses one of her students, Mahshid, who chose to wear a headscarf even before the Islamic government in Iran made it law: ʻBefore the revolution, she could in a sense take pride in her isolation. At that time, she had worn the scarf as a testament to her faith. Her decision was a voluntary act. When the revolution forced the scarf on others, her action became meaningless.ʼ As an individual action, the wearing of the scarf is a statement or testament of belief; once it is legislated, it becomes only another form of un-freedom. What is at stake, ideologically, in making an argument like this in favour of choice?

Shades of lipstick

In Žižekʼs recent essay ʻAgainst Human Rightsʼ, he argues that the liberal emphasis on personal choice always presupposes that one has already chosen a framework of liberal capitalism to make the choice within; any real ideological differences are thus rendered incomprehensible. And he does so via the example of the veil:

The problem of pseudo-choice … demonstrates the limitations of the standard liberal attitude towards Muslim women who wear the veil: acceptable if it is their own free choice rather than imposed on them by husbands or family. However, the moment a woman dons the veil as a result of personal choice, its meaning changes completely: it is no longer a sign of belonging to the Muslim community, but an expression of idiosyncratic individuality. In other words, a choice is always a meta-choice, a choice of the modality of the choice itself: it is only the woman who does not choose to wear a veil that effectively chooses a choice. [5]

Nafisiʼs celebration of Mahshidʼs ʻchoiceʼ to wear the veil works in precisely these terms: whether or not she chooses a headscarf, the meta-choice against Iranian Islam and for Western democratic individualism has already been made.Žižek reminds us of the background to this meta-choice: ʻthe “subject of free choice”, in the “tolerant”, multicultural sense, can only emerge as the result of an extremely violent process of being uprooted from oneʼs particular life-worldʼ and forcibly incorporated into the capitalist world-system. What looks like choice, what is celebrated as democratic choice, the choice between wearing and not wearing a veil, is a result of the violent erasure of the particular and the local, about which there is no choice. Nafisiʼs arguments about the function of the great books of Western literature take place against the background of this unspoken violence. The book insists on the power of the young women to make choices: Nabokov or Austen; shades of lipstick; even, later, the choices between high and low Western culture, and between staying in Iran or leaving for the West. But the existence of such choices is predicated on what is not in question: the choice of an ideological framework that prohibits the possibility of a critique of capitalism.

So what does it mean that this is a book that incoming university students are asked to read, and think about, before they begin their tertiary studies; and that reading groups and library projects and the US reading public in general have embraced so enthusiastically? In a sense, the book functions like Wild Swans in regard to China and The Poisonwood Bible in regard to ʻAfricaʼ as a whole. Both are novels that push a political line which ʻresonatesʼ with a large reading public, and that have been widely publicized and read. In the case of Reading Lolita, it is easy to see at a superficial level the bookʼs appeal: itʼs a book about women in an Islamic society, a careful and compassionate and heart-warming narrative of their deep equality with us. And it is a book about the important forms of resistance that happen at the personal level, not just the big and bold (socially coded ʻmasculineʼ) public resistances of marches, protests, sit-ins, revolutions, but the (ʻfeminineʼ) resistance that happens behind closed doors, in private spaces, within the psyche.

Yet this is, fundamentally, a book about how Western culture, Western cultural products, will set ʻIslamicʼ women free. If only, it argues, all Islamic people were sensible enough to read Nabokov and James, rather than the Quran, if they listened to the Doors rather than Persian ʻpolitical songs and military marchesʼ, they would realize how much better off they would be if they just adopted capitalism. The book advocates and celebrates an ideology of choice derived from neoliberal capitalism, at a moment when our political leaders justify vast civilian massacres on the grounds that any threat to our ʻway of lifeʼ (choice, capitalism) is terrorism. Rather than encouraging an engaged understanding of the complex of different and often competing social, religious and political practices that are so commonly reified in Western coverage as ʻIslamʼ, the book encourages sympathy at the individual level with these women by having them experience and express the superior values of Western capitalism. Such an ideology, put into the mouths of Iranian women and read by privileged Americans, reinforces the sense of cultural superiority and entitlement that Western audiences already ʻknowʼ. The book ʻresonatesʼ because it tells its readers what they want to hear (which is what ʻresonatesʼ has come to mean) and describes that confirmation as an exciting or even radical reading practice. Everything the book asks its readers to ʻchooseʼ, they have already chosen, and in so choosing exercised no choice at all. Sounds like America.


I would like to thank Christian Thorne, Terry Locke and Gene Gallagher, who offered helpful suggestions about earlier versions of this article.

1. ^ It is only later that Nafisi becomes uncomfortable with the way the students fail to distinguish between ʻhighʼ Western culture – Nabokov, Austen, etc. – and the products of ʻmassʼ Western culture. As well as the jeans, lipstick and eyeliner, there is, for instance, Western technology and entertainment: ʻThey [Manna and Nima, one of Nafisiʼs students and her husband] were euphoric about their satellite dishʼ and the ʻnew American classic[s]ʼ it brought them: American consumerism brings pleasure and freedom (p. 67).

2. ^ Leila Ahmed, ʻThe Discourse of the Veilʼ, in Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, Yale University Press, New Haven CT, 1992, ch. 8.

3. ^ This paragraph draws heavily on Nikki Keddie, Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2003; Ahmed, ʻThe Discourse of the Veilʼ; and Guity Nashat, ed., Women and Revolution in Iran, Westview Press, Boulder CO, 1983.

4. ^ Nashat, Women and Revolution in Iran, pp. 285–6.

5. ^ Slavoj Žižek, ʻAgainst Human Rightsʼ, New Left Review 34, July–August 2005, p. 118.

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