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Azar Nafisi Discusses Women & Literature in Mid East - 2003-05-02


With the fall of the Iraqi regime, many are looking towards a brighter future for the Middle East. VOA’s David Borgida speaks with Azar Nafisi, author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran”. who discusses the role of women and literature in Iran and the importance of their contributions to establishing a new democratic society in the Middle East.

MR. BORGIDA
And joining us now, Azar Nafisi, author of the book "Reading Lolita in Teheran." And in some ways, Ms. Nafisi, it does fit in with our last topic about press freedom, on World Press Freedom Day. Tell us a little bit, as briefly as you can, and I'll ask some other questions, about your book and what it's about and your struggle to get it published.

MS. NAFISI
Well, it's basically based on my experiences of 18 years of teaching English literature in Teheran. And I wanted to show how in a totalitarian society, where especially your individual liberties are confiscated, how you can create spaces through literature, and here not just Persian literature but also Western literature.

MR. BORGIDA
Educated in the United States, you spent about 20 years back in Iran, from the seventies to the nineties, and much of your experience is documented in the book. You had a book club of sorts, I guess, the suburban variety.

MS. NAFISI
I discovered about book clubs when I came here.

MR. BORGIDA
Book clubs back then. I wanted to read this one portion, I think it's from your book. When your students came into the room almost every Thursday, "they took off more than their scarves and their robes." What did you mean by that?

MS. NAFISI
Well, what I wanted to show was that this wasn't really about a religious practice, but forcing the veil, or forcing the laws, related to women was mainly using religion as an ideology and creating a sort of uniformity. So, even my students who were practicing Muslims and wore the veil all looked the same. But as soon as they came in and they took their veils off, they each became their own individual selves, their own inimitable selves in a sense. And I wanted to show the value of this individuality.

MR. BORGIDA
Iran has been obviously a part of the news landscape these days, Iranians inside Iraq. What is your sense of Iran and its influence inside Iraq?

MS. NAFISI
I think Iran will play a very important role in the democratization of the Muslim world. In a sense, it's the Soviet Union of the Muslim world. We have gone through a revolution which has been ideological and theocratic, and people have reached the decision that democracy is international; it is not the monopoly of what we call the West, the U.S. or Europe. And we are trying to change nonviolently. So, I think that the Iranian people will set a model, while the Iranian Government might be meddling and trying to intervene in the affairs of other countries.

MR. BORGIDA
Tell us a little bit about feminism and the role of women in a fundamentalist kind of society. Is it possible for women to have freedom of expression and so on in that kind of a society?

MS. NAFISI
Well, women in Iran created it. It wasn't given to them. Before the revolution, women were very active in all walks of life, and Ayatollah Khomeini, who in the early 1960's said that granting the right to vote to women was prostitution, when he came to the country he realized that he can't live without half of the population. So, the government was forced to give women more rights, and they're still fighting for it.

They didn't give in. The streets of Teheran have turned into battlegrounds, not because we're carrying guns but because we are trying to dress up and act the way we want to and not the way the government wants us to.

MR. BORGIDA
Spoken as someone who, I believe, weren't you fired from a job for not wearing a veil?

MS. NAFISI
Yes. At the beginning of the revolution, they tried to make the veil mandatory in work places. And women constantly -- it wasn't just me, there are so many thousands of women who were expelled, and I had the privilege to be among them.

MR. BORGIDA
So much rich material in your book, "Reading Lolita in Teheran," Azar Nafisi, thanks for being our guest today. We enjoyed it.

MS. NAFISI
Thank you very much.

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