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'Bad' books hidden under the veil of revolution

Iranian women resist oppression by reading forbidden novels

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Azar Nafisi's memoir makes a good case for reading the classics of Western literature no matter where you are. Rich with the author's memories of teaching English during the Islamic revolution that shook her country, "Reading Lolita in Tehran" provides a stirring testament to the power of Western literature to cultivate democratic change and open-mindedness.

Nafisi, who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University, was educated in the United States and Europe. During her years in America, she marched with other Iranian students to protest the shah's regime. Like her fellow dissidents, she read Marxist and other left-wing theorists, but she never gave up the habit of "reading and loving 'counterrevolutionary' writers - T.S. Eliot, Austen, Plath, Nabokov, Fitzgerald."

After returning to Tehran in 1979, the year the shah was forced into exile, Nafisi taught her beloved Western writers amid the turbulent changes that so radically altered her country over the next few years: the increasing ideological dogmatism of cultural revolutionaries; the imposition of strict clothing rules; the reign of new morality police; the rise of terror, mass arrests, and executions; and the devastation caused by eight years of war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

After years of fighting her own battles against university administrators (she was expelled from one university for refusing to wear the veil and subsequently resigned from another), Nafisi selected seven of her best students, all of them women, and put together a private class. For nearly two years, this small group talked about forbidden works of literature and their own lives as women in an Islamic republic. Every week, when they came into Nafisi's living room, they "shed their mandatory veils and robes and burst into color," sharing with each other their private beliefs and their struggles with anger, anxiety, loss, confusion, fear, and self-loathing.

Incredibly, "Lolita," the controversial novel that has so often been branded as illicit and dirty, resonated more than any other work of fiction with this group of women.


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