Stalled in Iran


When she left Iran for the US in 1997, Azar Nafisi found that she was able to write with a freedom that she had not known since she was last in America as a student in the 1970s. Long muffled by Iranian censorship, she took advantage of her liberty to write a damaging and eloquent account of the Islamic Republic. Damaging, but indirect, for Reading Lolita in Tehran1 is about reading well-known works of English and American literature in a totalitarian environment—about entering a fictional world whose morally ambiguous characters resist the leveling effects of ideology. In revolutionary Tehran, Nafisi writes, reading Invitation to a Beheading, Pride and Prejudice, and, of course, Lolita offered “a critical way of appraising and grasping the world.” In a political system that aims ruthlessly to homogenize, to impose a code of behavior and thought, fiction can be a weapon of resistance.

During the decade or so that she spent teaching English literature at Tehran University and at Allameh Tabatabai University, also in Tehran, in addition to two years of private instruction of a class of young women, Nafisi was engaged in resistance. By setting very demanding standards of Islamic virtue from its citizens, the Islamic Republic has made criminals of millions of them. Nafisi was expelled from Tehran University for declining to wear the hejab, the Islamic head- and body-cover that the Iranian authorities have made mandatory. Later, at Allameh Tabatabai, she wore the hejab with contemptuous sloppiness; she ate ham and drank vodka after both had been banned; she had the temerity to try to shake the hand of a male student; and she taught Lolita to her private class, despite its perversion of what Islam, no less than any other religion, regards as a sacred relationship between a guardian and his juvenile charge.

Nafisi regards Reading Lolita in Tehran as an optimistic book about the “transformative power of literature.” It contains a description of an exuberantly democratic classroom “trial,” suggested by Nafisi herself, of The Great Gatsby, which has offended her Islamist and leftist students. The account of the trial goes on for pages, but some brief quotes can suggest its flavor. One of the Muslim students, Mr. Nyazi, states a case for the prosecution. “The only sympathetic person here,” he says, “is the cuckolded husband, Mr. Wilson. When he kills Gatsby, it is the hand of God. He is the only victim. He is the only gen-uine symbol of the oppressed, in the land of…the Great Satan!” A young woman, Zarrin, defends the book:

Careless is the first adjective that comes to mind when describing the rich in this novel. The dream they embody is an alloyed dream that destroys whoever tries to get close to it. So you see, Mr. Nyazi, this book is no less a condemnation of your wealthy upper classes than any of the revolutionary books we have read.

Nafisi writes:

I discovered later that most students had supported Zarrin, but very few were prepared to risk voicing their views, mainly because they lacked enough self-confidence to articulate their points as “eloquently,” I was told, as the defense and the prosecutor. Some claimed in private that they personally liked the book. Then why didn’t they say so? Everyone else was so certain and emphatic in their position, and they couldn’t really say why they liked it—they just did.

Nafisi describes the intimacy that developed in her private class, where discussion of troubled characters like Daisy Miller and Catherine Sloper led “my girls” to share their problems. (These mostly have to do with men, or the state, or both.) She finds solace in a friendship with a mysterious academic. But to my mind Reading Lolita in Tehran is mostly a sad book, “a mournful feast,” as Nafisi writes in another context. Censorship, of art and behavior, casts a shadow. So does the despotism exercised by men over women who, in the case of Nafisi and her girls, are helplessly aware of what is going on. Nafisi pays for her awareness “at night, always at night, when I returned. What will happen now? Who will be killed? When will they come?”

A description of a walk taken by a student, Sanaz, recalls the experience of many Iranian women:

It is in her best interest not to be seen, not be heard or noticed. She doesn’t walk upright, but bends her head to the ground and doesn’t look at passersby…. The streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities are patrolled by militia, who ride in white Toyota patrols, four gun-carrying men and women…. They patrol the streets to make sure that women like Sanaz wear their veils properly, do not wear make-up, do not walk in public with men who are not their fathers, brothers or husbands…. The streets have been turned into a war zone, where young women who disobey the rules are hurled into patrol cars, taken to jail, flogged, fined….

As a student, Nafisi had opposed US meddling in Iran, cheered the Shah’s flight, and returned home full of optimism. The revolution soon soured. Freedom was subordinated to an intolerance that took the form of radical Islam; this intolerance permitted, through the promulgation of benighted laws, Iranian men to assume absolute authority over their wives, daughters, and sisters. For a great many Iranian women, this may have been seen as a correction of the excesses of the Shah’s time, when the carousing of the nouveaux riches had raised fears of Western-style degeneracy. For a great many others, revolutionary but secular-minded, it was a ghastly surprise.

The worst crime committed by totalitarian mind-sets,” Nafisi writes, “is that they force their citizens, including their victims, to become complicit in their crimes.” She is reminded of the condemned Cincinnatus C. in Invitation to a Beheading and the waltz that he dances with his jailer. When the waltz ends, Nabokov writes, “Cincinnatus regretted that the swoon’s friendly embrace had been so brief.” Nafisi writes,

The only way to leave the circle, to stop dancing with the jailer, is to find a way to preserve one’s individuality, that unique quality which evades description but differentiates one human being from the other…. There was not much difference between our jailers and Cincinnatus’s executioners. They invaded all private spaces and tried to shape every gesture, to force us to become one of them, and that in itself was another form of execution.

By 1997, Nafisi had decided that the only way to leave the circle was to leave Iran, and that prompted people she knew to seek an escape route. Nafisi’s epilogue alludes to the emigration of several of her students. Since she has written very critically about the Islamic Republic, it is unlikely that she will be allowed to return safely to Iran, even for a short holiday. That puts her in a position that is privileged but also difficult. Exiles are able, as Iranians in Iran are not, to tell the full truth about the Islamic Republic. However, the longer they spend away from Iran, the less acquainted they are with it, and the more their accounts are open to question.

I know the period that Nafisi deals with in Reading Lolita in Tehran only through books and conversations with people, including my wife, who lived in Iran at the time. Nafisi’s portrayal is grimly authentic. On the other hand, I have direct experience of life in Iran since the election of a reformist president, Muhammad Khatami, which happened a month before Nafisi emigrated, and I disagree with aspects of Nafisi’s portrayal of this newer Iran.

In articles and lectures written in the US, Nafisi describes the Khatami presidency as marking hardly a break with the past, and the Islamic Republic as being no less fanatical and vicious. She portrays normal Iranians as being more politically conscious and willing to act with dynamism than they are. Such misapprehensions are common among Iranian exiles; they justify a vilification of the regime without regard to the nuances of its behavior, while offering an unrealistic hope of change through the power of its people.
In an article that she wrote last year for The Wall Street Journal, Nafisi suggested that Khatami’s landslide election victory in 1997 was “more a vote against the rulers of the Islamic Republic than in support of an obscure cleric with impeccable revolutionary credentials.”2 That was not my impression from a rally of several thousand people I attended in 1999. Even then, more than two years after he came to power, it was remarkable how much admired, even revered, the President was. He was, as I wrote, “loudly cheered, with female students holding up his photograph, their male counterparts bellowing his name.”3 As late as 2001, when Khatami’s efficiency as a reformer was widely questioned, I watched 12,000 people in the provincial town of Kerman, including young women close to hysteria, give him a welcome that might elsewhere be given to a pop star.4

In her Wall Street Journal article, Nafisi referred admiringly to Iranians “breaking into riots to see films by great directors, Iranian or Western.” In the early 1990s, a decision to suspend the screening of two films by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of Iran’s most famous filmmakers, led to rioting by people who had hoped to see the films. But the decision to suspend the screenings had been prompted by much more serious rioting, by violent Islamist groups, outside movie theaters where the films were playing. It is not uncommon for fists and insults to fly during the annual Tehran film festival. Seats are hard to come by and the festival organizers are notoriously incompetent. But these minor fracases do not amount, as Nafisi put it, to “the Iranian people…revealing their civilizational aspirations.”

In an interview that she gave in 2003 to The Atlantic, Nafisi lamented that following the terrorist attacks of September 11, scant attention was paid to the fact that “40,000 Iranians came out to the streets in Iran under threat of jail or torture and lit candles in sympathy with the American people.”5 There were several vigils in Tehran after the attacks. Some five thousand people took part in the biggest, on September 18, according to an Iranian cameraman whose pictures of the event appeared on the BBC. The New York Times put the number of participants at three thousand. None of the other vigils attracted more than a few hundred people.

Nafisi told her interviewer that “there is a lot happening in the universities…. Universities now are the hotbed of the movement for democracy.” This was no longer true in 2003, and it is not true now. In the wake of serious student rioting in 1999, the authorities decapitated the student movement by jailing its leaders and, it is widely believed, torturing some of them. Those demonstrating students were associated with President Khatami’s reform movement, but that has now lost much of its support, and there is no longer a political current that reflects the aspirations of large numbers of young people. Many students are fatalistically convinced of their inability to influence the running of their country. There is less “happening” in the universities than at any time since the revolution.

The state uses repression more cunningly and selectively than it did, and the Iranian people are much more apathetic than Nafisi imagines them to be. This is why the Islamic Republic, for all the dislike that so many Iranians feel for it, is proving to be one of the Middle East’s more durable regimes.


On the afternoon of March 8, I was among about five hundred people, most of them young women, who had gone to Tehran’s Laleh Park to hear speeches against domestic violence. Upon reaching the park’s small amphitheater, we learned that the Tehran governor-general’s office had rescinded the permit that it had issued earlier for the event. The organizers were arguing that the permit remained valid. The police told the women to go home; many of them clapped their hands mockingly. At around six, the organizers encouraged everyone to go home, and left the park. I went back to my car. Some of the women stayed behind, clapping and shouting slogans.

Shortly afterward, I was told later, members of the Basij, an official militia, arrived and beat some of the protesters with batons. There were no serious injuries. The police arrested three protesters. Alerted to the arrests, the organizers traced the detainees. They were freed the following day. And that was how International Women’s Day was marked in Tehran, a city of seven million inhabitants.

A few days later, Nooshin Ahmadi Khorasani, a founder of the Iranian Women’s Cultural Center (IWCC), the main organizer of the March 8 event, posted an article on the IWCC Web site.6 When I first met her, in 1999, Ahmadi Khorasani was editing one of the Islamic Republic’s first feminist magazines, Jens-e Dovom (The Second Sex), which is now called Fasl-e Zanan (The Season of Women). The fourth issue of Fasl-e Zanan is currently being scrutinized by the censors at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. For the past year and a half, Ahmadi Khorasani and her colleagues have been trying, through a touring workshop, to get women to discuss domestic violence. They plan to start a women’s library in Tehran as well.

Ahmadi Khorasani’s article was partly a reply to criticisms that had been made against the organizers of the March 8 event. These had been transmitted on Iranian Web sites abroad and echoed privately by some women in Iran. One article, by Shadi Amin, an exile in Germany, criticized the event’s organizers for leaving the amphitheater, and praised the boldness of those who stayed. These young women were victorious, in Amin’s view, because they had aired their grievances in defiance of the state.

In her article Ahmadi Khorasani admitted that the women’s movement is deeply vulnerable. “We are not heroes,” she wrote. She criticized those who use “very radical slogans in private”; in 2000, many of the same radicals did not dare to sign an open letter criticizing the arrest of Mehrangiz Kar, Iran’s most forthright woman lawyer, for her challenges to government repression. “We have come to realize that we have to go forward one step at a time, and that, if we suddenly leap forward one hundred paces, we’ll look over our shoulders and find not one of those women behind us.”

To Ahmadi Khorasani, the March 8 event was not a triumph. It was only in 2002 that the IWCC finally won permission to hold a Women’s Day celebration in the open air. After a successful (and peaceful) meeting that year, the IWCC had adopted a modest aim, to hold open-air events every March 8, and to increase the number of participants. Because of this year’s violence and arrests, Ahmadi Khorasani fears that next year no permit will be issued.

Last year, while working on an article about Iranian women, I had trouble finding a women’s movement.7 This came as a surprise; I had expected the Islamic Republic’s famously reactionary laws to have provoked more active opposition.8 In the provincial town of Ghazvin, for instance, young activists told me that awareness of women’s issues was only beginning to emerge, and that this had much to do with social changes. For example, a growing number of people are choosing their own spouses, rather than accepting their parents’ choice. More women are not marrying. The spread of girls’ schools has dramatically increased the number of educated women.9 These developments, activists say, are starting to have political consequences.

Another Tehran-based activist I talked to advises young feminists: “Don’t get too excited…this is about taking very slow steps” and not about provoking a backlash. Her point is that free activists, even if they are cautious, achieve more than jailed ones, or some of those in exile.

The case of Mehrangiz Kar, the forthright lawyer who was arrested in 2000, is salutary. At the time of her detention, following her attendance at a controversial conference in Berlin, Kar was Iran’s most influential women’s rights activist. She was shockingly direct in her advocacy of secular reforms. Having served a short prison sentence, she was allowed to leave Iran for cancer treatment. A second trial, to prosecute her for “insulting religious sanctities” and for “calling into question the hejab,” had yet to convene. Kar did not return to Iran, and so her influence has waned.

Activists of all kinds must tread a thin line between confrontation and what impatient exiles call “appeasement.” No one negotiates this path with more skill than Shirin Ebadi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003. Ebadi was a judge during the monarchy. After the revolutionary authorities ruled that women were unfit to be judges, she worked as a lawyer and human rights activist. She is famous for accepting politically charged cases of murder, repression, and domestic violence. She has been in jail. When I saw her, in April, she told me that she had twice narrowly escaped assassination.

On those occasions, Ebadi was lucky, but her survival as an influential activist is partly attributable to her caution. She does not demand reform according to secular principles, but according to an innovative reading of Shia jurisprudence. The piecemeal reform of Islamic laws that she proposes would mean using “rationality,” which she describes as “the scales for the weighing and apprehension of the holy word,” to determine which anachronistic laws should be discarded.

I met Ebadi a few days after hearing criticism of her from some female students. They felt that she should be using her position as a Nobel laureate to put forward more radical ideas. I had heard that more extreme criticism was circulating among exiled women. Some had accused Ebadi, absurdly, of being an apologist for the regime. Ebadi told me, “There’s no reason for me to speak more radically. The Nobel Prize hasn’t changed my beliefs.”

Ebadi had an intriguing explanation for Iranians’ apathy: their “unwise” habit of “building up heroes.” (In this criticism, she resembles Ahmadi Khorasani, although Ahmadi Khorasani is unlike Ebadi in many ways, not least in her rejection of religious arguments, in favor of secular ones, to advance women’s rights.) When people pin their hopes on a few heroes, Ebadi believes, they feel that they “have no responsibility but to sit around at home and, at most, cheer their hero.” A few days after she won the Nobel Prize, she recalled with amazement, some of her supporters were urging her to stand for the presidency. “They expect their hero to shout their own slogans for them…. Until you roll up your sleeves, you won’t achieve anything.”


The reform movement that brought Khatami to power was destroyed both by the President’s opponents, the conservative clerics who are accountable only to themselves, and by his own timidity. Early in his tenure, conservative judges tried the cases of prominent reformists and banned reformist publications. In 1999, their vigilantes put down student unrest with much brutality. From 2000 onward, the Council of Guardians, a supervisory body whose members are appointed by the conservative supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vetoed virtually all reformist legislation ratified by parliament. The same body disqualified more than two thousand reform-minded candidates from standing in February’s general election. The conservatives won a strong majority.

Khatami had been a hero, but his constituents deserted him when it became clear that he was unable, or unwilling, to challenge these despotic actions. Khatami is a cleric, and many people have had enough of clerics. He is also a politician, and they feel let down by politicians. To show their dissatisfaction, most urban Iranians did not vote in February’s elections.10

Still it is worth recalling Khatami’s achievements. During his presidency, the Islamic Republic adopted conciliatory positions in its foreign affairs, except with respect to the US and Israel. Iran’s nuclear program is widely perceived as being military in intent, but Iran is no longer interested in threatening its neighbors, even Israel. Iranian officials hope that the “strategic ambiguity” with which their nuclear program is conceived will make them less vulnerable to outside pressures, and force the US to negotiate with them. At home, Khatami halted the use of extrajudicial killings as an instrument of policy. Before he took office, Intelligence Ministry agents were said to be murdering dissidents and intellectuals at a rate of one per month. (The recent murder of a detained Canadian-Iranian journalist was appalling, but an aberration.)

Iran has changed in other ways, particularly in Tehran. On summer evenings, I step out of my house into a one-way street full of slow-moving cars. The groups of young women in some of them have little in common with Nafisi’s terrorized student Sanaz, who tries “not to be seen, not to be heard or noticed.” They wear fuchsia or violet headscarves, and are dazzlingly made up. Through open car windows, they flirt with boys in adjacent cars. The boys wear sunglasses (though it is dark) and goatees; some are drunk. Their car stereos broadcast illegal pop music written and performed by Iranian exiles in L.A. The Islamic Republic is bothersome but at least for a while it can be avoided. Such scenes can be observed elsewhere in Tehran and, less flamboyantly, in other large towns.

A few weeks ago, I visited a member of the English literature department at Allameh Tabatabai University. He told me that he was free to teach whatever books he wanted, provided they conformed to a prescribed syllabus. The previous term, he told me, he had taught Ian McEwan’s Black Dog; no one had objected to its elaborate description of sexual arousal. He had also taught A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, with its account of Stephen Dedalus’s experiences with a Dublin prostitute. As with many other universities, he told me, a new rector of Allameh Tabatabai was appointed after Khatami’s election; the rector is more liberal-minded than his predecessor.

In April at the movies I saw the comedy Marmulak (Lizard), by Kamal Tabrizi. Parviz Parastui, one of Iran’s finest actors, plays a criminal who escapes from prison dressed as a mullah, only to find himself adopted by a rural community as their prayer leader. In the film, the clergy is the butt of jokes that, a few years ago, would have got Tabrizi thrown into jail. Marmulak had the most successful opening in Iranian film history. It has been the target of conservative attacks, which prompted its producer, in mid-May, to withdraw it from movie theaters. Although this decision dismayed many Iranians who had given the film an enthusiastic reception, there have been no reports of riots in protest of this self-censorship.

Artistic censorship has become less intrusive, but the authorities remain vindictive toward people they distrust. In April, Bahman Farmanara, a distinguished filmmaker, announced that the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance had prevented him from making a film about two elderly men who talk about Iranian history. Aging writers are made to pay, through severe censorship of their work, for the politics of their youth. In conservative quarters, the old fear of Western cultural contamination persists. Western films that are broadcast on TV carry distorted subtitles that reflect badly on Western society.

Khatami will step down next year. The conservatives will, by rigging the vetting process that candidates undergo, ensure that his successor is one of them. Whoever he is (women cannot stand for the presidency, even though Shirin Ebadi’s supporters wish they could), he is unlikely to revive the fearful conditions that Nafisi describes in Reading Lolita in Tehran. Little of the progress made during Khatami’s tenure would have been possible without the acquiescence of the supreme leader. Khamanei and other key conservatives are more pragmatic than their rhetoric suggests.

Confronted by a youthful population that is indifferent or hostile to revolutionary ideology, conservatives have been forced to tolerate “un-Islamic” dress and behavior, sexual morals, and films. So long as their families approve, it is possible for women in big cities to live relatively independent, Westernized lives. The authorities are much less interested than they used to be in what goes on behind closed doors.

The conservatives draw a line between social liberalization and political freedom. (This distinguishes them from Khatami, who is a democrat by conviction.) This was clear when they smashed the student movement after the 1999 riots. Periodic riots since then, some of them involving or inspired by students, have been put down with ease. The position of the conservatives was evident in the systematic way they used jail, threats, and the dissemination of sexual and financial slurs to hound out of public life people who might inspire followers. Mehrangiz Kar is one of many examples.11 The quality of debate has suffered. Politics is getting to be boring. At the beginning of his tenure, Khatami admirably expressed his people’s desire for peaceful evolution. Now, for the first time since the revolution, Iran barely has a public figure, let alone a leading politician, who reflects popular desires.

Khatami will leave behind him a society whose troubles are reflected in soaring figures for divorce, drug addiction, and prostitution, and whose young people long to live abroad. The President has not succeeded in his stated aim of fostering civil society; Iran’s pathetically few independent NGOs—the IWCC is one—already suffer tedious, low-level harassment. After Khatami leaves office, they will be even more vulnerable.

From the comfort of satellite TV studios in L.A., Iranian commentators summon young Iranians out onto the streets. Exiles in Europe urge women to shed their hejab. But Iran is entering a period of stagnation; it is hard to predict whether, far less when, the sullenness and cynicism of young people will turn to anger.

—May 26, 2004

  1. 1

    Reading Lolita in Tehran (Random House, 2003).

  2. 2

    The Books of Revolution,” The Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2003.

  3. 3

    See my “Struggle for Iran,” The New York Review, December 16, 1999.

  4. 4

    See my “Khatami’s Admirers Lose Patience with Failure of Reforms,” The Independent, February 24, 2001.

  5. 5

    The Fiction of Life,” Atlantic Unbound, May 7, 2003.

  6. 6

    Az tajrobei-ye zanane dar Park-e Laleh” can be seen at www.iftribune .com/news.asp?id=3&pass=6.

  7. 7

    See my special report, “Women in Iran,” The Economist, October 18, 2003.

  8. 8

    A selection of the most benighted: Polygamy is legal for men. The courtroom testimony of two women is worth that of one man. It is virtually impossible for a woman to divorce her husband without his consent. Women wanting to go abroad must have the permission of the nearest male family member. Lapidation, although currently subject to a moratorium, remains a prescribed punishment for adulteresses.

  9. 9

    In 1975, women’s illiteracy in rural areas was 90 percent, and more than 45 percent in towns. Now, the nationwide literacy rate for girls aged between fifteen and twenty-four has reached 97 percent. In 2002, for the first time, female students in state universities outnumbered male ones.

  10. 10

    According to the authorities, slightly more than 50 percent of the electorate turned out nationwide, but the figure for cities was much lower. Tehran’s turnout, for instance, was 32 percent. Diplomats in Tehran suspect the authorities of inflating the real nationwide figure, but only by a few percentage points.

  11. 11

    Mindful of foreign interest in their human rights record, the authorities are wary of jailing large numbers of people for long periods. Prosecutors are adept at using psychological pressure, but physical torture is said to be getting rarer. In April, the conservative judiciary issued a directive reminding judicial officials and the security forces that torture is illegal, and upholding the principle of the presumption of innocence. Some of Iran’s thirty-two-odd political prisoners were recently let out on parole. According to conservative analysts, some of these may soon be let out for good.