Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran: ‘Women in Iran have discovered their power and decided to use it’

The demonstrations across Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini, arrested for failing to wear her hijab correctly, are a turning point, no matter the outcome

I first became aware that something big was happening from my husband, who is an avid reader and follows all the news from Iran. We had returned from one of the first US demonstrations after the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, after being arrested for failing to wear her hijab correctly, and he directed my attention to the main slogan of the protesters: Woman, Life, Freedom. I couldn’t get it out of my mind, and kept walking in circles around the living room of our home in Washington DC, repeating it to myself. From then on, it became part of my life: I wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night with this mixture of anxiety and elation.

I know there have been many false dawns, not least the Arab spring a decade ago, but two things have happened in Iran that made us realise this was a turning point, no matter what the outcome. One is the fact that the Iranian people in general, but women and young people especially, have discovered their power, and decided to use it. That means something fundamental has changed. They know that they can walk down the streets of Tehran, not obeying the law, so that their bodies, the way they appear in public, become a sign of protest. It is telling the regime: “You don’t own me, you cannot impose your image upon my identity.”

Azar Nafisi
Azar Nafisi, writer of this piece and books including Reading Lolita in Tehran. Photograph: Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star/Getty Images

The second thing is that the regime has discovered it has failed. The violence used by the Islamic Republic no longer comes from a position of strength. It comes from weakness. They are so afraid, and the only thing left to them is the gun. More than 222 people have been killed during the recent protests, including other young women such as Nika Shakarami and Sarina Esmailzadeh, both 16 years old. Of course, there is outrage at seeing these young people being so indiscriminately murdered, almost in front of our eyes, but there’s also a realisation that it is happening because the protesters are not going to give up and because there is no other alternative left for this regime.

I come from a political family, although my parents were both very bad politicians because they were so independent-minded. My father was mayor of Tehran at the time of the White Revolution in 1963, and was thrown into jail for four years on trumped-up charges before he was exonerated. My mother was one of the first six women to go into parliament after it became legal to do so that year. When I was a young academic, teaching at Tehran University, I, along with two of my colleagues, was expelled for refusing to wear the veil. I remember the chair of the English department asking me why I was resisting when tomorrow I would have to wear it in the local grocery store, but the university was not a grocery store. If I wore one, I would feel ashamed in front of my students, because what kind of a role model would I have been for them? One thing people don’t see about Iranian women is that their fight is, above all, about humiliation and dignity. It is easier to be physically flogged than to be insulted by being forced to wear the veil, or being subjected to a virginity test, as one of my students was.

I lost my job at the university in 1981 but stayed on in Iran, though it became more and more difficult to teach or write. I ran a small private class that I wrote about in Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), and nearly 20 years later some of the students are still friends. In 1997, I left for the US. Both my husband and I had already spent time in the west. I had been sent to England at 13, to a school in Lancaster – where I would huddle under the duvet with a hot-water bottle and read the books that became my portable home – and I later studied in the US. My husband went to the US to study engineering, and we met there through the student movement in the 70s.

We only returned to Iran in 1979, just as the Shah was toppled in the Islamic revolution. I remember arriving at the airport, seeing all the revolutionary guards with guns searching people for alcohol, and realising this was not my home any more. My only home was the portable one I had built with books. Almost immediately we fell into demonstrations. On 8 March, 1979, tens of thousands of women took to the streets across Iran against Ayatollah Khomeini’s introduction of mandatory veils, with the slogan: “Freedom is neither western nor eastern, freedom is global.” We stayed in the Islamic Republic for 18 years, but by the time we left, our son and daughter were 11 and 13, and we wanted them to be free, as we had been, to choose.

A protester in New York holds up a picture of Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody for allegedly violating the country's hijab rules.
A protester in New York holds up a picture of Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody for allegedly violating the country's hijab rules. Photograph: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

One of the things that impresses me about the young demonstrators today is that, unlike my generation, they are not ideological. They are not partisan. They are saying: we want life and freedom and a decent living. They’re asking for unity. For Iranian women, this movement is existential. It is saying: we can no longer tolerate this imposition upon who we are. And that is why the regime cannot win. They can destroy political organisations, but what are they going to do with the thousands upon thousands who are coming onto the streets refusing to wear their veils?

Can they put all of them in jail, kill all of them? Fortunately not. And these young women are amazing: they go into the streets and risk their lives, throwing their veils on the fire. Some are tortured and even killed but they still don’t give up. It gives the lie to the mythology that the Islamic Republic has dictated what Iran’s traditions and culture are.

I have been so frustrated in the west because, when I talk about the situation of women in Iran, somebody will inevitably say: “But you’re westernised, and it’s their culture.” And it makes me so angry, as if the west has a monopoly on freedom, and the DNA of Iranian women is somehow different, so that they don’t want freedom of choice; they want to be married at the age of nine or be stoned to death for prostitution. It is such an insult, because this is not religion; my grandmother was an Orthodox Muslim and she never forced her children and grandchildren to wear the veil. My mother considered herself a Muslim and she never wore one. The regime has confiscated religion, using it as an ideology, and this is a big theme of fundamentalist and totalitarian mindsets the world over. I tell people that every culture has something to be ashamed of: fascism and communism were once the culture of Europe; slavery was once the culture of the US. And every culture has the right to change.

Anyone who thinks the Islamic Republic represents our tradition and culture should go and read up on history. Around the same time that women were awakening in the west, in the 19th century, they were also awakening in Iran. In 1848, the first woman unveiled in public: Táhirih Qurrat al-‘Ayn, a poet and theologian of the faith that would later become the Bahá’í religion, was put under house arrest and murdered because she was too popular. She said: “You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women.”

Throughout the 20th century, women continued to fight for their rights so that, at the time of the Islamic revolution, they were active in all walks of life: as engineers, pilots, doctors, government ministers. So these young women today do not only look to the west or other countries for their freedom; they look to their own mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers.

Iran and Ukraine remind us, in the west, that there are places in the world where people give their lives for freedom and democracy – things that we take for granted. But this is not only Iran’s problem: I see totalitarian trends in the west, too, from banning books to outlawing abortion and protest, and all sorts of other things.

Five years ago I retired from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies after 20 years, to devote myself full-time to writing. My mission now (in the words of James Baldwin) is to disturb the peace and not be comfortable. I maintain my portable home by reading poetry in Farsi and English, and dream that one day I will return to Iran.

Azar Nafisi’s latest book is Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times (Dey Street Books)

• Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here


As told to Claire Armitstead

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The power of women: acclaimed Italian author Elena Ferrante on patriarchy and protest in Iran
The award-winning novelist talks to Shiva Akhavan Rad about the fight for equality in Iran

Shiva Akhavan Rad

26, Nov, 2022 @4:27 PM

Naomi Alderman on women athletes who wear the hijab

Naomi Alderman: What could be more anti-feminist than telling women that they don't really know what they think?

Naomi Alderman

13, Aug, 2008 @11:01 PM

Article image
Sex, power and humiliation: eight lessons women learned from Monica Lewinsky’s shaming
She was a 22-year-old intern, he was the most powerful man in the world – yet everyone blamed her for their affair. As the story is retold in a new drama, this is what that vicious period taught us

Zoe Williams

30, Sep, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Hijab Grab Escape: the video that helps Muslim women fight bigotry
Therapist Zaineb Abdulla has gone viral after posting a video offering women advice on how to defend themselves against anti-Muslim attacks

Aina Khan

27, Nov, 2016 @5:00 PM

Article image
Women should not have to dress modestly | Letters
Letters: Where are the suffragettes of New York of 1912 with their red-painted lips when we need them, asks Pipa Monjardino. And perhaps Muslim women need a #MeToo campaign in solidarity with their brave sisters in Iran who are refusing to wear the hijab, suggests Jill Rooney


26, Feb, 2018 @6:23 PM

Article image
The men-are-trash narrative is back. But what if women are also trash? | Zoe Williams
I thought we’d created something beautiful in the 90s, with the notion that perhaps nobody was any good at fidelity or washing up. If only we could revive that message

Zoe Williams

27, Mar, 2023 @1:38 PM

Article image
How to be a good man: what I learned from a month reading the feminist classics
A year after the first Harvey Weinstein revelations, how can men show solidarity with women? One Swedish professor decided it was time for some deep reading

Carl Cederström

02, Oct, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Nawal El Saadawi: ‘Do you feel you are liberated? I feel I am not’
As her books are reissued here, the formidable Nawal El Saadawi, 83, doctor, author, anti-FGM campaigner and voice of Egyptian feminism, is as combative as ever…

Rachel Cooke

11, Oct, 2015 @6:30 AM

Article image
Are women responsible for all the extreme sexual violence on screen?
Germaine Greer has stirred up a hornet’s nest with her latest claims, suggesting women are more enthusiastic than men when it comes to depictions of sex and violence. We asked leading crime writers for their views

Zoe Williams

01, May, 2018 @5:01 PM

Article image
‘I felt violated by the demand to undress’: three Muslim women on France’s hostility to the hijab
In France, a new law could seriously restrict women’s rights to wear headscarves in public, and there are fears that it will entrench Islamophobia

Myriam François

27, Jul, 2021 @9:00 AM