Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Reading Lolita in Tehran

I've recently been rereading Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran for a pan-American studies course I'm taking. It's an interesting book but this time around I'm finding myself questioning the value of some of Nafisi's references.

It seems to me that the examples of the Iranian oppression she uses are chosen with the intent of not educating the reader, but to create a sense of "other" to place the western reader in foreign territory and herself in some vague middle ground grey area of being both western and eastern. I could go through and reference specific places, but unless requested to, I'll spare you from the academic paper I'm writing about it.

Now, I'm not going to pontificate for the Ayatollah's regime, I think many atrocities have been and are being committed in Iran since the revolution. At the same time, however, I think Nafisi's class, as a silent act of rebellion, and her book, as a work of literature, contributes to the power of the conservative Iranian government in two ways.

First, the secrecy of the class, like the hidden satellite dish on her porch, place her in the middle of the silent majority who are being oppressed by their government but at the same time are empowering their oppressors by not protesting it. The class, again like the satellite dish, is illegal and gives Nafisi something to be scared of getting caught and therefore force her to tow the line. To be fair, she does give the guards at the University hell and even though it's a minor act of rebellion, I applaud her for it.

Second, as a piece of literature, her othering not only can lead to intolerance in western readers towards conservative Muslim practices, but it also, when spun by the Iranian government, allows them to say "look at how the west looks down on us and trivializes this or that and mocks fatwas." I'm thinking specifically of Nafisi's anecdote about the morality of a man having sex with a chicken (he and his family can't eat it afterwards, but his neighbor's neighbor can).

Any thoughts on this?

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