Author: Azar Nafisi
Publisher: Random House
Page Count: 356
By Dee Dee Azhikakath
What do you do when you are feeling repressed and silenced? When your freedom of speech and self-worth is being tainted and compromised? A professor and seven of her most committed female students in Tehran, Iran, chose to confront the challenges of reality by gathering secretly once a week to read fictional works of literature.
Azar Nafisi, an Iranian woman and professor of English literature, offered her students something that war, government and an oppressive society could not—the expansion of their imagination. In the forbidden class, these seven women risked all to free themselves with the pages of novels we have taken for granted.
Reading Lolita in Tehran is Nafisi’s non-fiction memoirs of her secret class, herself and the political situation of Iran— all woven together with the threads of fictional characters from Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James and Jane Austen’s novels. Nafisi’s unique literary style places you within her own book club and into the lives of those reading, sharing and discussing classic literary works. Expelled from her job at Tehran University for not wearing a veil when teaching classes, Nafisi generates Reading’s thought provoking and inspirational story through her own faith and courage.
After completing her graduate studies in the United States at the University of Oklahoma, Nafisi returned home to Iran as a professor of English in 1978, a year before the Iranian revolution. As she taught her co-ed classes, the society’s political unrest trickled in through the many powerful and opposing student organizations vying for change. The books they read seemed to be the only commonality they shared, even though the affection for the novel differed greatly between the political factions.
Despite the resistance of the new government to Nafisi’s syllabus and "unorthodox" teaching, she not only carved out a place for Lolita, Gatsby and Daisy in the Tehran, but inspired free-thinkers—an even more perilous threat to the new government than the books she assigned in her courses.
Politically-powerful "former students who almost all got F’s that semester for not attending classes… defended [her] and delayed [her] expulsion for as long as they could." But her modern thinking and aversion to mandatory wearing of the veil forced her dismissal from the University.
Nafisi found peace from this frustration, oppression and silence in weekly, secret gatherings.
Those gatherings became more than just seven young women and their mentor coming together – they became a community bonded by a desire for equality in Iran. "After all, it takes two to create a relationship, and when you make half the population invisible, the other half suffers as well," declares Nafisi.
The new regime had made them feel irrelevant, and even though they had little political power, they had the strength of community and hope.
For these women and others who feel silenced, Reading raises the question: How do you survive when your faith and heart are giving you one perception about yourself and society offers another? When you read this memoir many scriptures will emerge as you search for an answer. Acts 2:17-18 reminds us that men and women alike will be blessed with the Holy Spirit and the gift of prophesy. God’s blessings are not reserved for one gender or one race. Likewise, Galatians 3:23-39 proclaims that we are all equal and liberated.
As an American I tend to interpret Romans 12:2 as one of keeping me on God’s path and away from the extravagant indulgences that our society offers which can often overfill our lives and taint our values. However, Reading offers a new twist on this interpretation. In situations like those of Readings’ heroines, the "immediate world" or society can also have a vacuum affect, taking all the positive gifts and values God instills on creation away if you conform to it.
As God’s creation we need to remind ourselves not what the world is telling us, but what God is. Fortunately, the women of Reading were able to support each other as a community, fending off the restricting and oppressive evils of their society. Through their community they were renewed through their minds, discerning the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Nafisi once told her class to read a novel by inhaling the experience. As the pages of Reading reveal the bonds formed by the women and their personal growth within the political change, you will be blessed by two experiences—theirs and yours.
The Rev. Dee Dee Azhikakath is a young adult and the associate minister for St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Tucson, Ariz.
This feature was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.