TitleAzar Nafisi reconciled Iran and the West

Iranian women are conquering the world

8 Mar 2010

■ Shervin Nekuee
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It should by now be crystal clear to anyone: in the first decade of the 21st century, Iranian women have once and for all conquered ‘the Global Village’. They have turned into the icons and idioms of the shared desire of millions of women all over the world for equal rights and emancipation. Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi is the personification of the growing universal awareness of the importance of human rights. A towering woman of the younger generation is our other heroine: Shadi Sadr. In the past half year, Sadr has been awarded three prizes for her courage and determination in her struggle for the emancipation of Iranian women. In Poland, she received the Lech Walesa Prize and in the Netherlands the Human Rights Defenders Tulip Award. On March 10th, the American ministry of Foreign Affairs will honor her with the International Women of Courage Award, in recognition of her courage and leadership in her fight for justice and human rights in Iran. Last but not least, there is of course Neda Agha Soltan, who was shot in the streets of Tehran on June 20th – Black Saturday – while demonstrating against the rigged elections. Heartbreaking images of the last minutes of the life of this ravishing Tehrani woman have been seen all over the world. N-e-d-a has become a verb, a logo symbolizing innocence and the righteousness of the desire for freedom of young men and women all over the world.

It should by now be crystal clear to anyone: in the first decade of the 21st century, Iranian women have once and for all conquered ‘the Global Village’

However, it is not only on the social and political level that Iranian women have conquered the world during the last decade. ‘The Iranian woman’ has also become a concept in the cosmopolitan world of art and culture. Thanks to artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat, for example. Her work focuses on a theme that is familiar to people worldwide: the relationship between men and women. Neshat’s work is full of authentic Iranian colors and stories, but at the same time there is a very individualistic perspective in her view. She juggles with old Iran and with deeply conservative images, which leave viewers with the feeling that women want to break out of the frame. Yet, her work has an almost mystical rhythm and a beauty that can break the boundaries between cultures and mesmerize an entire audience for which Iran is an unknown world.

Without any doubt, Neshat is one of those important pioneers who are spreading new forms of cultural authenticity while not turning their back on the world, but indeed being fully in it. She is a hybrid artist who knows how to unite the beauty and consolation of her own artistic language with a universal language and a shared view.
And then there is the work of graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi, who has the same gift of combining universal accessibility with a personal story. Her bestseller Persepolis (2000-2004) deals with the life of a young girl who is facing the dramatic yet hilarious consequences of the Islamic Revolution. In 2007, this story was turned into a movie, and millions of people all over the world have gained a deeper insight in how Iranians are living their lives under Islamic rule. Satrapi has not simplified the story – partly because it is told in a graphic novel, she could create an image of Iran that overcomes clichés and prejudices. Satrapi’s pen has given birth to a many-sided, ironic and thus more human image of Iran.

Azar Nafisi has built a bridge of reconciliation between Iran and the West

Shirin Ebadi, Shadi Shadr and Neda Agha Soltan are proud daughters of Iran who have given millions of women both in and outside Iran the courage to fight for their dignity and equal rights. And Shirin Neshat and Marjane Satrapi have given the Iranian Woman her rightful place in the highest ranks of art and culture. Still, my personal gold medal for ‘Iranian woman of the decade’ goes to a woman who has written a story in English but in a language that undeniably has a Persian heart and soul: Azar Nafisi. After a rift of 24 years between Iran and world literature, her marvelously written Reading Lolita in Tehran was the ultimate work of reconciliation.

The years that preceded her book were the horrible years nurturing the worldwide misconception that Iran had massively turned against the deeply humanist meaning of literature. It were the years of Not without my daughter, first a book and then movie about an American woman and her daughter who try to escape a fanatical Iranian husband and the tyrants of the Islamic Republic. It were the years of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses.

Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran has once and for all put an end to this misconception. Her book is written in a dreamy yet vital and playful language, just as Nafisi’s voice sounds in her lectures.
It is an autobiographical story full of conversations and sketches of life by a literature professor who tries to pass on her love for world literature (especially English literature) to the younger generation, while dealing with life questions and showing how they are reflected in the work of her favorite authors.

In this book, there is a lot of focus on the life stories of young women (and one man) who are thirsty for more in life and therefore also visit their lecturer at home. We feel for those young people who are locked up in the oppressive political landscape of the Islamic Republic, but especially struggle against a (home) culture that evolves way too slowly in the direction of their dreams and desires. Balancing between tradition and modernity, this young generation of Iranians that is now coming on stage is looking for a way to find their position as an adult in our world, and their stories are interweaved with conversations about the work of Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen and other giants of recent English literature.

We hear the voices of young Tehrani women who unravel the deeper meaning of Nabokov’s Lolita and who look at themselves in the mirror of Jane Austen’s work. With Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi has brought the Iranian poetic subtlety back to the Republic of Literature. In doing so, she has constructed the most important reconciliatory bridge between Iran and the West: that of literary reconciliation.

Tehran Review
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  1. Balout says:

    با تمام اسامی که نام بردی موافقم. نمونه‌های بسیار خوبی‌ رو انتخاب کردی…
    I’m very proud of all of them, specially Marjane Satrapi

  2. Shima says:

    I’m proud of ALL brave women in the world, no matter which country, no matter how effective or ineffective, no matter how famous or invisible they are to the rest of our world. Don’t make minor herous out of them by ignoring their status. Patriottism is not what this should be about , especially not on The INTERNATIONAL Womens Day. Just my view, which is not underestimating Iranian female power, but a global appreciation of female power every day, year after year and ongoing without competetive roots that merely want to conquer the world. Female power goes way beyond that.

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