Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Reading Lolita in Teheran

I am so far behind in my leisure
reading that I’m just getting
around to Reading Lolita in
Teheran by Azar Nafisi. It is
a very thought-provoking book.
So far, Professor Nafisi has used
Nabokov’s novel Lolita to
illuminate the situation of women
in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The duplicitous narrator of Lolita, Humbert,
writes the entire novel to justify himself to
the reader. He is in prison for the murder of
the woman who helped the girl he calls
Lolita escape his clutches. But most of the
self-justification of the novel, the focus, is
on Humbert’s orphaning and capture of
Lolita. He dwells obsessively on his image
of this child and her rape over the course of
two years. Why Nafisi does focus on this

The reader never really meets the girl whom
Humbert renames Lolita. He, as narrator
and as captor, controls both our view of the
child and the girl herself. He steals her
freedom, childhood and self:

...Humbert’s confiscation of Lolita’s life.
The first thing that struck us in reading
Lolita – in fact it was on the very first page
– was how Lolita was given to us as
Humbert’s creature. We only see her in
passing glimpses. “What I had madly
possessed,” he informs us, “was not she, but
my own creation, another fanciful Lolita –
perhaps more real than Lolita ... having no
will, no consciousness – indeed no real life
of her own.” Humbert first pins Lolita [like
a butterfly or moth] by first naming her, a
name that becomes the echo of his desires.

It is this misappropriation of femininity as a
tabula rasa for masculine desire that is the
focus of the reading group. It echoes so
much of their experience in Iran today. Girls
must submit to a search before they can
enter the grounds of the university. Males
go through the large iron gates. Women
students must enter through a curtained side-
door that makes them all the more of a
focus. There they must empty their book
bags, remove their veil and outer robe to be
inspected for make-up, nail polish, long
fingernails, stylish clothes, anything that
might be seductive to men. One of the
women students tells of being chided for
eating apples too seductively. Another tells
that her naturally long eyelashes were
suspected of being augmented by mascara.

These women do not exist as individuals for
the morality police. They only exist as
symbols of femininity, onto which the
imams project their fears and desires.

It takes me far, far back to considerations
from my youth, when women’s liberation
was the issue of the moment here in the
United States. (Though heaven knows rules
in the Islamic Republic of Iran are far more
restrictive than anything I ever saw!)

We debated endlessly what it might mean to
be an independent woman. All of us at that
point had spent our lives as our father’s
daughters. Many of us already were moving
into relationships where we defined
ourselves as a young man’s girlfriend or
fiancé. Unlike my friends who were men,
we had not been raised to plan a career or
even adventures. We were raised to
consider ourselves in relationships:
daughter, sister, wife, mother. How could
we define ourselves independently of men or
of others entirely? Was it possible? Did we
want to?

I just wrote how hard it has been to try to
carry out both a full career and a full family
commitment. It has taken a toll on
everybody I know who tries it. But it is also
very rewarding. Certainly it’s better to look
back on than during the depths. I am not
sure I have ever met a woman who defined
herself completely independently. Maybe
that would not be a very good thing, in fact.
I am so grateful to have had the choices I
have had. I hope my daughter and all the
women around the world have the same and
better choices.

The photograph of Azar Nafisi is courtesy of University of Montana Libraries, at www.lib.umt.edu/firstyear/2004/images/Nafisi.jpg

No comments: