Feminist History-Makers: A Literary Inspiration

By Jessica Randall, NOW/PAC Intern

Many feminists remember the Islamic Revolution of 1978, even though few of us lived in Iran or really know what it is like to live through a political revolution. One great feminist did live through the revolution and tried to continue educating young Iranian women; she eventually left her homeland and came to the United States, where her voice and stories could be heard. This woman is the acclaimed author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books” and “Things I Have Been Silent About: Memories” — Azar Nafisi.

During and after the revolution, Nafisi taught lectures on the important role of Western literature and culture in Iran at the University of Tehran. In 1981, however, Nafisi was expelled from the university for refusing to wear the mandatory Islamic veil. She would not teach again until 1987. She then taught workshops for female students that addressed the relationship between culture and human rights, which helped to create a new human rights education curriculum. She even held secret classes with some of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. In 1997 she would immigrate to the U.S. as a well known international advocate for Iran’s young women and academic youth.

“I started writing as soon as I landed. One reason I left was because I wanted to say things. I never thought I’d write these books. I never thought of myself as a memoirist. But I realize that I just can’t talk about anything without relating it to that reality, and my reality had been the reality in Iran,” Nafisi stated in an interview by The National.

“I feel that books are one of the few rare mediums that transcend nationality, geography– all the limitations that are put on us.”

Her first best seller which spent over 117 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, “Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books” describes the transformative power of fiction in a nation struggling with revolution and tyranny. This book specifically looks at the secret meetings Nafisi had with her students as they tasted the forbidden fruit of literature and freely discussed themselves and their dreams.

“Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories” was first published in 2009 after Nafisi’s parents died and more intimately describes her childhood and what it was like to grow up in Iran. It describers Nafisi’s powerful yet complex mother, her father’s shameful secrets and the background of Iran’s political revolution all the while reflecting on women’s choices and the inspiration to live one’s life to its fullest.

Because of her great commitment to literature and educating young women in Iran, the National Organization for Women was proud to have Nafisi as a speaker for its 2005 Women of Color and Allies Summit. And because Nafisi keeps educating and inspiring us, we are proud to recognize her during Women’s History Month.

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