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A prominent scholar accuses Azar Nafisi’s bestselling memoir, ‘‘Reading Lolita in Tehran,’’ of being neoconservative propaganda aimed at Islam

Author Azar Nafisi (top, right) and Columbia's Hamid Dabashi (below, right).
Author Azar Nafisi (top, right) and Columbia's Hamid Dabashi (below, right).

IF THE UNITED STATES takes military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, planning for which has been much speculated about but denied by the Bush administration, who will deserve the blame? The Iranian regime, for its brazen defiance of the international ban on nuclear proliferation? America’s neoconservatives, itching to remake the Middle East? Or Azar Nafisi, the Iranian expatriate author of the 2003 women’s book-club fave ‘‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’’?

Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University, would blame all three, but it’s his vituperative attack on Nafisi that earned him a spot this month on the cover of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

In ‘‘Reading Lolita,’’ Nafisi tells of her experience as a professor of English literature at Tehran University during and after the 1979 revolution. Unable to endure the indignity of the Islamic fundamentalist takeover of the university (final straw: she’s ordered to wear a veil), she organized a small, private class for seven female students in her apartment in Tehran. The book interweaves accounts of the women’s earnest discussions of such books as ‘‘Lolita,’’ ‘‘The Great Gatsby,’’ and ‘‘Pride and Prejudice’’ with much commentary on the women’s circumscribed lives in the Islamic Republic.

Yet this is no merely uplifting memoir, Dabashi charged in an essay published in the Cairo-based, English-language paper Al-Ahram. ‘‘One can now clearly see...that this book is partially responsible for cultivating the U.S. (and by extension the global) public opinion against Iran,’’ Dabashi wrote. The book, he went on to argue, feeds into the stereoptype of Islam as ‘‘vile, violent, and above all abusive of women—and thus fighting against Islamic terrorism, ipso facto, is also to save Muslim women from the evil of their men.’’

Dabashi’s extreme, long-winded assault on Nafisi, who has taught at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington since 1997, might have caused little commotion had the Chronicle not given it so much attention. Still, it raises a host of issues.

First, beneath the rhetorical bluster and postcolonial jargon(‘‘Rarely has an Oriental servant of a white-identified, imperial design,’’ Dabashi writes of Nafisi, ‘‘managed to pack so many services to imperial hubris abroad and racist elitism at home—all in one act’’) there’s the question of whether anything in the book could be said to match the critic’s description. More broadly, there is the issue of how a discussion of women’s rights in the Muslim world ought to be framed in the West.

In ‘‘Reading Lolita,’’ Nafisi describes her apartment as an oasis for ‘‘my girls’’: outside was a ‘‘war zone, where young women who disobey the rules are hurled into patrol cars, taken to jail, flogged, fined, forced to wash the toilets, humiliated.’’ She writes wistfully of the free lives she and even her mother led before the revolution.

Dabashi is a firm critic of the Islamic Republic, describing, in an interview, the current government as ‘‘misogynist’’ and as a practitioner of ‘‘gender apartheid.’’ But he says ‘‘Reading Lolita’’ is devoid of context. In her pining for the past, he charges, Nafisi is ‘‘entirely silent’’ about the atrocities of the Shah whom the revolution deposed. American novels are held up as examples of the best that’s been thought and said—but without any discussion of how Iranian distrust of America is rooted in the CIA’s role in the anti-democratic coup that restored the Shah to power in 1953. Nor is there any reference to Iranian democratic activism in the memoir, or any acknowledgment of Iran’s own rich literature and cinema.

Dabashi makes other, less convincing arguments, such as his claim that the book encourages an unwholesome sexual interest in its subjects (‘‘Orientalized pedophilia’’). Such instances have led some observers to question the intellectual merit of the brand of literary criticism he practices. In an online interview, Dabashi even compared Nafisi with Lynndie England, who was convicted of abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. ‘‘Over what kind of faculty does [Columbia president] Lee Bollinger preside?’’ wrote The New Republic’s Marty Peretz.

And yet, despite the several thousand words he spends eviscerating the book, Dabashi’s main point is not about this specific text, he says. Rather, ‘‘It’s the questions I raise about the selective memory and selective amnesia’’; the book’s black-and-white portrayal of Iran, he argues, mirrors the simplified picture pressed by conservative hawks.

Nafisi herself declined a request for an interview. She spoke briefly with the Chronicle, but did not respond directly to the points Dabashi raises—except to say she is not the neoconservative he accuses her of being and that she’s more interested in literature than in politics.

Ali Banuazizi, the codirector of Boston College’s Middle East studies program, agrees that the article is ‘‘not worth the attention’’ it’s gotten, largely because it is so ‘‘intemperate.’’ But Amaney Jamal, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton, says that when speaking out to prevent war, a writer should be cut some slack on tone.

While ‘‘Reading Lolita’’ humanizes its female Iranian protagonist, says Jamal, the book ‘‘lacks an analytical description of the situation on the ground.’’ It omits any discussion of Islamic strands of feminism in Iran, which remain strong, despite ‘‘the complete deterioration of women’s rights since the revolution.’’ Iranian divorce laws remain liberal by Middle Eastern standards, and a small-but-not-negligible number of women serve in the Iranian Parliament.

In her bestseller, Nafisi laments that women in the Islamic Republic weren’t allowed to define themselves. ‘‘Whoever we were...we had become the figment of someone else’s dreams.’’ History has a way of repeating itself.

Christopher Shea’s column appears biweekly in Ideas. E-mail critical.faculties@verizon.net.

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