Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Strategies of Resistance and the Problem of Ambiguity in Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Strategies of Resistance and the Problem of Ambiguity in Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran

Article excerpt

Blending autobiographical elements, critical readings of Western literature, and socio-political commentary on the Iranian situation, Nafisi recounts her experiences in the Islamic Republic of Iran in the period between 1977 and 1997. This article focuses on her deployment of resistant strategies against oppression, examining how her frequent ambiguities undermine their subversive potential.


The task of nation-building in modern Iran cannot be dissociated from questions of gender and sexuality. Indeed, it demands a conscientious examination of the roles played by women in imagining a national project and actively participating in its implementation, as well as a revalorization of their contribution in pre- and post-revolutionary times. From this perspective, the presence of women as national icons rather than as full participants in socio-political development appears as one of the most problematic aspects in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The nation exalts women as depositories of traditional culture that must be protected from Western "corruption," while denying them access to the dominant discourse, to the decision-making process, and to self-representation.

A critical evaluation of how women's lives have been regimented since the 1979 Revolution appears as a prerequisite to their full-fledged participation in nationalist or feminist emancipatory projects. Examining the subjectification and essentialization of their bodies may serve as a point of departure for this kind of analysis. Understanding how the religious establishment has found sustenance in the promotion of a sexed, silenced Other may further contribute to explaining how the patriarchal system in Iran still maintains domination over women. This socio-political phenomenon--which is not circumscribed to Iran but equally affects other Muslim nations such as Algeria and Sudan--enforces unequal gender roles, regiments sexuality, manipulates identity, and demands conformity. In most cases, the appropriation, transference, exploitation, exclusion, and seclusion of women determines the female experience in post-revolutionary times, thwarting their development of a sense of self and their social advancement, as well as jeopardizing their physical and emotional well-being.

In Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, Azar Nafisi critiques the policies of domination and objectification that construct women at the intersection of politics and religion in Iran. She portrays the internal lives of women whose realities may differ from those of men, but do not necessarily diverge from the general interests of their community. Under the yoke of the Islamic regime, womanhood in Iran appears as a condition of near non-identity, and of meaningless existence, except in those terms dictated by the male-dominated culture. In this sense, Trinh Minh-ha argues that women become "the exiles of society," for whom the existence of the self is reduced to the assertion of oneself as "i" (88). From this standpoint, Iranian women form part of a society of the dispossessed, adopting a position of otherness in a feudal and traditional culture that has "reinforced male domination," "compromised women's autonomy," and "created a set of gender relations characterized by profound inequality" (Moghadam 18). The patriarchy effects their objectification by confining their "essence" within the body, controlling their sexuality and speech, and enforcing hejab--religious modesty and veiling--even among non-religious women. While Nafisi stresses the unstable relations of women to a system of power that operates overtly on their social exclusion, their silence, and their "invisibility," her quarrel is not with Islam, in an overt manner at least, but with the narrow and perverted interpretations of it advocated by the regime.

This essay examines the strategies that Nafisi foregrounds as forms of resistance to social, political, and emotional oppression, mostly proceeding on the basis of a close reading of, and engagement with, Nafisi's text. …

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