Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
NY: Random House, 2003, 356pp. pb
March 7, 2006
The International Wimmin's Day demonstrations planned for tomorrow represent the tactical victory of Azar Nafisi and her kind over Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. Whether or not her tactical victory turns into a strategic change in the balance of forces depends on the genuine Marxist-Leninist- Maoists of the world. Here we undertake a review of her book to show where things went wrong.
Azar Nafisi's background
Azar Nafisi was expelled form the University of Tehran for refusing to wear the veil and left Iran for America in 1997.
While in Iran, Azar Nafisi seems to be culturally just like educated Amerikan womyn, with all her peculiarities and prejudices. Very typical notions of the importance of a bourgeois version of individuality (comparing two photographs of her students, with and without veil, she notes that it's amazing how different and bright they look without) (p.4), diversity of ideas and backgrounds as solution of social problems (takes pride in the fact that her students come from very diverse social economic and religious backgrounds), significance of make up for wimmin (deploring the fact that one of her students was prevented from entering campus because blush was found in her bag) (p. 30), sensuality as a "human" characteristic ( inserting in a story sensual descriptions of herself as assertion of her humynity while missing the fact that this version of humynity is typical only for liberal bourgeoisie.)
Azar Nafisi tries very hard to be "normal" for her Amerikan readers -- constantly talking about "normal" pleasures of life she and her female students were deprived of under the Iranian regime. (p.33) She doesn't seem to understand that what is "normal" for one time and place is not normal for the other. She also mentions that she and even her children who grew up after revolution, were brought up on apolitical Western music, like the Doors and Michael Jackson, (p. 60) which is a good thing and makes them just like all other Westerners. "For them, (her children), Persian music was identified with political songs and military marches -- for pleasure they turned somewhere else." (p. 61) The best entertainment for them was the pornographic Baywatch show: families of means, like hers, installed satellite dishes in their neighborhoods to catch Amerikan entertainment programs. (p. 67) In other words, even though ethnic Iranian, Azar Nafisi is culturally Western. As we will see further, her social economic interests are also strongly tied to the West.
Azar Nafisi never juxtaposes Iranian style of gender oppression ("I would first be checked to see if I have the right clothes: the color of my coat, the length of my uniform, thickness of my scarf, the objects in my bag, the size of my rings and their level of attractiveness, all would be checked before I could enter the campus of the university, the same university in which men also study" (pp. 29-30)) to it's Western counterpart, where wimmin, even though not ordered directly, but, nevetheless, under societal pressures and expectations, wear revealing clothing and makeup. And, of course, she mentions stoning as punishment for adultery and prostitution.(p. 27)
This is how she compares the situation of wimmin under the Shah regime and after revolution: "Does she [Sanaz, one of Azar Nafisi's students--author] compare her own situation with her mother's when she was the same age? Is she angry that wimmin of her mother's generation could walk the streets freely, enjoy the company of the opposite sex, join the police force, become pilots, live under laws that were among the most progressive in the world regarding wimmin? ....Does she feel humiliated by the new laws .... by the fact that stoning became once more the punishment for adultery and prostitution?"
Calling the Shah's laws regarding wimmin "most progressive," Azar Nafisi endorses the Shah's regime and seems to regret her earlier protests against it. But, Shah Reza didn't act in the best interest of people of Iran, neither men, nor wimmin, as Azar Nafisi would like naive Western readers to think. He acted in the best interests of his Western masters.
Thus, Azar Nafisi's real motivation for endorsing the Shah is not wimmin's lib, but the fact that she belonged to the old Iranian elite who brought Iran to the verge of disaster and lost all their privileges after the Shah's regime went down. (Azar Nafisi's father was a mayor of Tehran who was imprisoned after revolution. (p. 45) Her mother was in Iran's parliament. At that time, Azar Nafisi, as a teenager, was studying in Swiss school -- a classic case of Third World elite making their children potential First World citizens.) Azar Nafisi doesn't even try to hide this fact. In her views, it makes her equal to the Western people. As usual, the womyn question is being used to promote a much wider agenda.
Azar Nafisi's history with the West
After her father was jailed (late '60s - 70), Azar Nafisi moved to Norman, Oklahoma with her first husband who was getting a master's degree in engineering at the University of Oklahoma. There, she promptly divorced him and threw herself into the world of reading and left-leaning politics. She became acquainted with "radical professors" and interested in Lenin and Mao Tse Tung. (p. 84) She joined the Iranian student movement, and was discussing Engels's "Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State" in study groups. [The author of this review does not like that particular essay and sees it as especially patriarchal, but does not offer any reasons why--ed.]
"The Iranian student group at the University of Oklahoma was a chapter of the World Confederation of Iranian Students, which had members and chapters in most major cities in Europe and the United States. In Oklahoma, it was responsible for the introduction on campus of the RSB, the militant student branch of the Revolutionary Communist Party, and the creation of the Third World Committee Against Imperialism, composed of radical students from different nationalities. ..... It's members usually sported Che Guevara sports jackets and boots; the wimmin usually cropped their hair short, seldom used makeup and wore Mao jackets and khakis." (p. 85)
And this is when Azar Nafisi "began a schizophrenic period in my life in which I tried to reconcile my revolutionary aspirations with the lifestyle I most enjoyed." (p. 85) "Lifestyle" is the key word here. The major goal of people like Azar Nafisi was to have the lifestyles they most enjoyed (lipstick, miniskirt, sex, etc.), while covering it all in revolutionary rhetorics--just like RąP=u$A does now. Poor Azar Nafisi openly admits that "during the long and confrontational meeting between rival fractions, I would often leave the room under different pretenses, and ... locked myself in the bathroom to escape." (p. 85) This is the kind of persyn calling the shots on International Wimmin's Day now.
Thus, it's not surprising, that being heavily engaged in a bathroom version of politics, she believes that the lifestyle issue is the front line of political struggle. Lifestyle issues are overrated for Azar Nafisi, while "imperialism" sounds like some kind of dowdy nonsense.
Here is how she describes events of 1979, echoing current developments in Iran. Then, just like now, wimmin's questions were also used to promote foreign imperialist invasion. Mass protests against Iranian government as violator of wimmin's rights were staged on campuses all across America. Some Iranian Marxist student groups denounced the protests as "deviant, divisive and ultimately acting in the service of the imperialists." (p. 112). Azar Nafisi admits, that she, lifestyle-politics-supporter, found herself arguing not with reactionaries -- university administrators who were against all kinds of protests-- but with "the ostensibly progressive ones." (p. 112) "They claimed that there were bigger fish to fry, that the imperialists and their lackeys needed to be dealt with first. Focusing on wimmin's rights was individualistic and bourgeois and played into their hands. What imperialists, which lackeys? Do you mean those battered and bruised faces shown on nightly television confession to their crimes? Do you mean the prostitutes they recently stoned to death? " -- this was Azar Nafisi's response. (p. 113) Putting a humyn face on the lackeys of imperialism allows people like Azar Nafisi to dismiss imperialism as a nonsense whatsoever.
Not surprisingly, Azar Nafisi's book received universal acclaim in the imperialist press. Kam Zarrabi pointed out:
I just wonder how successful Ms. Azar Nafisi's book, "Reading Lolita in Tehran," would have been if the title were instead, "Reading Lolita in Tokyo." I dont believe for one second that the popularity of this book had anything, or as much, to do with its literary merits as it had with its shrewd formatting within a politically opportune ambience.
What is more dangerous is the victory of her line among those calling themselves "Maoist."
The crypto-Trotskyist organization in question allowed itself to be pushed to its current political practice. Going back 25 years, we can see the political roots of how that organization became the tail of the CIA.
At the beginning, and arising from a particular faction of SDS, the organization in question had some dialectical spin. It was able to prioritize one question over another. The political pressure created by the Black Panther Party was in the air.
Even then though, a lack of real understanding prompted a homophobic outlook and a condensation of issues that resulted in the first backsliding. When arguing with Azar Nafisi, the crypto-Trotskyists ceded the ground of feminism to her. That was error number one, a Liberal one that failed to bring out the difference between the Maoist approach and the Liberal feminist approach to gender. There desperately needed to be a MacKinnonization to translate Maoism into Western gender conditions, to give some people some concrete idea in the circumstances that they lived in.
As time went on and the Black Panthers as revolutionaries disappeared from the scene, the crypto-Trotskyist leader realized more and more consciously his disagreements with Maoism. In the early 1980s, he published that he did not agree with Mao's "country-by-country" approach. That is why this International Wimmin's Day, his followers found themselves in the company of Negri and Hardt who believe an attack anywhere is an attack on the empire system everywhere. They fail to understand the lessons Mao taught us in his struggle with Wang Ming, that we have to investigate the conditions in each country and act accordingly.
We at MIM believe we have to define that word "attack" country-by-country. Riling up whites to hate Iran, is not an attack on the patriarchy. Quite the opposite, it is supporting the patriarchy, because imperialism is the number one prop of patriarchy.
This is also connected to crypto-Trotskyist waffling on the question of parasitism. It was a failure to get into the question all the way that left RąP=u$A adrift and ready for new wave neo-conservative politics. The population of the united $tates has multiple material reasons for hating Iran, but the crypto-Trotskyists' leader obliterated that by saying that there is only 10% enemy in each country as if all the countries were the same.
Then too, arising in the 1960s, the crypto-Trotskyists came from the radical Freudian milieu. All in all, the RąP=u$A never came to a scientific theory for what is wrong with spreading Lolita fantasies politically and publicly, no matter how much as corrupted people we may or may not be in thrall to them privately. On this point, the crypto-Trotskyists swallowed the bullet from the oppressor, that if we like sex then it is hypocritical to support the Lenin, MacKinnon and MIM line on Freud. That is why we encourage them to support the struggle of smoking parents to abolish smoking in their children's future. Azar Nafisi is a man of female biology. She was trying to grapple with her lifestyle preferences when she became a man. RąP=u$A could not deal.
Finally, came the death of Gus Hall and RąP=u$A inherited at least one "mass" organization of the CP=U$A and a new line on the Democratic Party. This allowed the RąP=u$A to simplify politics and remove the various dialectical interconnections among issues. Now all that was necessary politically was to oppose the Bu$h regime. Chanting opposition to Bu$h was supposed to make up for the otherwise neo-conservative line of the warmongering demonstrations and appease any people with left-wing white nationalist sentiments. However, Bu$h is gone in two years if not sooner. The impression that these warmongering demonstrations make can last a lifetime. The RąP=u$A is planting the seeds of tomorrow's neo-conservative movement. For all we know, the next major neo-conservative may be a Democrat.
That brings us back to Azar Nafisi in 1979. RąP=u$A bobbed and weaved on a lot of subjects that ended up taking them down in the last 30 years. The one consistency is this: in 1979, the u.$. president was a Democrat. At that time, the RąP=u$A told Azar Nafisi she was on the wrong side. Now the president is a Republican and the RąP=u$A joins Azar Nafisi wholesale.
Pointing to abortion is not enough to link the struggle in Iran and inside U.$. borders. It is the abortion issue that gives Euro-Amerikan wimmin the entry point, the identity politics cover necessary to oppress Iranian wimmin and men. The same way revisionism is dangerous to the class struggle, pseudo-feminism involves a cover.
The most favorable speculation for this 2006 International Wimmin's Day rally that we can make is that the Iranian so-called Maoist Party wants to provoke a U.$. intervention in Iran, because it believes external conditions are lacking for revolution. Bu$h does indeed seem like the kind of guy who oversees the end of an empire. However, the Iranian Maoist Party has no mention of any demonstration on its web page in English. The RąP=u$A will have to take the blame for its own action in its own newspaper. Besides, there are ways to provoke the united $tates without confusing the public and setting bad examples. Whatever regime is in power in Iran will have to deal with negativity from the Amerikkkan public.