Reading Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi, is not easy. It is, however, rewarding. Appropriate for Banned Book Week, we might want to remind ourselves what a society that bans books actually looks like. Nafisi, an Iranian teacher of English literature, had broadened her mind and had traveled abroad. When she returned to her home country to take up a teaching post, she discovered that the world you always knew can be very unstable. It can change without you realizing it. (Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin, left even the sages scratching their heads.) The Revolution, as it was known in Iran, brought in the radical conservatism of religious outlooks that saw women as little more than temptations for men. The wearing of the veil was enforced by law. Nafisi was told it was a small price to pay for the greater good. The rhetoric is the same every time I’ve been frisked at the airport, although I’m a lifelong pacifist. In Iran, things were much worse.
Nafisi recounts gathering a group of her women students together after she was forced out of the university. They would meet at her apartment to discuss literature, including Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. How must it feel to be a woman reading about a man’s obsession with a girl so young? As Nafisi points out, girls of Lolita’s age are considered marriageable in some Islamic states. It isn’t Islam that’s the problem, it is extremism. When I read about how she became “irrelevant,” I literally shuddered. In my own way too, I had been made irrelevant to higher education by those who felt any means would justify religious ends. And the bookstores in Tehran were closed, for they sold dangerous ideas. The irrelevance of one woman, or even half the population, is a small price to pay for self-righteousness.
“You say you’re afraid for God,” Ellen Hopkins wrote in “Manifesto.” Afraid for the Almighty. Such a strange concept. Fundamentalists of all monotheistic stripes believe in an all-powerful God whom they arrogantly presume to protect. How can a human even conceive such hubris? We feel secure in our Bible-emboldened superiority, challenged when reminded that the Quran, the Book of Mormon, or even Science and Health came later, and by definition supersessionism inevitably takes hold. “Paranoia is in bloom,” Muse reminds us. Missiles fall on Tehran, killing women and children. We elect, however, officials who agree that healthcare for women is politically negotiable. The reason has nothing at all to do with justice. It has everything to do with using a black-bound book for power over those who are just twelve-year olds wondering how any of this is even possible.