Women of Iran: Private Lives; Private Spaces

Posted on July 26, 2010


I have not yet read the book, Reading Lolita in Tehran but a synopses of it will entice you to read it as it has me:

Nabokov could not have wished for more attentive students than those who met on Thursday mornings in 1995 at the Tehran apartment of Azar Nafisi to study English literature. Nafisi, who had recently resigned her position as Professor of English Literature at the University of Tehran, expertly guided a group of seven young women in discussions of works such as Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, and Daisy Miller. Lolita, however, was the class favorite. To them, the Islamic Republic was like Humbert Humbert and they were like Dolores Haze—controlled by an authority who confiscates their individual identities and replaces them with a cipher of his own imagination. The slightest provocation, a hair out of place, a bared ankle, maddens Humbert just as it does their own tormentors. In the alternative world of Nafisi’s apartment, where not the horrors and humiliations waiting in the street below but the mountains of Tehran were reflected in the antique oval mirror that hung on the far wall of the living room, Nafisi and her group of hand-picked students used literature, as Nabokov had, to transcend the unacceptable realities of a preposterous life and find a place where art, tenderness, and beauty prevailed. Reading Lolita in Tehran is Nafisi’s account of the years she spent in Iran trying to come to terms with the totalitarian regime that came to power in 1979. By the time the Islamic Republic had so circumscribed the lives of women that attending an all-girl literature class at the home of a professor might require an alibi, “Knowledge nicely browned” was no longer an option. [End Page 209] For these students, reading Nabokov, reading Persian and western classics, reflecting on and being transformed by what they read, was ultimately an act of subversion.[Muse.JHU.EDU]

An Iranian friend here in America has taught me much about daily life there.  The first thing she taught me is to refer to her as Persian, not Iranian.  I liked her love of the duration and depth of her culture before the revolution.  Persia gave so much to the world.  They are a brave people. Persians were not easily defeated by the Mongols in their march to Europe.  You can still see the faces of the descendants of them in Iran today.  Most interesting is the fact that

Like the Seljuks before them, the Mongols were very open to the cultural influences of the civilisations that they had conquered. They were practical enough to admit Persian scholars, physicians, jurists and soldiers into circles of the highest rank.

Persian was even made the official language of the Ilkhanid court and many of the descendents of Genghis Khan would marry into the lineages of Persian tribes. It is a little known fact that Shah Ismail I, the founder of the Safavid dynasty, could trace a direct line of descent back to the great Khan himself. [IranVisitor]

Although their lives are limited but they find the ways and means to “normalize” it.  My friend told me that wealthy Iranian women hold fashion parties.  Designers from Paris and Milan ship clothing and the latest styles are modeled in one or the other of their homes.  Women do wear western dress in some homes.

Last April, there was a remarkable exhibition at Berkley’s Alphonse Berber Gallery, Tehran: Public Lives Private Spaces — New Art and Digital Media from Iran is a series of photographs and video installations depicting these restrictions on public life — and the defiant private lives of young people in Iran’s capital city. Most of the work was created by Tehran-based artists born after the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Mahboube Karamli’s installation The Girls is a series of photos of young Iranian women sitting on their beds. To describe this work, Karamali wrote, “I think that most of the girls, who are the same age as me, also spend a great amount of time in their bedrooms. If we add to this… the time each girl spends sleeping, one would see that a significant amount of their lives up to this point have been spent on their beds. It is safe to say that these girls are most relaxed in their bedrooms; after all it is their own private space.”

We see young Iranian women with their hair unveiled, the skin of their arms and legs defiantly bare. Each stares directly into the camera with a look that seems to say, “I have nothing to hide.” The images vary: a woman lays seductively across her bed; another sits cross-legged, smoking a cigarette (an act looked down upon for women in Iranian society); a third is surrounded by a pile of shoes. Each woman is young and beautiful, with a look of confidence in her eyes. [KQED.org]

But last year, we saw many of these remarkably brave and committed women leave their private spaces and take to the streets to defy the repressive government that had falsified election results.  Many lost their lives including Neda whose last moments were televised.  She quickly became a symbol of the revolution. [Huffington Post]

So we have have heard from them.  We took their message to our hearts and someday it is hoped we may openly support them – those women who have been forced to retreat to their private spaces within their own homes to indulge in precious freedom within 4 walls.