Today I feel a little ashamed that all I could find to write about on International Women’s Day was my own youthful emotional travails in the women’s movement. I’m reading Reading Lolita inTehran by Azar Nafisi, her memoir of the 1990s, when, having left her job as a university professor in Tehran, she invited a few of her best women students to a weekly study group in her home. They read and discussed banned Western novels, sharing out rare printed volumes and photocopied versions. F Scott Fitzgerald, Jane Austen, Nabokov. The girls took off their all-enveloping veils, revealing short hair, jeans and bright tee-shirts… and in time revealing much more, their lives and thoughts, their dreams and imaginings.
As you imagine us in that room, you must also understand our desire for this dangerous vanishing act. The more we withdrew into our sanctuary, the more we became alienated from our day-to-day life. When I walked down the streets, I asked myself, Are these my people, is this my hometown, am I who I am?
Fine writing, and gut-wrenching. In the chapter I’m reading, Nafisi describes how one of her students, Sanaz, was arrested for sitting in a private garden with a group of women-friends and the fiancé of one of them, kept in jail incommunicado for several days, subjected twice to ‘virginity testing’ and summarily sentenced to 25 lashes. Afterwards Sanaz drew a picture:
It is a simple drawing in black and white, of a naked girl, the white of her body caught in a black bubble. She is crouched in an almost fetal position, hugging one bent knee. Her other leg is stretched out behind her. Her long, straight hair follows the same curved line as the contour of her back, but her face is hidden. The bubble is lifted in the air by a giant bird with long black talons… the girl, the bubble and the girl’s hand that reached out of the bubble and holds on to the talon. Her subservient nakedness is dependent on that talon, and she reaches out.
Not simplistic. The complicity of victims is not denied. And although Nafisi certainly doesn’t make excuses for ‘Humbert’, she does look upon him with some understanding:
[Mr Bahri is student in Nafisi’s university class and ardent supporter of the revolutionary government] As I got to know him better, I noticed he was not as arrogant as I had thought him to be. Or perhaps I grew more accustomed to his special kind of arrogance, that of a naturally shy and reserved young man who had discovered an absolutist refuge... It was his doggedness, his newfound certainty, that gave him this arrogance. At times he could be very gentle, and when he talked, he would not look you in the eyes – not just because a Muslim man should not look a woman in the eyes, but because he was too timid. It was this mixture of arrogance and shyness that aroused my curiosity.
What will stay with me most, though, is one sentence – the one that walks through my mind every time I see a completely veiled woman in London, right next to the women with bare midriffs and thongs deliberately visible above their jeans
My girls spoke constantly of… the wind they had never felt on their skin.
¶ 6:13 pm
That last line really sticks in my gut too. I read the book last year... good but difficult to read as one who has lived 50 years with total freedom to be. How much have I taken for granted.... so very much.