Azar Nafisi, the daughter of a long-established intellectual family, was born in Tehran in 1956. Her mother was among the first female members of Parliament and her father was a mayor of Tehran. Nafisi was mainly educated abroad and at thirteen attended school in Lancashire, England before going to study in the USA, where she belonged to left-wing student groups and received a doctorate from the University of Oklahoma. In 1979, the year of the Islamic Revolution, she returned, hopeful, to Iran after being away for seventeen years, and worked as a lecturer in English literature at the University of Tehran.
In her international bestseller “Reading Lolita in Tehran” (2003) she describes, against an autobiographical backdrop, the country’s dismay in its transformation to a religious fundamentalist dictatorship. Gradually, public life becomes regimented down to the smallest things and personal freedom sup pr essed; draconian punishments for real or alleged wrongdoings lead to enormous pr essure to assimilate. Nafisi was banned from teaching in 1981 when she refused to wear the Islamic veil at lectures. She began to work again only six years later, this time at the University of Allameh Tabatabai. Due to growing re pr essions Nafasi resigned from her job in 1995 but carried on teaching by setting up a reading group in which she discussed Western literature with seven selected female students. The middle class Anglo-Saxon literature which Nafisi admired (Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, Austen) was being judged ever more harshly in Iran for being decadent and finally, if the books were not outright banished, they were almost impossible to obtain. In one seminar Islamist students even initiated a trial against the novel “The Great Gatsby”. Due to its complexity, however, the text pr oved itself astonishingly resistant to the sup pr essive moralistic rules. Values pr omoted by literature, such as imagination and empathy, became visible as the real adversaries of totalitarianism, alongside individuality and plurality. According to Nafisi, what the Mullahs disrupted most of all was “that sense of individual dignity, the temerity of people who say, ‘we do what we think is right, what we feel is good'”.
In 1997 Nafisi emigrated with her family to the USA. She has published essays in different anthologies and written for newspapers such as “The New York Times”, “The Washington Post”, “The Wall Street Journal” and “New Republic”. She currently teaches at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. “Reading Lolita in Tehran” has been translated into more than thirty languages and was enthusiastically received by readers and critics alike.
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