Iranian writer and literature professor Azar Nafisi describes her life under radical Islam in her 2003 memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran. For much of the book, which I just completed listening to, I felt a lack of empathy for her silly leftist politics, her majoring in anti-American demonstrations when studying in America, her obsession with minor American leftists—the whole predictable sequence. Why shouldn’t any regime want to protect itself from the dangers such foppery of the intellectual class might breed!
But as conditions for Iranians worsen, and as the Islamic regime imposes ever harsher restrictions on women (the veil is just one of many measures), her portrayal of the revolutionary political significance of Jane Austen (among other western authors) has stunning power, awakening not just our perception of the Iranian regime insanity but as well how we should read Jane Austen. Viewing Austen as a subversive, as a promoter of women’s virtues, does more than steer us away from the Charybdis of her as a supporter of British imperialism. Reading Austen as a forbidden (or at least frowned-upon) pleasure makes the civilizing effect of great literature come alive.
Nafisi’s recounting of Iran’s miseries encourages deeper reflection on how the West might act, as her former colleagues and students protest the tyranny. She is now affiliated with two Washington, DC think-tanks. Here is her website. Perhaps Nafisi might stiffen the resolve of her fellow memoirist in the White House.