While living under the oppressive rule of Ayatollah Khomeini, a select group of young women gathered secretly on Thursday mornings in Tehran to read forbidden Western Literature, thus defying Islamic moral law, risking their lives in the process. Their mentor was Azar Nafisi, a Western-educated literature professor who returned to her native Iran in the midst of the Islamic Revolution only to discover severe fundamentalism, martyrs, and death squads acting in the name of an Islam she didn’t recognize.
In a memoir rife with anguish, but with glimpses of hope, Professor Nafisi takes the reader into her world, a world where she was forced to walk two paths -- one veiled by Islamic law and one holding desperately onto independence of thought, word, and deed.
A poignant moment occurs early in the book when a young woman in the group draws a parallel between the Islamic censor’s rewriting of literature to reflect their own ideals with Ayatollah Khomeini‘s manipulations of Islamic laws to create a society he alone envisioned. Nafisi introduces us to a generation of young women that she describes as having “no past”, and who “have never felt the wind on their skin”, yet we see hope in the paths that the young women chose and risks they take. As the professor herself discovers, routine creates the illusion of stability but behind the illusion she struggles with turbulent feelings of identity loss and despair over the future of her students.
While feminism in the western world has made great strides, women during the Islamic Revolution in Iran existed in an environment where every action was a political statement that could have ended their lives. Readers of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale may find a shocking similarity between Atwood’s fictional world and the experiences of the young women Azar Nafisi teaches.
Azar Nafisi is currently a professor of English Literature at Johns Hopkins University. She previously taught at the University of Tehran where she was terminated for not adhering to the Islamic law that would force her to wear the veil in the classroom.
~review by Denise Bell
Author: Azar Nafisi
Random House, 2003
pp. 347, $13.95