Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 2000
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APRIL 2000


Literature, contends Azar Nafisi, can tell us more about human politics than any textbook can.
APRIL 2000
Pioneers of Advocacy

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Unveiling the Imagination
By Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson

Azar Nafisi understands the absurdity endemic to politics. To teach that lesson, she once told her students to Go Ask Alice.

Nafisi, a visiting professor at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), taught for 15 years in her native Iran until being forced to resign in the mid-1990s. "My teaching methods were criticized," she says from her office in the Foreign Policy Institute at SAIS. "Once, my all-girl class put on a play, the trial scene from Alice in Wonderland. It became very crowded because the administration usually wouldn't let students do plays.

"But the girls wore colored clothing and some were made up. And we played the music from the cartoon version of Alice in Wonderland," she says. "Small things cause problems in Iran."

Nafisi, who earned her doctorate at Oklahoma University in 1979, had returned home to Iran just as the Islamic Revolution hit. She taught at University of Tehran, Free Islamic University, and Tabatabaii University, but clashed with government-controlled administrations. When she joined other women in refusing to wear the government-mandated veil in the early 1980s, she was expelled from the University of Tehran. After fleeting moments of openness gave way to crackdowns, she resigned elsewhere.

Nafisi doesn't even teach politics, or international relations, or foreign policy. She is a professor of English literature. But after spending just a half hour with Nafisi, it's clear she believes literature can tell us more about human politics than any textbook can.

"Until your right to imagination is taken away from you, you cannot understand. Without basic human rights, you can't have political rights," she says. Students in Iran welcome literature. "They are enthusiastic, they get excited over Jane Austen. But teaching in Iran is also like guerrilla warfare."

Nafisis with her students in Iran.

In the classroom, she would photocopy 800-page books for her students because the works were not available. When restrictions mounted, she took her course into her own home. "We didn't do anything political, but we read clandestine books--Lolita, Tom Jones, or [works by] Saul Bellow," she says. "That was an amazing class. We were reading Nabokov. The young women started to talk about how they feel about their lives. If you are a woman talking about yourself in Iran, you are subversive."

Based on that class, the Sisterhood is Global Institute (Bethesda, Md.) published a human rights education curriculum Claiming Our Rights: A Manual for Women's Human Rights Education in Muslim Societies.

Because Nafisi understands the plight of women, and of youths, in Iran's closed society, she predicted the violent protests of July 1999 and the reform movement that characterized this year's elections. Her work has appeared in The New Republic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, where she is often pressing for women's rights back home. "Just recently, a female professor was expelled because her wrist had shown from under her sleeve while she was writing on the blackboard," Nafisi wrote in a New Republic cover story in early 1999. "Yet, while these measures are meant to render women invisible and powerless, they are paradoxically making women tremendously visible and powerful. . . . Every private act or gesture in defiance of official rules is now a strong political statement."

A pioneering spirit at SAIS, where national defense and international economics often take the podium, Nafisi was hired after winning a fellowship there. Her course evaluates the influence of culture on politics through the eyepiece of literature. SAIS Dean Paul Wolfowitz, who became interested in differences in Islamic culture while serving three years as U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, supports Nafisi's idea that "there is a larger, wider argument about how culture shapes policy.

Nafisi remains an outspoken voice here in the United States, questioning oddly familiar dogmatic ideologies--such as "political correctness"--especially when such views bar or overly politicize literature. She is, after all, writing a book about reading Lolita in Tehran. "Why would you want to read Pride and Prejudice to find something that supports your own political ideas?" she asks. "We read books to be provoked."