Women's Rights—Not Just for Westerners

By Azar Nafisi

I went back to my country in 1979 after I finished my studies. Actually, two days after I finished my dissertation at Oklahoma University, I was on the plane back to Iran. For almost two decades after I left Iran at the age of 13, I imagined what home would be. I imagined that as a woman and a writer and a teacher, I would go back to that home and serve. I went back to Iran at the end of the summer of 1979. What I found, thanks to the revolution led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, was fundamentalism, terror, and the war with Iraq. (See sidebar "Struggling to Keep Imagination Alive" for more details.)

I discovered two things when I went back home. One, that home was not home anymore. But home should not really be home; it should not make us comfortable; it should not make us smug. I always remember Theodore Adorno saying that the highest form of morality is not to feel at home in your own home. Rather, we must be constantly vigilant and questioning in regards to our own actions and words. So for that I would like to thank the Islamic Republic for not making me feel at home in my own home.

The second thing I discovered was that as a woman, as a human being, as a teacher and a writer, the way I looked, the way I felt, the way I talked, the values I cherished, they were all now called "alien." A group of people came to my country in the name of my country, in the name of my traditions, in the name of my religion, telling me that people like me—millions of people like me in my country—were agents of a Western imperialist alien power. Because of that, millions of Iranians, and I among them, had to ask ourselves, was this true? That group came in the name of religion and in the name of Islam.

When I came back to this other home in 1997—the United States—it was so surprising to me to find out that with good intentions and under the name of cultural relativism or multiculturalism, many of the mythologies that those Islamists created in my country were now accepted by many here. People would tell me, "It is their culture." I would be called, and categorized as, a "Western" woman.

The truth is that Islamic fundamentalism is a totalitarian system. It confiscates a religion and uses it as an ideology for power. Its targets, like all totalitarian regimes' targets, are basic individual rights, civil rights, and human rights. Alongside of that, it has to target thought and imagination—what we call culture—in order for it to survive.

As soon as the Islamists came to power (eight months before they ratified a new constitution, created a new parliament, or had a new president), they cancelled the family protection law that gave women rights both at home and at work. Then they imposed the Sharia laws on Iran; the Sharia laws, whether in Iran, Afghanistan, or Saudi Arabia, are basically the same laws.

The first targets of Sharia laws, again, were women and individual rights. For example, they lowered the age of marriage for girls from 18 to 9. Now, I would like to ask those who say it's "their culture," how many 9-year-old girls have free choice to say that they would like to marry a man twice or three times their age? The Islamists also implemented the punishment of stoning to death for what they called adultery and prostitution. Meanwhile, they made polygamy legal, where a man could have not only four official wives, but could contract, or rent, as many women as he wanted for a period of five minutes to 99 years. Legally, they considered women as half men. So, for example, on the witness stand, testimony by two women would have the same weight as testimony by one man. They disrobed women judges because they said women did not have the ability to think clearly, so they could not be judges. Another example is that if a woman is killed by a man, the family of the woman has to pay the family of the man (if you can put a price on life) half the blood money in order for that man to be punished.* These were the laws that they brought to my country in the name of my religion.

Now, I ask you, if this were our Iranian culture, if this were what we chose, would you say that the Salem witch trials were the real culture in Massachusetts and not Thoreau or Emerson or Hawthorne? Would you say that slavery was the real culture in America and not Zora Neale Hurston or William Faulkner or Carson McCullers or Toni Morrison or Richard Wright? Would you say that Europe's Middle Ages inquisition was its real culture, and not St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas?

Every country in the world today, every people has a stain upon their history. If we remember and cherish America today because of the highest achievements of its culture, if we cherish this country, or if we cherish countries we call democratic, we cherish them because of the way they treat that stain. We cherish democratic countries when they give the people the right to change: the right to change what is unacceptable, and the right to preserve the highest achievements of mankind—namely its works of science, its works of thought, and its works of imagination.

If you allow those things to your people, then I think you should allow them to my people. And, you should believe that no woman, in any part of the world, no matter how much she believes in her culture and tradition and religion, would like to be flogged, stoned to death, or genitally mutilated. No person in the world today (in their sane mind, of course) would reject life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness—and I especially love pursuit of happiness. It is not happiness, it is not the dream, it is the search for it that is the whole purpose of life.

Now, who does not want to be happy? Why is it that life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness should be geographically or culturally determined? It is not an imposition upon other cultures when you create a genuinely critical dialogue with others. You would have wanted Europe to be for those who were anti-slavery. Today, we want you to be for those who are anti-totalitarianism in my part of the world.

Alongside the confiscation of reality, there is one other thing that every totalitarian regime does—it confiscates people's imagination because imagination is always irreverent, always wayward, always playful. Remember Salman Rushdie? The essence of Salman Rushdie, as Carlos Fuentes says, is not that he wrote a novel insulting Islam, it is that he wrote a novel that was playful and irreverent of reality. And at the core of fiction, at the core of the modern novel, is a celebration of individual rights and of democracy.

The greatest of our novelists are those who give voice—multi-voices—to people with whom they do not even agree. That is the essence of the novel, and that is what the Ayatollahs were afraid of. When we talk about that, we should remember that in the Soviet Union, and in Hitler's Germany, works of writers like Camus or Sartre or Hemingway were all condemned as decadent and bourgeois. The celebration of individual rights in films and in public was also considered decadent and bourgeois.

Totalitarian regimes attack movie houses; they attack the novel; they ban music; they ban women from dancing; and women's voices become dangerous. For example, from the Russian version of Hamlet, they took out most of Ophelia's scenes. From the Sir Laurence Olivier version of Othello, they took out most of the scenes with Desdemona, and they took out the suicide scene at the end because they said that the masses would be depressed when they look at somebody killing himself on the screen. Apparently the masses do not get depressed when they are stoned to death; they say, "Oh, that's our culture," but they hate to see Sir Laurence Olivier dying on the screen.

Remember when the Soviet Union took the death of the swan out of Swan Lake so that the masses would not become depressed? In the Islamic Republic, children's book illustrators put scarves on female chickens so that the male chickens won't go all wild and do something devastatingly terrible to the female chickens. Don't ask me how they could differentiate between the female and the male chickens, but understand that this sort of mockery is also a mockery of religion. The kind of man who becomes so obsessed sexually with a strand of my hair that he does not know what to do with himself should not be on the streets.

The point is, the issue we are facing today is not the issue of religion, it is a confiscation, in fact, of religious rights. The issue in the West that comes constantly to our attention is the veil. People say that many Muslim women choose to wear the veil, and that is true. Many Muslim women do; my own grandmother never took off the veil her entire life. My mother, who considered herself a Muslim and went to pilgrimage, to Hajj, never wore the veil. Who is to say which woman is more Muslim? No government, no state, has the right to interfere with the way an individual woman or man worships or does not worship his or her God.

In Iran, it is not only the Jewish, the Christians, the atheists, the Buddhists, the Bahais, or the Zoroastrians who are being deprived of their religious rights, but also the Muslims, because the veil has become a political issue. A Muslim woman should have the right to wear the veil if she wants to. No one can argue with someone's faith, no one can tell someone how to wear, or whether to wear, something. But imagine if tomorrow your government told you that this was a Christian-majority country and all Americans would, therefore, have to practice the President's form of Christianity. And further, starting tomorrow, all Americans would have to wear a cross. Would the cross mean anything anymore? The interpretation of Islam that is given to us today in Iran is only one interpretation. Why should the veil mean anything anymore?

The veil in Iran today plays the same role that the Mao jackets played in Communist China. It is the same uniform; it is a call for uniformity by a mindset that cannot and will not tolerate multiplicity and multi-vocality.

So this is the main issue that we are dealing with today. The issue is not just political, it is existential. A totalitarian system takes away your sense of dignity and your sense of individuality. The best way to resist it is to reclaim and retrieve that sense of individuality and dignity. That is why people in concentration camps, like Primo Levi or Mandelstam or in the Soviet Union, people like Akhmatova, or Brodsky, or Solzhenitsyn, turn to the highest achievements of mankind, namely the works of imagination.

For 25 years, Iranian people resisted the regime by coming out into the streets and using "weapons of mass destruction," like lipstick, a strand of hair, holding hands, listening to music. By being themselves they would be flogged; 76 lashes is the punishment for showing hair or wearing lipstick. They would be flogged, jailed, given virginity tests. They would go out the next day into the streets and do it again, for 25 years. When women were deprived of becoming judges, like Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Peace Laureate, did they stay at home? They came out and became lawyers for human, women's, and children's rights. They did not allow that sense of dignity and integrity to be taken away from them.

*  *  *

Today in the streets of Tehran, it is the morality squads that have retreated, not the women. The American media was completely silent about this, but July was the anniversary of the student uprising in 1999, and there are still prisoners who are on strike. The students, the children of revolution in Iran today, are the ones who are reading Jane Austen and Saul Bellow. They know more about de Tocqueville and the Declaration of Independence than some of my American students do.

When I came here I always remembered Saul Bellow saying that the sufferings of freedom must be taken into consideration. People might survive the ordeal of Holocaust, but how do we deal with the ordeal of freedom?

We, in those other countries, take away from you these values that are universal: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We, in return, give you back new interpretations of these values by shouting them in the streets of Tehran or Kabul—or hopefully Baghdad. We will bring them back home to you and remind you that you cannot feel too much at home. We remind you that democracy and human rights, as well as terror and fundamentalism, are universal. In order to safeguard those values that you have fought for in this country, you have to safeguard the values that people all over the world now are fighting for.


Azar Nafisi is visiting fellow and professorial lecturer at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. She is also director of the Dialogue Project, which promotes the development of democracy and human rights in the Muslim world. Her most recent book is Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books.

*"Bloody Money" is the value of a person's life in Iran. A woman in Iran is always worth half of a man; therefore, men are worth double the amount of "bloody money." The Islamic Penal Code in Iran states that if a Muslim man commits first-degree murder against a Muslim woman, the woman's family must pay half of the value of the culprit's life to his family before retribution is allowed. (back to article)

In 1999 there was the largest student uprising in 20 years. It began with a small, peaceful demonstration protesting the closing of a moderate newspaper. After police reacted harshly, beating and detaining students, students across the country engaged in demonstrations for five days calling for reforms, including freedom of the press. (back to article)

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