In Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, how are the women able to find empowerment?
For the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, teaching the class in her home to women is a form of empowerment. As she writes, "This class was the color of my dreams. It entailed an active withdrawal from a reality that had turned hostile. I wanted very badly to hold on to my rare mood of jubilance and optimism" (page 8). After she is harassed at the university and resigns, Azar Nafisi finds empowerment by teaching literature to women who truly want to learn. She writes about the class as "the color of my dreams," as opposed to the drab reality around her in oppressive Tehran.
The women who attend the class find it empowering because they can voice their true feelings and literally and figuratively let down their hair. For example, when Sanaz enters the class, Nafisi describes Sanaz's transformation after she removes her scarf and robe: "She was wearing an orange T-shirt tucked into tight jeans and brown boots, yet the most radical transformation was the mass of shimmering dark brown hair that now framed her face" (page 18). The women's hair is a form of freedom and expression that they cannot show in the streets of Tehran. Nafisi records the women's feelings and innermost cares as they attend the class. For example, she records, "Some of my girls are more radical than I am in their resentment of men. All of them want to be independent" (page 26). The more they read, the more they understand the terms of their own imprisonment in Tehran. For example, they read Nabokov's Lolita and find the references to the way that Humbert jails Lolita similar to the way men imprison them psychologically and physically in their own society (page 25). They also discuss the ways in which Humbert robs Lolita of a true childhood, just as they have been robbed. As they continue to read literature, they become more and more independent minded.
After the class, many of the women find their way out of Iran--to England (in Nassrin's case), the United States, and Canada. Others, such as Yassi, pursue graduate studies in literature and lead their own classes, as the class has empowered them to think of themselves as readers and thinkers. The women who are left in Iran continue to read western literature. The paths they have taken reflect their sense of growing empowerment.
Nafisi and her female students find empowerment in supporting each other through a reading group. What they explore and interpret together is literature that the fundamentalist Islamic regime fears as decadent: for example: The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, Daisy Miller, and Lolita. They also find empowerment in the survival of the female storyteller in A Thousand and One Nights.
These books may seem pedestrian to us (with the possible exception of Lolita) but are daring reads in Iran at that time. For instance, Nafisi's fundamentalist students at the university (while she is still teaching there) object to Jay Gatsby as an adulterer. Yet on the other hand, in a society that is trying to erase individuality, the women find empowerment in understanding Gatsby as a fully realized character full of very personal hopes and dreams.
In the privacy of Nafisi's apartment, the women continuously explore their womanhood in ways forbidden by the regime, questioning, for instance, arranged marriage and debating its merits. They use works like Pride and Prejudice and Daisy Miller to talk about romantic love, a concept that had been banned in the public sphere.
Nafisi makes clear how acts as seemingly minor as meeting together to read over coffee and cakes can become radically important in a totalitarian environment. She writes:
It is amazing how, when all possibilities are taken away from you, the minutest opening can become a great freedom. We felt when we were together that we were almost absolutely free.