Two Iranian Women’s Memoirs: Things I’ve Been Silent About and Iran Awakening

I read both Things I’ve Been Silent About and Iran Awakening a few weeks ago, inspired in part by the discussions with one of my students mentioned here–she also very kindly gave me her copy of Iran Awakening when I mentioned I had not been able to find it in stock locally. I’m not entirely sure why I have put off writing about them for so long! But until I do, I can’t put the books back on the shelf, so here I go.

I had a passing idea that I would, maybe should, reread Reading Lolita in Tehran before writing on Nafisi’s memoir, but I didn’t. Perhaps if I had, I would have more to say about Things I Have Been Silent About, which I didn’t actually find very engaging. It’s primarily about Nafisi’s relationship with her parents, which wasn’t what I wanted to know about. I also felt uncomfortable reading her account of them, particularly of her vexed relationship with her mother. Though she is self-conscious about her own failures to understand or sympathize with her mother, and works to contextualize her mother’s choices and values, she ultimately still comes across as both unsympathetic and resentful. I guess I’m just wary of the inevitable one-sidedness of such a personal account, and wince at exposure of family feelings in this way. Consider the tone of this passage:

Some families try to cover up their tensions in front of strangers, but for Mother, a woman otherwise so insistent on social etiquette, no such niceties existed. She gave in to her emotions regardless of where she was. I tried not to let her know about my interest in Mehran, but she had a hunter’s instinct, alert and sensitized to my secret hideaways. Her instinct was helped, in this instance, by daily intrusions into the most private corners of her children’s lives. She listened in on my phone conversations, read my letters and diaries, and walked in and out of my room whenever she felt like it. I could never be certain which I resented more, the fact that she read my diary and letters or that she never allowed me to feel indignant about her actions: she would use her new evidence as proof of my betrayals.

Sure, Mother sounds intrusive–any teenager would find her so. But Nafisi seems to be still caught up in the resentment she describes. She’s far more forgiving of her father’s infidelities than she is of her mother’s transgressions. In fact, she gets angry at her mother about them, as here, when her mother befriends one of Father’s mistresses:

It irritated me, the innocent and persistent way my mother had of being attentive toward this woman and her family. It made us all uncomfortable, since we all knew what was going on. . .

To some extent Things That I Have Been Silent About does trace a process of reconciliation for them, and the book ends, after the death of both parents, with some touching reflections on what–almost despite themselves, you get the impression–her parents have left her with, “a portable home that safeguards memory and is a constant resistance against the tyranny of man and of time.” But as I read the book, I wanted to get away from Nafisi’s own perspective on them–which of course is a desire that goes against the grain of a memoir.

Shirin Ebadi’s story is intrinsically interesting, even inspiring. The oddity of Iran Awakening, for me, was that the book does not perform that inspiration. If anything, it consistently downplays the drama of Ebadi’s confrontations with the Islamic Republic. Individual chapters often open with appalling anecdotes of injustice and brutality against women and children, like the story of 11-year old Leila Fathi, raped, beaten, and discarded. Two of the three perpetrators are convicted and sentenced to death (a third hangs himself in prison).

In this instance, the judge ruled that the ‘blood money’ for the two men was worth more than the life of the murdered eleven-year-old girl, and he demanded that her family come up with thousands of dollars to finance their executions.

Leila’s father sold all of his worldly possessions, including the little clay hut where his family slept. Homeless but convinced that they would at least reclaim their honor, they offered the money to the court. It was not enough. The family took to sleeping at the shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini, a vast mausoleum on the road to Qom, while trying to raise the reminaing cash. First Leila’s father volunteered to sell a kidney, but his organ was rejected because of his past drug abuse. Next Leila’s brother offered his up, but the doctor refused because he was handicapped by polio. [Remember, they are doing this to raise money to pay for the legal sentence to be carried out on the men who raped and murdered their daughter!] ‘Why,’ asked the doctor, ‘are you two so insistent on selling your kidneys?’ Out poured the tale. They could not return to their village, they explained, stained by tthe shame of Leila’s rape. [their shame?!] Family honor rests on the virtue of women, and nothing less than the perpetrator’s execution could erase their shame.

As Ebadi remarks, this case is evidence that the ‘postrevolutionary legal system’ is not just flawed but ‘effectively pathological’; she agrees to represent the family. But things get worse, not better:

Over the course of the proceedings, the court acquitted both defendants [though there’s at least one eye-witness, Leila’s male cousin], overturned the acquittals, and then relaunched the investigation. The family’s grief slowly descended into madness. Leil’as mother took to sitting outside the courthouse in a white funeral shroud, holding a placard that described her daughter’s violation. During one trial, she threatened to set herself on fire, and began screaming profanities at the court. As though the whole proceeding was not dramatic enough, the judge held her in contempt of court and filed legal charges against her that took us weeks of mediation to settle.

The case, she tells us, “remains open to this day.” The whole scenario is so outrageous I found it difficult to sit still just reading about it, and along with Ebadi’s other examples, it more than makes her case about the “pathological” system. What I found disappointing was her understated treatment of her own courageous commitment to fighting for the rights of women and children. “While I was arguing Leila’s case,” she says, “the judge repeatedly accused me of speaking against Islam and its sacred laws.” She doesn’t detail either those accusations or her responses, either here or elsewhere by and large, though surely those exchanges exemplify the conflict between an evil state and those it oppresses, something more elaborate reconstruction of the debates would have dramatized. The prose of the book overall is just prosaic, even flat at times, considering the events it describes. But then, though Ebadi is clearly heroic, her heroism was always on behalf of other people, and of principles: if she spent the book grandstanding about herself, it would draw our attention to her performance rather than to the issues and people she fought for. The incidents and details she does provide, too, including her stay in Evin prison, are dramatic enough not to need a lot of heightened rhetoric.

Of particular interest to me were the sections discussing her decision to “draw on Islamic principles and precedents in Islamic law” in fighting her reformist battles. She is explicit and eloquent about her own conviction that the right and best option is a secular state: fundamentally,” she points out, “Islam, like any religion, is subject to interpretation,” and thus “there will never be a definitive resolution. . . . I am a lawyer by training, and know only too well the permanent limitations of trying to enshrine inalienable rights in sources that lack fixed terms and definitions.” She talks about ijtihad, the tradition within Islam of “intellectual interpretation and innovation” advocated by, among others, my own former UBC classmate Irshad Manji:

On the one hand, ijtihad imposes flexibility on Islamic law and creates an exciting space for adapting Islamic values and traditions to our lives in the modern world. But this flexibility is also precisely what makes ijtihad, and Islamic jurisprudence altogether, a tricky foundation on which to base inalienable, universal rights. Ijtihad frees us by removing the burden of definitiveness–we can interpret and reinterpret Koranic teachings forever; but it also means clerics can take the Universal Declaration of Human Rights home and argue about it richly for centuries. It means it is possible for everyone, always, to have a point. It means that patriarchal men and powerful authoritarian regimes who repress in the name of Islam can exploit ijtihad to interpret Islam in the regressive, unforgiving manner that suits their sensibilities and political agendas. As with the mullah who summoned his clerk and removed me from the floor of parliament, fighting for women’s rights in the Islamic Republic is often not a battle of wits or reason, nor is it always a fair fight. This does not mean that Islam and equal rights for women are incompatible; it means that invoking Islam in a theocracy refracts the religion through a kaleidoscope, with interpretations perpetually shifting and mingling and the vantage of the most powerful prevailing.

But she’s a pragmatist, and recognizing also the “permanent limitations” of her own position as a “citizen of the Islamic Republic,” she resolves to “advocate for female equality in an Islamic framework.” She has taken criticism from all sides for her decision:

I have been under attack most of my adult life for this approach, threatened by those in Iran who denounce me as an apostate for daring to suggest that Islam can look forward and denounced outside my country by secular critics of the Islamic Republic, whose attitudes are no less dogmatic. Over the years, I have endured all manner of slights and attacks, been told that I must not appreciate or grasp the real spirit of democracy if I can claim in the same breath that freedom and human rights are not perforce in conflict with Islam. When I heard the statement of the [Nobel] prize read aloud, heard my religion mentioned specifically alongside my work defending Iranians’ rights, I knew at that moment what was being recognized: the belief in a positive interpretation of Islam, and the power of that belief to aid Iranians who aspire to peacefully transform their country.

I admit, it was a problem for me to read about her arguments that, for example, male consent need not be given for divorce, not because of the inequities created by that requirement, but because the Shar-e Lomeh or Shia Textbook of Jurisprudence, does not explicitly require it. She works hard drafting a law to broaden women’s rights basing it “on the central texts taught in the holy city of Qom’s seminaries, showing that a basic right for women could be guaranteed within an Islamic framework of governance, provided [she concedes] those in government were inclined to interpret the faith in the spirit of equality.” My own view would be that women’s rights are not conditional on the inclinations of men or mullahs, and even as I am overwhelmed with admiration for Ebadi’s courage and accomplishments, it’s difficult for me to accept her strategic concessions precisely because, as she herself argues so elqouently, arguing for the compatibility of women’s rights “within an Islamic framework” is no guarantee at all because they can always be argued away again–really, arguing at all about the validity of women’s rights in the first place basically gives the game away. Though, as Ebadi’s memoir (like Nafisi’s) makes clear (as if it needed clarification), the Islamic Republic violates the human rights of all of its citizens, it’s women on whom the heavy hand of the state always falls the hardest– Ebadi remarks, “Reza Shah was the first, but not the last, Iranian ruler to act out a political agenda . . . on the frontier of women’s bodies.” The current case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, currently under sentence of death by stoning for alleged adultery, is just one appalling recent example. (Both Nafisi and Ebadi are signatories on the petition to free Sakineh; if you aren’t already, follow the link and add your name.) As Ebadi would have to concede, Sakineh’s trial and sentence reflect an interpretation of Islam–just not the one that guarantees “a basic right for women,” thus proving her point about the need to base “inalienable rights” on a different foundation. But, of course, that’s easy for me to say. Nobody’s going to put me in prison for it.

1 Comment to Two Iranian Women’s Memoirs: Things I’ve Been Silent About and Iran Awakening

  1. July 30, 2010 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this penetrating and thought-provoking review, Rohan. I love the way you allow the juxtaposition to speak for itself.
    Nafisi’s memoir does sound like so many of the more petulant strain of miserylit, flawed – as you say – by her unwillingness (inability?) to try and understand her mother.
    Fascinating to read more about Shirin Ebadi. Her courage and commitment are – well, words seem inadequate. I heard her interviewed on radio, and she was very matter-of-fact. And the exercise was a bit frustrating for exactly the reasons you identify so clearly: why? How? And you’re right: we are privileged.

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