Tell me a little about your experience teaching English and American
literature in Iran, and how you came to the U.S.
I began teaching at the University of Tehran in 1979 and was expelled in 1982,
mainly because I refused to go to the university in the mandatory veil. (They
had to make it mandatory in the workplace first, because of women's
demonstrations and protests against the veil.) After my expulsion, I wrote
articles and a book on Vladimir Nabokov. I returned to academia in the late 1980s, after a period liberalization, to a more liberal university. Life in
academia was like guerrilla warfare, from not wearing my veil properly to the
books I taught and the meetings I organized, to the liberal way I treated
students. I resigned in 1995, but my resignation was not accepted until two years later!
I started a workshop with my female students, on the relation between great
works of fiction and the reality around us. The question we posed was, when the
reality around us becomes so oppressive that we have no control over it, how do
we through imagination create free spaces for ourselves, as women and as human
beings with certain principles? The material culled from this workshop became
the basis of a manual for human rights of women in Muslim countries.
I could not leave Iran until 1990 when I started participating in conferences
in Europe and the U.S. I taught on a fellowship at Oxford in 1994, and in 1997
I came to Johns Hopkins University-SAIS, where I currently teach politics and
culture and am director of the Road to Democracy in Muslim Societies project. I
am also writing a book based on my teaching experiences in Iran, which again is
centered on the liberating role of imagination and great works of fiction.
What has become of the prospects for dialogue between the U.S. and Iran?
What do Americans most need to understand about Iranian society, politics, and
culture in order to engage in a useful dialogue? What are the perceptions and
misperceptions that stand in the way?
The main problem in dealing with Iran has been U.S. policymakers' difficulty in
gaining the right "perspective" on Iran. This lack of perspective has been
mainly the result of a lack of access to Iran since 1979, as well as the
paradoxical and complicated nature of the Iranian society. What was needed was
a framework for understanding Iran that did not change with every turn of
events or depend on the often arbitrary statements and proclamations of Iranian
politicians. Such a framework would help explain the wayward moves of the
Islamic government within the larger setting of Iranian society, its various
forces, and their complex web of relationships.
The main tendency in the U.S. academic and policymaking circles has been to
reduce various tensions and contradictions in Iranian society to the conflict
between the "good guys" led by President Khatami and the "bad guys" guided by
the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Such theories are not new. When
Rafsanjani was elected 8 or 9 years before Khatami, there was much the same
reaction toward him as there is now toward Khatami. Much of what is talked
about today could just as well have been the subject of similar discussion
I'm especially interested in your perspective as an Iranian woman who has
lived and worked in the United States now for several years. What do Americans
need to understand about the role of women in Iran?
Many in the media and expert community have ironically praised the Iranian
regime in areas where it has had the most criticism at home. The eager praise for
women's progress under the Islamic regime is a good case in point. Iran, a
country with a history of over 150 years of struggle by its women and a country
where before the revolution its women were active in all walks of life (from
cabinet posts to police) has been compared with some of its neighbors, such as
Saudi Arabia, and comes off with flying colors.
As numerous women activists and writers within and outside Iran have pointed
out, the only way to correctly judge the Iranian women's present situation is
through locating it within the context of Iran's own past. We must remember
that at the time of the revolution Iran had two women cabinet ministers,
including one for women's affairs, an ambassador, five mayors, 22 women in the
Parliament, three in the Senate, and women in all walks of life, including in
the police force. The Islamic Republic's first action was to repeal the
progressive family protection law that protected women's rights at home and at
work. It then lowered the age of marriage for women from 18 to 9, and
implemented stoning as punishment for adultery and prostitution.
If the Iranian society today is the most progressive in the region in terms of
its women, the credit goes to the society itself and its women who resisted
such barbaric laws (one reason Iranians don't get too excited about Mr.
Khatami's emphasis on the rule of law) and those former radicals and
revolutionaries who had the courage to denounce their own practices when they
found them to be wrong.
Can there be mutual understanding between the people of Iran and the people
of the U.S., separate from the relations between the two governments?
Khatami's proposal to create "people-to-people" dialogue was correctly seen
within U.S. policymaking circles as a means of easing the tension between the
two countries, providing more access into Iran, creating more cultural
exchanges between the two peoples, and ultimately restoring diplomatic
relations between the two countries. It was also obvious that any form of
people-to-people contact between the two countries would be impossible without
the good will and participation of the two governments.
It was hoped by the U.S. policymakers and Iran experts that the
people-to-people dialogue with Iran would offer them the insight and access
into Iran that they had been denied for over two decades. The initial contacts
between the two peoples were enthusiastic and fruitful. The most spectacular of
these were in the sports arena, where both Iranians and Americans discovered
that as far as the people were concerned there were no hard feelings, no harsh
words or conditions.
But all contacts between the two peoples have been marred and beset by problems
and obstacles set by the governments. In this case, as usual, the Iranian
people got the short end of the deal, and sometimes they paid heavy prices.
Unlike President Khatami, President Clinton did not make any significant
gestures toward the people of Iran. The American government mainly responded to
the Iranian government. Nor did the U.S. lift the humiliating limitations on
Iranian citizens traveling to the United States. Apart from having to wait at
times up to four weeks to get clearance, Iranian citizens were fingerprinted
and humiliated once on U.S. ground. They in fact suffered indignities and
anxieties both when leaving and entering their own country, as well as when
trying to gain admittance to the U.S. The welcome carpet was mainly spread for
the Iranian government and its associates.
On the American side, the contact took place on several levels. As is often the
case with Iran, a backward move accompanied every forward one. On the level of
ordinary citizens, apart from the sports teams, there were contacts through
American tourists and professionals traveling to Iran. These trips have
acquainted the American citizens with a different aspect of Iran, one filled
with hospitality, culture, and friendliness, belying the Islamic Republic's
former claims about the Iranian hatred of the Americans.
As for American or Iranian-American Iran experts and other professionals,
carefully selected groups of professionals visited the country. Political
analysts participating in government conferences followed them. All of them had
to be screened and approved by the Iranian government. Many, especially the
analysts, met mainly a select group monitored by the Iranian government. They
usually spent a short time in Iran and did not have an opportunity to contact
different sources. Most did not come into contact with the most important
forces championing change: the students, women, lawyers, academics,
intellectuals, and journalists.
There have also been some setbacks. Apart from the attacks on some American
and foreign tourists, there have been other restrictions on the American
visitors to Iran. The Iranian government has also denied visas to some American
or Iranian-American citizens who had either previously visited the country or
desired to visit for the first time. As an example, PEN International has
finally succeeded in hosting some Iranian writers, but visas have been denied
to prominent writers sponsored by PEN to go to Iran.
The prospects for dialogue are hopeful if the U.S. stands firm in its support
of Iranian people's democratic aspirations, and uses Radio Liberty and Voice of
America and other media to clarify the U.S.'s positions. It should also be firm
on its demands and conditions in terms of negotiations with the Iranian
government and should add human rights as part of their policy.
How should Americans understand phrases like "Death to America" and "Great
In our efforts to differentiate between the people and the government we should
also separate the slogans each group uses. The anti-American slogans you
mention are not voiced by Iranian people, not even those we call the religious
reformists. They are voiced by the forced and much-publicized government-sponsored demonstrations. But remember the numerous other demonstrations staged
by Iranians, despite the regime's ban, arrests, tortures, and murders of the
participants and their leaders. First of all, Iran was the only country in the
region whose people came out in droves (over 40,000) to light candles in
support of the U.S. after Sept. 11, and since then they have had many
demonstrations in Tehran, Isfahan, and other cities, staged by students,
workers, and teachers. The main slogans have consistently been: "Death to
Taliban," "Death to Terrorism," "Free all political prisoners," "Khatami,
Khatami, Honesty." There have been demands for freedom of expression and
freedom of press, and even a demand for a referendum on the constitution and
the Islamic rule. This is why it is of utmost importance to differentiate
between the people and the government.
If the U.S. truly makes a distinction between the Iranian government and the
Iranian people, as President Bush suggested in his State of the Union address
in January -- when he said that "an unelected few repress the Iranian people's
hope for freedom" -- how should the Iranian people understand the phrase "axis
of evil"? How do you think most Iranians understand it?
For the record, I feel that the question of relations between the U.S. and Iran
goes beyond the "axis of evil" statement. Unlike what many say, Mr. Bush's
statement did not harm the reformists, did not add to the number of people
being harassed or going to jail. In fact there were many outspoken statements
after his speech, including a Feb. 4 talk by a leading reformist, Abbas Abdi,
who claimed that the threat to Iran did not come from any outside force but
that the main threat was the fact that almost all social and political
institutions in Iran were crumbling, and that people had lost almost all
confidence in the state. I can cite many more examples. I can send you the
responses that came directly from Iran even after Mr. Bush's statement, via
email and phone calls, as well as call-ins to Voice of America and the Iranian radio in L.A.,
to show how supportive Iranians were, only because of their disenchantment and
frustration with the whole regime, hardliner or reformist.
The regime as a whole, especially the conservatives, despite their vitriolic
rhetoric against the U.S., were genuinely scared, and they have been trying to
save face and polish their act.
This whole "hardliners in power" mantra has become a political way of
preventing real debate around Iran. I remember when we were asking people in
the U.S. to support the students who were being killed and jailed during the
student uprising in 1999, the same thing was repeated: "If you criticize the
government, you weaken Khatami." Meanwhile, students from Iran were calling and
begging for support.
If there is anything to be criticized regarding the U.S., it is that the
government does not have a firm and formulated foreign policy, one that does
not change with every change in the Middle East or Iran. It needs to be
flexible but also have a grip and an understanding of the paradoxes of that
One thing many Americans find difficult to understand is how someone
identified as an Iranian moderate or reformer -- someone committed to democracy
and human rights -- can also make statements supporting suicide bombings aimed
at civilians and referring to suicide bombers as "martyrs." Can you help us
understand this? We know that not all Iranians (nor all Muslims) share this
attitude. But how should Americans respond to the so-called "culture of
I don't believe the majority of Iranians support suicide bombing. It is the
Iranian regime that does. Martyrdom is not really a culture. Iranians mourned
the martyrdom of their third Imam, but they did not demand that their youth be
martyred. Ayatollah Khomeini formulated this theory after the victory of the
Islamic revolution, especially during the Iran-Iraq war, when young men were
given special keys to wear so that when they were killed they already have the
key to heaven, and when the Ayatollah praised a 13-year-old boy who had thrown
himself in front of a tank, encouraging young boys to enlist without the
consent of their parents. I think Americans should condemn suicide bombings, as
a majority of Iranians do. I also think the way the Iranians have tried to
change their system, not through violence but through peaceful means, should be
a model for other parts of the Middle East.
And when you are surprised by a reformist expressing support for suicide
bombings, it is because we should know that words such as "reform," "liberal,"
"democracy," "free elections," have other connotations in a country like Iran.
For example, would you call an election free when out of 260 candidates only
four are allowed to participate, after being screened by the Guardian Council
and approved by the Supreme Leader? An election in which only Muslims with
impeccable revolutionary credentials are allowed to participate? Is this not
like saying only Baptists can be elected to the presidency and presenting a
choice between three Baptists? When I was in Iran during Mr. Khatami's
election, the prevalent view was that between "worse" and "worst," we choose
How would you say the U.S. media has performed in recent months, in the way
it covers the relations between Iran and the U.S.?
I don't believe that there is a conspiracy among U.S. media to portray Iranians
or Iranian women in a certain way, but I do believe there is a tendency to take
the easy way or to be infatuated with the Iranian clerics who sound democratic
in words but not in deeds. They tend to downplay the paradoxical and
complicated nature of the Iranian society and the fact that Mr. Khatami is a
symptom and not the cause of change in Iran, and they tend to understate the
role Iranian people have played and are playing in creating change.
The result is that demonstrations sponsored by government factions -- where
people are forced to participate by threat and promise of rewards and the
government buses in students and various groups and still does not get the same
numbers as the big demonstrations it had staged before -- is given prime time,
but the lighting of candles of over 40,000 Iranians and their subsequent
demonstrations against terror and for democracy are ignored in the American
media. One feels a certain frustration.
"The Veiled Threat,"by Azar Nafisi
"On the one hand, the ruling Islamic regime has succeeded in completely repressing Iranian women. Women are forbidden to go out in public unless they are covered by clothing that conceals everything but their hands and faces. At all government institutions, universities, and airports, there are separate entrances for women, where they are searched for lipstick and other weapons of mass destruction. ... Yet, while these measures are meant to render women invisible and powerless, they are paradoxically making women tremendously visible and powerful." (The New Republic, Feb. 22, 1999)
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