When freedom is the State's to mind

Azar Nafisi wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran to celebrate novels, yet almost 18 months after the release of the best-selling memoir, she's sought more for her views on fundamentalist Islam than literature. These are questions she doesn't avoid.

'I'm not a religious expert,' she says at her hotel in Rome, where she's appearing at the annual literary festival. 'However, I know more about Muslims than those who rely on the stereotypes so common outside Islam. The oppression in Iran in recent years is due not so much to religion itself as to religion being exploited as an ideology. What interests me in this situation is that fine imaginative writing subverts an oppressive mindset and can open new perspectives.'

A friend of Nafisi once called her a 'very American Alice in Wonderland'. Perhaps she shares Alice's curiosity, but her broad cheek bones, nose and lively, dark eyes suggest Iran rather than America. She has an engaging, responsive smile. But to have opposed fundamentalist diktats, there must be steel beneath.

In the early 1980s, Nafisi was expelled from the University of Tehran for not wearing a veil. Later, she taught at the Allameh Tabatabai University, but resigned in 1995 because of the hostile atmosphere. She then invited seven enthusiastic female students to her apartment each Thursday morning to discuss writers the regime considered subversive, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, Jane Austen and Vladimir Nabokov. She sees a parallel between Humbert's abduction of the teenage Lolita and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's imposition of a distorted image of Iran on

the society.

'I wanted to protect the interior life from the encroachment of politics,' she says. 'My memoir shows how it impinged on the life of the members of the weekly study circle. Like all other females, they were liable to 67 lashes if their hair was not always fully covered and further sanctions from the morality police if they did scandalous things such as running in the street or licking an ice cream in public.

'When they took their scarves off in my apartment and removed their robes, the jeans and bright blouses they wore underneath revealed females indistinguishable from those in the west. What many outsiders don't realise is that Iranians never considered themselves as different from others. It's the State which has insisted they are different.

'In some ways, things have gone backwards in terms of laws regarding women. My mother was freer than I was, and I was freer than my daughter would've been if we'd stayed in Iran. The regression is due to new laws, which reduce women to half the value of men. This is not a mere metaphor, it's sanctioned in compensation cases in the court. The framers of these laws are not only sex-obsessed, but inhuman.

'In the first part of Reading Lolita in Tehran, I tried to show how the regime tended to make us all victims and all guilty. But later I showed how resistance to totalitarianism developed - from quite ordinary people, particularly women, because above all the laws degrade women. The resistance continues to grow, but countries outside Islam should support it more when they make political and commercial deals.'

Nafisi says books can aid democracy only by 'celebrating interiority, responsibility, choice and complexity. Democracy is a process which can't be imposed. I consider the Iraq invasion a mistake.'

A member of a well-known family of what she calls 'culture snobs', and daughter of the youngest mayor in Tehran's history, Nafisi took a PhD in English literature in Oklahoma, where she participated in student protests against the regime of the Shah of Persia. She returned to Iran in 1979 after the Shah was deposed, but found the Islamic Republic that replaced it even more repressive. She went to the US with her husband and two children in 1997.

She's at work on two books: a memoir about three generations of women in her family, beginning with her grandmother; and another on books that have shaped her, including Alexander Dumas' The Three Musketeers, Arabian Nights, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes were Watching God and My Uncle Napoleon by Iraj Pezeshkzad.

Having been sent to school in Europe at the age of 13, Nafisi says she's well equipped to cope with life away from her homeland. 'The experience fitted me to appreciate many countries. I'm at home in Italy because of [the writings of] Italo Calvino and Italo Svevo. Anyway, living under totalitarianism teaches you that life, home and everything else is fragile.'