From edition

Leili Golafshani, ‘Iranian Exilic Memoir,’ A Review of Shirin Ebadi, Iran Awakening; Azar Nafisi, Reading ‘Lolita’ in Tehran; Azadeh Moaveni, Lipstick Jihad.

Shirin Ebadi. Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope. New York:Random House, 2006;

Azar Nafisi. Reading ‘Lolita’ in Tehran. New York: Random House, 2004; 

            Azadeh  Moaveni. Lipstick Jihad: Growing Up Iranian in and American in . New York: Public Affairs, 2005.

Generally speaking, in the past decade or so, there has been an unprecedented rise in autobiographical writing by Middle-Easterners, particularly by Iranians with outstanding women’s memoirs. Exilic memoirs—more often than not published only outside Iranian territory— emerged in the 1980s and surged after September 11, 2001. These memoirs indicate that the increase in autobiographical writing can be traced back to the events of 1979 when a revolution, later called the Islamic revolution, against the dictatorship of the monarchy occurred. With the revolution triggering a new wave of exodus by Iranians towards Western countries especially , Iranian memoirs are being published in increasing numbers, and they are finding a large readership in , North America and Europe.

Memoirs began to emerge in significant numbers in the late 1980s; however, an unprecedented explosion of Iranian women’s memoir has occurred since 2001. With the rise of new ways of thinking about postcolonial and autobiographical literatures in the West, there has been a new interest in non-white and third world voices. Graham Huggan argues that this is the result of the commodification of the cultural products of the exotic Other. The commodification of Middle Eastern and Muslim women’s writing intensified  post-Cold War with the disintegration of  the Soviet Union and the coming down of the Berlin Wall in 1991, especially  post-9/11, 2001 which triggered the age of so-called ‘War on Terror’, connected to the war in Afghanistan in 2001 followed by the second invasion of Iraq in 2003. American imperialism and its right-wing liberal discourse of humanism eager to liberate Muslim women from Muslim men has roused a new curiosity on the part of Western readers towards Iranian women’s memoirs— not only because they want to gain knowledge of women’s lives in that particular region of the world but to also because they are unsure of how to respond to the increasingly cold war between America and Iran. On another words, these memoirs satisfy Western readers’ ‘need for knowledge about Islam, the desire to reach beyond stereotypes by gaining access to the other, and to be able to think critically through independent reading…[and for their need of] life narrative to produce a humanist and ethical response that stresses shared humanity over and above differences of culture and religion (Whitlock 62). The publication of these memoirs of non-Western women coincides with American military and political expansionism. Some critics consider that these books are easily appropriated by Western imperialism: Minoo Moallem, for example, states: ‘The West is now claiming once again the liberation of the rest of the world as its responsibility. Likewise, the “coming into voice” of women and subaltern classes through the legitimate and civilizational tropes of the West’ (55). That is to say, subaltern subjects find their voice whenever the West provides them with a space to speak out.   

All of these writings are part of the long aftermath of the revolution of 1979. That traumatizing and displacing event for some Iranians decades earlier, and the impact of exile on the lives of many, drives the pursuit of the autobiographical self in recent Iranian memoirs. An interesting comparison with how there has been a silent lapse of some decades since the revolution and then a surge in autobiographical narrative is the absence of Holocaust literature immediately after the end of World War Two and the increasing attention paid to the memory of it for the building of what Herbert J. Gans calls “symbolic ethnicity”. Gans argues that the reason for the increase in Holocaust literature lies in the fact that ‘people repressed thinking about it until it had become a more historical and therefore a less immediately traumatic event’ (148). The historical distance from the traumatic event of the revolution followed by an eight-year-war with plus two-decades of life in diaspora have provided objective retrospection on these writers’ life experiences. Further, as Amy Malek argues, they have provided for the second generation of Iranians in diaspora to be able to negotiate their relationship to the preceding generation, and Iranian history (368). Yet another reason why issues of gender and women  are emphasised in Western readings of literature, particularly memoirs by Iranian writers, according to Zjaleh Elizabeth Hajibashi is that the emphasis on gender in Iranian literature  post-1979 makes up for the lack of political ties.

These memoirs can be considered as what Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith, borrowing from Chinese new literary and cultural movements, call ‘scar literature’.  This is because of the generational differences and certain recurrent motifs in Iranian women’s memoirs in diaspora, including the traumatic event of displacement and loss of home after the revolution or nostalgic feelings about their childhood due to that loss. I suggest that this is a useful concept for all Iranian women memoirists who, through life-writing, explore the impact of this scar on their subjectivity and the possible healing processes which self-reflexivity produces. These writers differ in terms of generation, class, diasporic positionality and placement, ethnicity and religion, and this leads to a diverse registering of the Iranian revolution and the impact of exile on their subjectivity. However, they are unified by language and nationality and often modern middle class status — memoirists from working class and traditional families have not yet emerged into publication. They have different careers: as journalist, poet, professor, lawyer, housewife, graphic artist. This is yet another indication of the new opportunities that autobiographical writing has provided for such women to express their voice with authority. 

I suggest, however, that Iranian women memoirists generally occupy three different discursive positions in narrating their traumatic past lives: one in which the female subject acts as an apologist for the culture despite her questioning of it, and depicts the culture in ways that mainly overlap with anti-imperialist and Islamist discourse (Shirin Ebadi’s Iran Awakening); one in which the female narrator as a collaborative native-informant depicts the non-white culture in ways that  overlap with the discourse of Orientalism (Azar Nafisi’s Reading ‘Lolita’ in Tehran); and one in which the woman writer is a hybrid subject who can manage to appropriate, translate, rehistoricize and read anew the cultural meanings. Hybrid writing can traverse the hegemony of both Western and Islamist discourses which renders Muslim cultures as static, pure, and fundamental. The writer opens up a third space where she can negotiate and compare the meaning of the two opposite worlds through transculturalisation, transnationalism  and deconstructing the binary of Western and Middle Eastern identities (Azadeh Moaveni’s Lipstick Jihad).    

Shirin Ebadi: Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope

Iran Awakening narrates Ebadi’s life from her birth till 2003, when she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her activities on human rights particularly women and children’s rights in . Ebadi employs memories of childhood to address a Western reader. This book has not been published in Farsi. The autobiographical narrator remembers how the childhood ‘I’ registered one of the turning points in the history of modern produced by the CIA. In August 1953, when she was barely six, the democratically elected nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was toppled in a coup d’état orchestrated by the CIA. The full meaning of this childhood memory of a historical event eludes the autobiographical child except in its saddening effects at home with her father dismissed from his position as the deputy minister of agriculture in Mossadegh’s Cabinet. Ebadi’s book seems directed towards Western readers, and this episode is like a history lesson on how Iranians perceive . Furthermore, the narrator renders Mossadegh as an iconic Iranian intellectual, to be admired most particularly for his ability to draw on both Western and Eastern traditions. She writes, ‘[Mossadegh]’s open demands for freedom of the press, his penchant for conducting diplomacy from his bed, his Swiss education, and his Iranian savvy combined to enchant people, who saw in him a brilliant, cunning leader who embodied not just their aspirations but their intricate conceptions of self—like them, he was composed of seeming contradictions, aristocratic roots and populist ambitions, secular sensibilities that never precluded alliances with powerful clerics’(4).  The depiction of Iranian intellectual identity as an amalgam of secularism and religiosity, which also well might apply to the autobiographical narrator, defies the black and white representation of Iranians in the revived Orientalist discourse of American neo-colonial media as well.

The ousting of Mossadegh, whom the narrator compares to Mahatma Ghandi in his popularity, and in his resistance against the British Empire, means that Iranians lose a chance to embrace democracy in their national history. Ebadi places this as a precursor of the 1979 revolution and links the hostage siege of the American embassy in the collective memory of Iranians to 1953 when ‘an American coup removed Mossadegh from power’ (48). This is a perspective with which the American reader might not be acquainted. Through opening her childhood memories with the dramatic interference of the in the internal affairs of , the narrator delineates the roots of the contemporary hostility, distrust and resistance of the Iranian government towards . Eager to communicate with American readers, Ebadi narrates her historical memory of American aggression in a way that attempts to introduce the reader to how an Iranian patriot understands their history.[i] Ebadi deliberately emphasises ’s interference in the region. For example, she includes the incident in which Americans shot down an Iranian aeroplane with a missile in 1988 and all 290 passengers perished. She also includes information about forces’ support of Saddam Hussein during Iran-Iraq war. Her memoir is published in the context of increasingly heightened tension between and at the time of writing in 2006. The sequence of these historical events, which the autobiographical narrator recapitulates though her own recollections, anticipates the Western reader who may not be familiar with the history of the region. In fact, the memories Ebadi recalls are often more public than private. 

The autobiographical narrator is authorized to give an account of her experience of history as authoritative. As Smith and Watson assert, this is implicitly claimed by the public figures and celebrities (Reading Autobiography 27). The narrator’s credibility is announced with the appearance of  ‘Nobel Peace Laureate’ on the title page. As a recognized human rights activist, she appeals for the trust of the reader in the autobiographical pact between the writer/reader.  Ebadi is authorized as a public figure and as an international celebrity.

Why does Ebadi make her private life public in this way? In a New York Times article, she expresses her purpose in writing her memoir as to ‘help correct Western stereotypes of Islam, especially the image of Muslim women as docile, forlorn creatures…. I have wanted to tell the story of how women in Islamic countries, even one run by a theocratic regime as in , can be active politically and professionally’ (1). Does Ebadi achieve her intention in writing and publishing her memoir? The cover of Iran Awakening presents a portrait of Ebadi’s face as she is engaged in making a point with hands in the air and alert eyes, speaking passionately. Her hejab attesting to her faith and expressiveness contradicts the Western stereotype of veiled woman as passive. Peritexts[ii], especially book covers, generally represent Muslim women as passive objects. The title with its subtitle of  ‘a memoir of revolution and hope’ represents her agency and faith in the changes which might come in Iranian society. She addresses Western readers implicitly and directly to attest to her extraordinary bravery and resilience against both internal patriarchal and political oppression and external American imperialism. Ebadi uses epitexts[iii]—mainly interviews—to assert agency in shaping her private and public life. 

However, Ebadi lives in internal exile after being dismissed from her judgeship following the restructuring of the legal arrangement after the revolution. In the prologue of Iran Awakening, she plays herself alongside other Iranian intellectuals as an exile at home. This is revealed to her in a profoundly shocking way. Like other targets of death squads, ‘our blood was considered halal, its spilling permitted by God’ [italics mine] (xv). This gives her a frightening insight into how she is considered less than human being in her own country. The myopic official demarcation of Iranians within as insiders and outsiders perceives Ebadi and like-minded intellectuals as trespassing against the principles of Islam, and hence their killings are justified.

In this way, Ebadi’s autobiography emphasises how the issue of exile is significant to contemporary Iranians. It is the irony of an anti-Western revolution that what has followed is a mass exodus of Iranians to the West. Ebadi points out: ‘if you ask most Iranians what keeneh,[iv] what grievance, they nurture most bitterly against the Islamic Republic, it is the tearing apart of their families’ through emigration. However, Ebadi’s book reminds us that there are also exiles inside. In discussing exile, we should not just consider those who have left for Los Angeles or London,  but those who remain in the Islamic Republic as well. 

In spite of numerous hardships, imprisonment and war, Ebadi is a believer in staying in and launching her fight within the system. She is not nostalgic for a lost past; but she does believe that in Iranian society, culture and tradition, there is a commitment to law and justice that will eventually have an effect against the Islamic regime. Ebadi has faith in her country. Although she has experienced a revolution, an expulsion from her governmental position as a female judge, an enforced veiling, an eight-year-war with the neighbouring country , and incarceration for her human rights activities as a lawyer within , she has not given up on her people. 

Ebadi identifies herself as a Muslim feminist, a seemingly oxymoronic identity for which she has been critiqued by both secular exiles and anti-feminist Muslim fundamentalists. She is ‘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’(IA 204). Her unwavering belief in the compatibility of Islam with democracy through a different interpretation of the latter from the current Islam practised in is both a pragmatic path for social change and an intelligent strategy for navigating through the cultural maze of changing society. One such strategy the narrator employs to demonstrate her agency occurs at Tehran Mehrabad airport on her arrival from Paris after receiving the Nobel Prize. At the airport the narrator wittily plays the old ritual of belting out  Allaho Akbar, which surprises the crowds who have turned up in their thousands to greet her. The airport is a border space for a radical shift in the subjectivity of those in the process of arrival or departure. The airport provides space for Ebadi to take a radical step in confirming her Muslim identity. The anthropologist Sherry B. Ortner ‘situates agency in the ability with which people play the “game” of the culture — with their rules and structures — wit and intelligence’ (Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography 204). We see Ebadi’s agency in two respects here. In Paris, she accepted the Nobel Prize bareheaded. This is an unprecedented public transgression of a main principle of the Islamic Republic. However, by chanting Allo Akbar, a ritual closely associated with Muslim fundamentalists, she plays the game of choosing when she will associate herself with mainstream Iranian revolutionary tactics. Ebadi’s surprising action invites a comparison with Khomeini. The sheer magnitude of the mass at the airport to greet her when she arrives from in triumph reminds the narrator of the arrival of Khomeini twenty-four years earlier from his exile in . This time women hugely outnumbered men. Through this comparison, the autobiographical “I” depicts herself as an insider; as a popular leader of female dissidence and human rights campaigners within . This episode concludes the autobiography as a kind of bookend to the prologue. Although Ebadi is an exile at home, she manages to find influence and authority despite the Islamic Republic.

 Azar Nafisi: Reading ‘Lolita’ in Tehran

Nafisi’s memoir presents a dramatic contrast to Ebadi’s. A significant difference between the two women is their status. While Ebadi is an exile at home, Nafisi is an exile as more conventionally understood. She lives outside and remains obsessed with it.

Reading ‘Lolita’ in Tehran is loosely structured into four sections under the name of four Western novels and authors: Lolita, Gatsby, Henry James, and Jane Austen.  Their works act like a lighthouse for Nafisi and her students, whom she calls ‘girls’, to work out their sense of self under a regime that assaults their sense of identity as Iranian women.

Even more than Ebadi, Nafisi is disconnected from/within her homeland. Nafisi returns home after a seventeen-year absence to find out that she has ‘lost all concepts of terms such as home, service, and country’ (204).  Where Ebadi struggles to connect to her nation despite the traumatic effects of the revolution, Nafisi is scarred beyond healing within the nation. While Ebadi is haunted by the backlash in women’s legal rights, Nafisi’s foremost trauma is the imposition of the veil over her body. As a result of her alienation from her national, cultural, social and political identity as an Iranian woman, she adopts what Fatemeh Keshavarz calls ‘New Orientalist’ paradigms.  We see this in Nafisi’s representation of character types where all Iranian revolutionary Muslim characters including men and women are flat and villainous; in her depiction of Islam as a religion which cannot be changed and in which any post-revolutionary political reformation is ridiculed as impossible—very different from Ebadi’s suggestion that Islam and democracy are compatible—in her representation of women as passive, victim, and sensual, waiting to be liberated from their veils.

Unlike Ebadi, Nafisi’s narrative adopts throughout a cynical, humourless and mocking stance towards anyone who has different views from the narrator. Her black and white, ‘us’ and ‘them’ binary is exactly what she condemns and disdains in Muslim groups and students. The reader feels distanced by the bitterness and self-victimization of the narrator. The paratexts[v] of the book, such as the cover and the reviews of the book, are yet another conspicuous example of the reductionist view of the book. The cover photo of the book is cropped, and thus presents an opposite meaning to that of the original photograph. This showed two young girls reading a newspaper, reacting to the participation at the anticipated election of the reformist Iranian president Khatami. In the cover image, the newspaper is cut out leaving two women with downcast eyes framed in dark Maghnaeh.[vi]   

In Reading ‘Lolita’ in Tehran, there is a complete erasure of American historical interference in Iranian interior affairs. While Ebadi criticises the West for arming the Iraqi government against Iran, Nafisi distorts the historical fact that Saddam Hussein started the war: ‘was it the arrogance of the new Islamic revolutionaries, who kept provoking what they deemed to be reactionary and heretical regimes in the Middle East and inciting the people of those countries to revolutionary uprisings? Was it the fact that the new regimes held a special animosity towards Saddam Hussein, who had expelled the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini from after reportedly making a deal with the Shah?’ (RL 189). She blames equally with for the breaking out of the war.  Nafisi adopts double standards which value Western culture and traditions and devalue Eastern history, literature and culture. Iranian soldiers’ defence of their territory is nothing but folly, in Nafisi’s view, and American fighters are praised and justified. While Ebadi feels for the soldiers, Nafisi seems unaware that, in the view of many Iranians, the soldiers were fighting for the just cause of the defence of their invaded homeland. What is Western and American is good; what is Eastern and Iranian is evil, ugly and despicable. In her mentor’s words ‘she is very American’. Perhaps the New Orientalist discourse and a degree of pandering to American dominant ideologies could be one reason for this book being more of a bestseller than the others. 

Azadeh Moaveni: Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in and American in  

Ebadi wrote her memoir with young Azadeh Moaveni who, in 2005, produced her own memoir entitled Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in and American in . Moaveni, a journalist for Time magazine, was born to Iranian parents in exile in 1976, three years before the revolution. Her memoir is based on two years of experiences in Iran 2000-2001, and it is written after the events of 9/11 when, ironically, it was Bush rather than Mullahs who stopped her journalistic writing in (228). Like Ebadi, Moaveni is critical of the imperialism of American foreign policy. Also like Ebadi, she criticizes both Bush and Mullahs, dismissing them as identical. Unlike Nafisi, who scorns Iranian art, Moaveni leads her reader to a heightened appreciation of local Iranian artists for their synchrony and sophistication.

The revolution of 1979 problematises the autobiographical narrator’s coming of age and it also constitutes the historical backdrop to the mother-daughter relationship that is an important component of the search for identity and belonging in the memoir. The political upheaval in disrupted her parents’ relationship in exile; indeed, the narrator tells us it was a main reason behind her parents’ break-up. It is also the source of the conflictual relationship between mother and daughter. According to the narrator, the mother uses the revolution and its ideologies to channel and curb Azadeh’s freedom and sexuality[vii].

Azadeh goes back to to cultivate a different sense of belonging to home: ‘to see whether the ties that bound me [to ] were real, or flimsy threads of inherited nostalgia’ (33). Her journey back home as a journalist becomes a journey of self-exploration and a means of achieving a historical and intellectual insight into her family’s dislocation, which has shaped her identity so profoundly as a child. She wants to understand the reasons for her conflicted dual identity that is rooted in the exilic childhood. In her independent quest for knowledge of , Azadeh takes history beyond the private sphere of her familial circles, and studies the Iranian revolution and the new Iranian generation personally and within its temporal and spatial contexts of Tehran at the turn of the new century.

The story moves between three levels of identification: the story of Azadeh, the story of generations of Iranians who are affected by the revolution, and the universal story of an exilic and hybrid condition. She uses the autobiographical form to understand the impact of one of the formative world events of the twentieth century on her subjectivity.

Out of the uncertainty which results from losing her preconceptions about her homeland, Azadeh gradually evolves a hybrid and ambivalent position to negotiate the signs and symbols of her two cultures: and . One of the ways through which she achieves an ambivalent position is her shifting understanding of the veil. In Western perceptions, the veil is the most conspicuous symbol of women’s oppression. Raised with American culture and values, Azadeh does not easily escape this conception. However, she notices that there is a varied reaction to the veil. Some wear it willingly, some ignore it and yet others, including herself, are obsessive about it. She notes that, for most socially active Iranian women, the veil does not carry a significant meaning of suppression as it does for her. Later on, she eulogies Iranian women’s use of fashion as political resistance to the moral restrictions of the regime. The usage of hejab as fashion simultaneously subverts both its local meaning as female modesty and its dominant Western meaning. 

Moaveni realizes that there is no pure sense of Iranian or Persian identity as there is no pure American identity. Significantly, the epitext of the book promotes this hybridity. The cover of Lipstick Jihad depicts a young woman in a tight short  manteau talking on a mobile phone and wearing sunglasses — two marks of modernity in Iran — standing in a Mihrab[viii] in a mosque, where usually a clergyman leads the prayer. These are signs of what she regards as significant and personal resistance to the regime; most particularly they are ways of undermining the sexual politics of the Islamic theocracy that places so much emphasis on the bodies of women. The book’s title is also an amalgam of religion and femininity, tradition and modernity. Azadeh drinks alcohol, has illicit sex, is unveiled; yet she fasts, says Muslim prayers, is veiled. It is in the combination of different cultural and linguistic performances that she feels at home; for instance, in discussing in English with her Australian friends. The memoir is central to this construction of a hybrid identity, and Azadeh becomes a transnational subject for whom home is anywhere.

Leili Golafshani is completing a PhD thesis in the School of EMSAH at The University of Queensland, which compares several contemporary Western and non-Western women writers of fiction and autobiography including Doris Lessing, Janet Frame, Shirin Ebadi, Azar Nafisi, Azadeh Moaveni.



Ebadi, Shirin. ‘Bound but Gagged.’ The New York Times November 16, 2004.

Gans, J Herbert. ‘Symbolic Ethnicity.’ Ethnicity. Ed. john Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. 146-54.

Hajibashi, Zjaleh Elizabeth. ‘The Fiction of the Post-Revolutionary Iranian Woman.’ The University of Texas, 1998.

Huggan, Graham. The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins. London: Routledge, 2001.

Keshavarz, Fetemeh. Jasmine and Stars: Readiing More Than Lolita in Tehran. Chapel Hill: The U of North Carolina P, 2007.

Moallem, Minoo. ‘Am I a Muslim Woman? Nationalist Reactions and Postcolonial

            Transgressions.’ Shattering the Stereotypes: Muslim Women Speak Out. Ed.

            Fawzia Afzal-Khan. Massachusetts: Olive Branch P, 2005.      

Schaffer, Kay and Sidonie Smith. Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The Ethics of Recognition. Palgrave: Macmillan, 2004.

 Smith, Sidonie and Julia Watson. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001.

 Whitlock, Gillian. Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 2007.


[i] For instance, the same Shah was brought to the power by the British forces twelve years earlier in 1941 after toppling his father Reza Khan.
[ii] ‘Peritext includes everything between and on the covers’ (Whitlock 14).
[iii] Epitexts are messages located outside text: media interviews, reviews, readings, articles and private communications such as letters and diaries.
[iv] Vengeance.
[v] ‘Paratexts are the liminal features that surround and cover the text’ (Whitlock 14). 
[vi] The semi-circle headscarf which is mainly worn by female teachers and students of all levels in .
[vii] I use Azadeh for the autobiographical narrator or persona and Moaveni for the author of the book.
[viii] A niche in the wall of a mosque indicating the direction of Mecca, towards which Muslim worshippers must face in prayer.








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