Loosening binds, strengthening ties

Special to The Times

Farzaneh Milani is tired of seeing Iranians in black and white.

It irks the professor of Persian and women's studies at the University of Virginia that media images in the U.S. of Iranian women usually involve chadors, veils and victimization, and have all the depth of a made-for-TV Sally Field movie.

Yes, people in Iran have struggled under a religious-totalitarian state since the country's 1979 Islamic Revolution, which required women to wear the traditional clothing, denied them such basic freedoms as renting an apartment and unrestricted travel overseas, and meted out severe punishments to those who transgressed. But that, Milani says, is only part of the story.

Since the reform-focused 1990s, Iranian women have made significant inroads into traditionally male-dominated areas, such as politics, academics and the arts. They are attending college, joining the police force and becoming advisory judges. And they are telling their stories.

And as restrictions in Iran loosen, Iranian women abroad too are finding their voices and exposing Western readers to the more personal details of everyday life in that country and in expatriate communities. Three recent memoirs by Iranian women -- all with one foot in Iran and the other in the West -- are opening a window onto the Iranian people and the country as the writers knew it.

"Funny in Farsi: Growing Up Iranian in America," published last month from Villard, is Firoozeh Dumas' account of moving from the small town of Abadan, Iran, to Whittier as a 7-year-old. Hilarious stories involving her engineer father's disastrous appearance on "Bowling for Dollars" and her mother's embarrassing mispronunciations introduce everyday Americans to everyday Iranians -- Iranians who enjoy watching "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour" amid the oil crisis.

Marjane Satrapi's graphic-novel style memoir "Persepolis" (Pantheon), published in the spring, shows that while American teens were imitating Michael Jackson's moonwalk and donning punk gear, so were kids in Iran, with just as much alacrity but a lot more discretion.

"Reading Lolita in Tehran" is Azar Nafisi's celebrated account of an illicit book club in Iran and how the lives of several young Iranian women were changed by their encounters with Western classics by Vladimir Nabokov and Jane Austen.


A sudden outpouring

For as long as Iranian women have been publishing their autobiographies and memoirs -- a brief history that dates only to the 1950s -- they have often chosen foreign languages as something of an escape from their private society, Milani explains.

"So this is not unusual that women who are in diaspora are writing their memoirs," she says. But "I don't think it's a coincidence that suddenly we have so many books by Iranian women. There's a thirst for knowledge about a part of the world that is misunderstood."

And for the writers there is a desire to correct misperceptions, using cultural touchstones to defend the people of their country from the impressions being formed outside its borders.

"When Americans hear about Iran and the Middle East," Dumas says, "I hope that they can think about me and my father, and my uncle and my mother, and not just the politician with whatever hatred he's spewing.

"People feel like they know the Middle East now, but they don't," she continues. "They only know the worst of the worst. They know that it's this hotbed of terrorism, and that is so dehumanizing."

Dumas' story revolves around the impact coming to Southern California had on her family, particularly on her optimistic father, with his home improvement misadventures, and fascination with Disneyland and Price Club samples.

The standard network-news imagery of high-minded ayatollahs and oppressed women is equally far from mind when readers encounter the family that inhabits "Persepolis," a memoir that employs comic-book format to portray a stylish, intellectual family struggling against the Islamic Revolution throughout the early 1980s, all through the eyes of a schoolgirl.

Trendy details -- her mother's flippy hair styles and flared pants, her dad's insistence on shaving in the "decadent" Western style and his approval of Iron Maiden tapes -- garner empathy for the characters whose way of life slowly and sadly erodes as the memoir progresses.

"I wrote this book ... to give the image of Iran that I know," says Satrapi in a recent phone interview from her studio in Paris. "Anytime I was outside my country and saw pictures of Iran, it was pictures of women in chadors and guys with guns."

But beyond that, Satrapi felt it was important to keep alive the memory of the thousands of Iranians who died and were persecuted during the terrifying early days after the revolution. "The ones who pay are the normal people," she says. "Politics is important because politics affects everyday life."

Despite its academic topic, Nafisi's "Reading Lolita" has landed on many bestseller lists since its release in the spring. Although the women in her book actually are the oppressed women so often presented, she restores some humanity to them by revealing the details of their lives: They carefully remove their traditional coverings when they attend the book club, revealing painted fingernails, dyed hair and dreams of romance -- details connecting them to young American women.

Nafisi acknowledges that her book may have been so accessible to readers because they sympathized with the women's "victim" status. But her intent was to portray them as having a certain power of their own. "I wanted people to see that those young girls ... didn't give in."

In a society where a woman's individuality is constantly defined for her by religious clerics, merely the insistence on showing strands of hair or wearing lipstick by Nafisi's students, or of wearing Nikes and a denim jacket by Satrapi's stubborn heroine, become courageous acts of political defiance.


Unintentionally political

And these writers are political, although reluctantly so -- a situation that echoes the reality of life in Iran, where a fashion choice or having a drink of homemade wine transcends self-expression to become political expression. None of these writers claims to have set out with a political agenda, though all three acknowledge that simply by writing about everyday Iranians' lives, they have become political.

Even Dumas, whose story is a lighthearted account of her father's pursuit of the American dream, has readily accepted the political platform she finds herself on, and she speaks passionately about the continuing strength of Iranian women.

The oppression of women in Iran, Milani explains, has forced them -- and their Iranian sisters in the West -- to become politicized in a way never dreamed of before. "All of the prohibitions make women even more defiant," she says. "They are drawn into the public arena."

Nafisi had wanted only to return to Iran to teach, "but I found that I was at the center of politics just because I was a woman and I wanted to live a certain way."

The books' personal perspectives seem to be finding an eager audience. Adam Langer, a senior editor at Book magazine who says "Persepolis" is the best book he's read this year, says "there's a lot of rhetoric about 'Axis of Evil.' And a lot of people who aren't buying into the rhetoric are interested in seeing the human side to it."

Satrapi remembers her bookstore readings here. "There was an old lady," she says. "She came up to me and she said, 'You know, I was really, really scared. But I read your book and I laughed. And I can't imagine that truly scary people can make you laugh.' "

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