Over the holidays, I have been making my way through Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi. It’s a fascinating memoir about a university professor who, after teaching in universities in Iran for a number of years and giving up out of sheer frustration because there are so many restrictions put on her and the way students are allowed to learn, begins a small private class in her home. She invites a circle of young women to study some of the classics that have been banned by an oppressive regime.

More than simply the story of a circle of women reading Jane Austen and F. Scott Fitzgerald, it is the story of how the Revolution in Iran silenced the voices of women and anyone who dared to believe something other than what the Ayatollah Komeini believed. It is about how oppression can grow in a place where there once was freedom, how more than half of the population can be silenced by the use of force and bullying. Whether or not they are Muslim, women are forced to wear veils, and are subject to inspections which ensure that they aren’t wearing any make-up, showing any hair or too much skin, or even wearing brightly coloured socks.

As the regime becomes more powerful, some young women are imprisoned, banned from university, and even executed for baring too much skin.  Other women are abused or raped because they dare to speak out. One woman – a former government Minister – is tied in a sack and thrown in the river.

The thought that comes to me as I read this is… what is so dangerous about women that for so many centuries, in so many countries, they have been forced into silence? What are those in power really afraid of when they oppress women by forcing them behind veils and out of positions of power?

It’s not just Muslim countries (though those are the most obvious because of the head coverings). I’ve seen it all over the world. Some places it’s obvious, and other places it’s more subtle. In North America, for example, women appear to have great freedom, and yet if they speak too loudly they are subject to ridicule and abuse. (And not just by men – women are often the first to call a strong woman a “bitch”.)

I ask again… WHAT is so dangerous about us?

In Muslim tradition, in my understanding, it’s mostly about sensuality – women are dangerous because their bare skin causes men to fall into temptation.

But is that all? I don’t think so.

I think there’s a deep and abiding fear (all over the world) that a combination of women’s wisdom, power, sensuality, and passion could dramatically change the course of the world.

I think the old guard – both men and women who are most comfortable with masculine wisdom – are terrified that if the women’s true voice were to be heard more loudly, the world they’re comfortable with would be transformed beyond recognition.

Change is frightening – for all of us. But I think it’s absolutely necessary. I think women need to stand up and say “Look around! See the poverty, the oppression, the human slavery, the damage we’re doing to our earth. This world NEEDS changing!”

And then we need to get our hands dirty and get to work. NOT by overthrowing those who’ve lead before, but by bringing our wisdom to their tables and working with them.

What I find especially beautiful about Reading Lolita in Tehran is the reminder of the resilience of the human spirit. Despite the way that the women are being oppressed and forced to hide their beauty and strength and read literature in secret, their spirits are not crushed. Their beauty and strength is not gone – it’s just waiting to be uncovered again.

I am reminded once again of the woman I met in Bangladesh (above photo). When I motioned to her that I was interested in taking her picture, she let me, but then motioned to me to wait – she wanted me to take another one. Removing her black head covering, she revealed a colourful one underneath. THIS was the version she wanted me to see. I can’t help but wonder what she might have revealed if we’d been in the privacy of her home.

What fire lies smouldering beneath those strong eyes?

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