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‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ and other accounts of the oppression of women in Iran, The Boston Globe

January 29, 2023

Shirin Ebadi’s troubles may have begun on the playground, when she discovered an inner compulsion to defend underdogs. Possibly, they started with her father, who treated her as the equal of any boy. Or was it later, after the Islamic Revolution exploded in 1979, and she was forced from her position as one of Iran’s first women judges?

What is clear is that things unmistakably worsened in 2003, when Ebadi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work as a human rights lawyer. At that point, far from regarding her as untouchable, Iran’s theocratic regime doubled down on its efforts to destroy her.

A heroine of Iran’s feminist movement, Ebadi has had to watch from abroad as the latest wave of protests rocks the government. Since September, when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, accused of violating Iran’s mandatory hijab law, died in police custody, infuriated Iranians have flooded the streets. At least four people have been publicly executed. Rights groups believe hundreds more have been killed by security forces, and untold numbers imprisoned.

In the decades before the revolution, Iran was largely ruled by the Pahlavi dynasty. Reza Shah and then his son, Mohammad Reza Shah, hoped to modernize Iranian society, in part by advancing women. Nevertheless, activists and intellectuals were suppressed by a loathed police force, and a broad coalition of Iranians, including many educated women, supported the monarchy’s removal.

Since the revolution, Iranian women have attempted to get the story of their oppression out to the world. Published in 2003, Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran” describes a group of young women who created a free space for themselves through literature.

Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” a memoir in comic strips, continues to move readers with the story of one girl’s experience under the regime. An animated film version released in 2007 is equally affecting, and an excellent starting point for anyone who wishes to better understand Iran.

Shirin Ebadi’s “Until We Are Free’' is similarly grounded in personal experience. (A documentary based on the book, “Shirin Ebadi: Until We Are Free” was recently released.) But she was an adult on the front lines, contesting an increasingly brutal regime.

She depicts Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was president from 2005 to 2013, as reckless, vengeful and even idiotic, at one point announcing that an Iranian high school girl had discovered how to create nuclear energy.

As Ebadi’s story unfolds, the noose tightens. From the 1990s on, government agents watched her every move, sometimes in comical fashion. (For a time, a shoeshine man stationed himself outside her apartment on a quiet residential street.) In 2000, she was jailed for three weeks.

Eventually, Ebadi found herself on a list of targets for assassination. After she received the Nobel, the regime peddled the idea that she was a foreign agent. A mob attacked her home.

In the meantime, religious persecution and censorship flourished. The regime began going after Ebadi’s colleagues and, slowly but surely, her family. Both of Ebadi’s daughters went abroad to study and wisely stayed away, settling in London and New York.

In 2009, Ahmadinejad won reelection in what was widely seen as a rigged vote. Massive demonstrations followed, and Ebadi, who was traveling, was warned not to return. The scene of her roaming the Amsterdam airport, and finally stepping out of the queue for a homebound flight, is thick with all she has given up.

Worse was in store. Back in Iran, security forces entrapped Ebadi’s husband in a sexual liaison, and filmed the encounter. Threatened with death by stoning, he agreed to tape a denunciation of his wife. Ebadi writes simply: “They take the person you love the most away from you.”

For Roya Hakakian, it was merely her home. In her memoir “Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran,” she recalls an atmosphere of love enveloping the revolution’s early days, and she believed in its promise.

Raised in a tradition-minded Jewish family, she had dreamed of a life in which women enjoyed more freedom. Now, the regime was confiscating what freedoms they had, and embracing antisemitism as well. At Roya’s all-girls high school, non-Muslim students were restricted to designated water fountains and bathrooms. Her parents’ belated decision to follow their relatives to the United States plays out in a grimly climactic scene.

Nina Ansary, who also left for the United States as a girl, intriguingly argues that the single-sex schools imposed by the regime became the hatcheries of Iran’s feminist movement. In “Jewels of Allah: The Untold Story of Women in Iran,” she reaches into the history of the Persian Empire to find periods of women’s equality, throwing their recent experience into painful relief.

So far, comparatively few of their stories have been told. But those we have portray multiple layers of loss, in what Hakakian memorably describes as a jihad against the self.

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