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Azar Nafisi is best known as the author of the national bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, which electrified its readers with a compassionate and often harrowing[…]

It is not women who make a big deal out of the hijab, Nafisi says. It is the Islamists.

Azar Nafisi: You know people think that women are making the hijab an issue. We didn’t actually. It was the Islamists who did that. Hijab . . . First of all when you talk about the history of hijab, it seems as if you don’t wear it you’re westernized, which is a completely erroneous view. The first woman who unveiled in Iran didn’t know anything about the west. It was . . . She was the leader of a new religion in Iran – the ...– who later turned to Baha’is . . . the Baha’i religion. She was a poet, and one of the progressive things that the Baha’is and the... had was regard to women and women’s freedoms. One day she comes among her followers, she takes off her veil, and she says the universal advent has come, you know? And she becomes so dangerous to the system that they first put her under house arrest. She was very popular. They couldn’t just go and jail her and kill her. And later at night, they take her to a garden, they strangle her, and they throw her down a well. They didn’t want people to find out where her grave was because they didn’t want them to turn it into a shrine. Her name was .... Now we have these women in our own history. We don’t need to go to Susan Cady Stanton or . . . although we should. In the same way that you should learn from us, we should learn from you. So I’m not ashamed of going to Susan Cady Stanton. Actually I do all the time. But this is not a Western product. This is the product of a political, and social, and cultural crisis – part of which was women wanting more .... That is how it started. And the issue of veil became again controversial because Ayatollah . . . because ..., the late ...for a short time made the unveiling mandatory, which didn’t really work. And I mentioned that in my book – that when I was objecting to the veil, I said my grandmother did not leave the house for three months because of the mandatory unveiling. I would not leave the house because of the mandatory veiling. My point about the veil is that this is not about religion; this is about choice. Women should have the choice to relate to their religion any way they want. The state cannot tell you how to be a good Muslim. Nor can the state tell a Christian, or a Jewish, or a secular Muslim, or an atheist how to dress. Why should a Christian, or a Jewish, or an atheist dress the way an Orthodox Muslim woman dresses? That is why I talk about the veil. If we go into the philosophy of it . . . And I think that the debate is constantly being suppressed because it’s become so politicized. If we go into the philosophy of it, I have a lot against it. I have a lot against the fact that my body becomes a source of male temptation; and that I have to cover that in order to prevent this horrible man who look at me and, you know, can’t control themselves. In order to protect them I have to cover myself. You know that is a problem for me. Philosophically, ideologically it’s a problem; but I would never tell a woman . . . or I would never condone a system who would tell a woman who genuinely chooses the veil without the interference of the family and society, because of her faith. You can’t argue with people’s faith. If it doesn’t hurt you, you have to let them do what they want. Orthodox Christian women are very, you know, “modest” in the way they dress. Orthodox Jewish women wear wigs, you know? I can’t tell those women not to. I can’t tell Muslim women not to. But to make it compulsory; and to say that I’m westernized and an agent of imperialism because of the way I look; and the genuine, authentic Iranian – that is what is at issue. My family has a known history of over 600 years in that country. Who can say that I am less Iranian than she is, you know? That is what is at issue. And they muddy the waters, you know, the way they talk.

Recorded on: 2/22/08