Morality is defined as the ability to differentiate what is right and what is wrong. While the concept may seem simple enough, in reality however it is much more complex than that. The main question is how does one define right and wrong? If something is deemed as “right”for one person, does it automatically mean that it is the right one for another? This rather confusing view of morality is exemplified in the current saying that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s patriot. ” Truly, morality is not that easy to define. Morality however it seems is more often than not defined by the society at large.
A society is define as a group of individuals that have common interests as well as have their own culture. This concept of society and morality is highly apparent in the novel by Azar Nafisi title “Reading Lolita in Tehran, A Memoir in Books. ” Nafisi is in Iranian scholar who emigrated in 1997 to the United States. The book mentioned in the title is the novel by Vladimir Nabokov which tells the story of a middle aged man who has sexual obsessions with a pre-teen girl, specifically a twelve-year old girl. Although Nafisi’s novel isn’t just about this particular book, Lolita is however one of those books considered as controversial in Iran.
Novels like One Thousand and One Nights, Invitation to a Beheading, The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice, are also included and their similarity to what is happening in Iran. It is Lolita however that gets a rather good exposure in the book. Nafisi’s novel however goes much deeper that what the title actually says. It gives a rather good view on what happens to the people when a society suddenly changes its view on things. Nafisi’s book gives a closer look to what happened in Iran when Ayatollah Khomeini gained power after the Islamic revolution.
One of this was the decree requiring women of Iran to follow a dress code. Iranian women were now required to wear veils. An issue that Nafisis tackles a lot in her book. This simple decree caused a great deal of change in Iran. Prior to the decree, Iranian women did not wear veils. For most women, the decree was considered as a restriction to their freedom. Women who do not follow this rule are often detained. As a result, wearing the veil also restricted how people interacted with one another. One reason for this change in interaction is the differences in their reactions to the decree.
While some stated that they “hated”it, others supported it saying it made them feel more “relaxed. ” In general though, women who did not wear veils were considered immoral and even unchaste by the society at large. The decree requiring the veil also allowed for segregation and discrimination. The veil made women have a less status that the men. The veil did not only change the relationships that people had with each other but also on their individual roles and responsibilities. While women were still allowed to go to universities, these were still subjected to suppression by those in power.
Segregation was not the only thing that was practiced in the universities but those who were found talking to the opposite sex were punished by the religious authorities. In fact, because the school where Nafisi taught was rather liberal, school officials were often asked if they believed the school was located in Switzerland, the word being connected with all things considered decadent and lax. The wearing of the veil also made women subservient to men who had to follow whatever was said to them. This change in culture actually continued despite Khomeini’s death.
According to Nafisi, Khomeini’s real death would only come when women were not required to wear scarves in public anymore. By interjecting the novel Lolita in her book, Nafisi shows what the society truly is. A country doing its best to live in a fantasy world. In Lolita, the main protagonist Humbert Humbert, wishes to have the perfect Lolita. Implementing the decree on the wearing of the veil in reality reveals Khomeini’s dream of having a truly perfect Koranic society. Nafisi argues that much like story, where Humbert’s pursuit eventually destroys Lolita, Iran may likely experience the same.
Living in a fantasy world though may not be that bad. Nafisi’s book tells us that “we all need to create a paradise to escape into. ” ( 281) She however immediately corrects this and say that “fiction was not a panacea, but it did not offer us a critical way of appraising and grasping the world – not just our world but that other world that had become the object of our desires. ” ( 282) Going back to Lolita and its relation with the Iranian society, Iran is much like Humbert who despite molesting the young Lolita, appears normal in other parts of his life.
By implementing a standard on morality, the Iranian society was telling people that it was normal to do so in order to run the country better. And like Humbert, the Iranian society does not blame itself but others for what is wrong. Humbert wants Lolita to become what is perfect for him, no different from what the regime wants for its citizens. The Iranian regime blames the “dissidents” for what has happened to the country hence the imposition of the new rules or codes of morality. The new codes of morality while restricting activities of most of its citizens, have also made their lives more exciting.
What was then ordinary activities where now being done as a secret mission. People who wanted to watch foreign films, eat ice cream, or even meet without wearing veils were doing so in secret. Thus while the citizens were openly showing their support for the rules, they were also secretly doing normal things that were now considered as taboo. The imposition of codes of morality this did not totally alter the responsibilities of the citizens and their roles but only on how they performed it. As mentioned earlier, the issue of morality is a very complex one.
By imposing a standard on morality, the Iranian regime thus changed the way its citizens behaved. Women now found their freedom curtailed as they were required to wear veils and not allowed to talk to persons of the other sex. Activities that were regularly considered as norm where now being done in secret. While most people were still allowed to hold their jobs, they faced the constant scrutiny of the religious sector. While Iranian women and people around the world viewed these changes as something negative, the regime however defended its actions by stating that the change was needed.
Thus even if the propagator, Khomeini, had died, the practice continued. Another effect that the rules had, specifically on Nafisi, was her having to quit the university and teaching a class and discussing books in secret. For Nafisi, the university was no longer a place where students can have honest discussion asking “how could one teach when the main concern of university officials was not the quality of one’s work but the color of one’s lips, the subversive potential of a single strand of hair? ” (11) This activity leads to Nafisi bonding with her students since most of them feel that they have been made irrelevant by the new regime.
The rule requiring women to wear veils becomes more oppressive when Nafisi reveals that when the students that decided to be with her came to the room, their removing the veils and scarves was an act that was not as simple as one imagines. According to Nafisi, “each one gained an outline and a shape, becoming her own inimitable self. ” (5) Because of their continuous gathering, they begin to have hope. The students draw on the parallelism on what they are currently experiencing with what they are reading.
Nafisi explicitly states in the book that “[h]ope for some means its loss for others; when the hopeless regain some hope, those in power – the ones who had taken it away – become afraid, more protective of their endangered interests, more repressive. ” (276) What this tells us is that instead of just living their lives simply, getting jobs and having a family, Nafisi, her students, and maybe some other Iranians, now found a different purpose in life. They know that they have to be strong if they want their society to change. That even if hope is all that they have left, it is better than nothing.
On reading the book, Heywood’s point that morality is actually concerned with not only the ethical questions but also how right and wrong are different is made clearer. The question that arises is how can an individual survive if that person has a different perception on himself or herself which is different from what society says? The answer is not simply to become political and institute change. Although it can be considered that the personal is political, at the core of the fight for political rights is the desire to protect ourselves, to prevent the political from intruding on our individual lives.
(273) Imagination or fantasy is the one that bridges the political and the personal. The regimes “first task had been to blur the lines and boundaries between the personal and the political, thereby destroying them both. ” (273) In summary, we need to keep in mind what a society is. A group of individuals with something in common and that includes moral principles. When a society has different principles on morality, like what happened in Iran, nothing good can come out of it. This is most true when a society that has experienced freedom before is suddenly restricted.
Some groups will feel oppressed and will fight it. Those in power meanwhile, will do what they to prevent that from happening. The one good thing about Nafisi’s novel is that it does not in provide any political analysis on the situation in Iran. Rather it is about what people can do despite the tyranny around them. That students can learn when they apply and feel what they have read. Morality will always be a very tricky issue. The debate on the concept of right and wrong will not end overnight. If there is one thing that Nafisi’s novel teaches us, it is that setting a standard for morality is not an answer.
Courtney from Study Moose
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