On February 15, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) presented its Press Freedom Award to Iranian journalists Niloufar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi, who have been imprisoned for publishing reports about the death and the funeral of Mahsa Amini.
Shahram Rafizadeh, an Iranian journalist, received the award from Canadian writer and poet Margaret Atwood on behalf of her two jailed colleagues.
Since the eruption of nationwide protests triggered by Amini’s death in the custody of morality police, a novel written by Atwood has received extensive attention in Iran.
Many Iranian women have now read The Handmaid’s Tale for a second time or have watched the TV series adapted from the novel. Some women have even taken to the streets dressed like the “handmaids” as portrayed in the TV series to show that there is little difference between the dystopian, imaginary republic depicted in the novel and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a totalitarian and patriarchal state by the name of the Republic of Gilead where religious laws and patriarchy dominate society. Other religious beliefs, homosexuality, abortion and contraceptives are banned. Women’s overriding duty is to bear children, and they must cover their hair, cannot own property or have jobs, and are not even allowed to read and write.
IranWire has discussed with Azar Nafisi, writer, scholar, academic and the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran the similarities between the Republic of Gilead and the Islamic Republic of Iran, the ongoing protests in the country and the role of literature in social movements. The interview was conducted by three members of IranWire’s editorial board: Roghayeh Rezaei, Samaneh Ghadarkhan and Shima Shahrabi.
According to Nafisi, Atwood has said during a book festival in Canada, “Do you know that they have printed my books in Iran?” Nafisi later found out that many of the Canadian writer’s books have been translated into Persian and that The Handmaid’s Tale has been reprinted 11 times. “I believe that each of us have a heartfelt relation with Atwood,” she says with a smile.
Many women in Iran or in Afghanistan imagine that that they are living in a world created by Ms. Atwood because they find many similarities between their own countries and the Republic of Gilead, and they feel that The Handmaid’s Tale predicted their lives. How do life and literature interconnect?
“This relation between life or reality and imagination has always been my preoccupation and I have concluded that it works in both directions at the same time. I mean that what we read affects our understanding of life.”
“The life given by works of imagination such as novels goes beyond reality in the search of truth. That is why some readers of Atwood’s novel in Iran have felt so close to the book, because they feel that it is describing their lives.”
“I must add that Atwood knows quite a lot about the Islamic Republic and finishes her book by hinting at the Islamic Republic…The end of the book talks about a future conference on this totalitarian theocracy by the name of the Republic of Gilead. This points to their similarity. The foundations of the Republic of Gilead are the same as the foundations of the Islamic Republic, and they treat women the same way. In fact, they are not considered ‘women’ but the ‘weaker sex.’”
Atwood “brings to life a suffocating atmosphere where fear flows in veins like blood,” Nafisi says, adding, “A few of my friends in Iran told me that they could not read the book again because they felt like they were again living with the Islamic Republic.”
Human experience and literature complement each other, according to Nafisi. “We need a literature that interprets the reality that we don’t see, the hidden reality. We need a literature that will take life as its starting point and shapes it through imagination.”
To what extent the identification of Iranian women with The Handmaid’s Tale can help them find courage to fight on? It might also lead them to despair… After all, the women in the novel are not all heroines who leave their mark, but women who have surrendered to their fate.
“We shouldn’t read this book only because we agree with it or only because it describes our conditions. A book always goes beyond both the writer and the reader, and it opens a world for us that we didn’t know existed. It opens a world within us that we didn’t know was there. The Handmaid's Tale is filled with suffocation and suppression on the one hand and with hope on the other. Just telling the story brings up hope because, in a totalitarian regime, the government wants to build your identity. The government usurps the citizens’ individual, historical, cultural and social identities and replaces them with a fake identity. By reading the story we arrive at what is beyond this fake identity, we understand the situation and we find out how we must fight.”
How similar are the struggle of women in Iran and the struggle of the handmaids in Atwood’s novel?
“One of the most interesting things about this uprising by Iranians, and especially women, is the slogan ‘Woman, Life, Freedom.’ This is how we understand that this uprising against the Islamic Republic is not a purely political one but an existential uprising. This is why after the word ‘woman’ we have the words ‘life’ and ‘freedom.’ Woman in Iran, Afghanistan and similar countries are fighting for their existence, for their life.”
“One of the things in Iran that tormented me a lot was that the Islamic Republic has robbed me of my identity as a woman, as a human being, as a teacher and as a writer, and then it wants to make me invisible by enforcing hijab, the same process you can see in The Handmaid's Tale.”
“In Gilead, the handmaids have even been robbed of their names, and they are called by the name of their commander with ‘Of’ being added to his name. For example, the name of the central character in The Handmaid’s Tale is ‘Offred,’ i.e., ‘Of-Fred.’”
“This ‘Of-Fred’ says that resistance is important to her because there can be no light without a shadow and no shadow without a light. She says that we mustn’t underestimate a chair, the sunshine and the flowers. Enjoying all these things might be a paltry freedom but they can lead to great opportunities.”
“This is exactly what we, ourselves, did in Iran. How did it start? We showed a little bit of hair. Then we continued to show more. Little by little we slid off our hijab until today when we throw it into the fire. So, the little opening that the novel shows us is a very important opening that, in fact, reminds us of the possibilities we have, and I believe this has a very important role in how a society takes shape.”
Nafisi’s words remind us of small acts of hope by the handmaids in their quest for freedom. The protagonist says that taking a bath is a “golden opportunity” to remove her white head covering and feel her hair with her hands.
“Do you remember when the guard wants to see her face and she mischievously shows him her face? These are small insubordinations than lead to great acts of resistance,” Nafisi says.
Iranian women commit similar acts of resistance in their everyday lives, their family relations and their social relations to feel alive. Are they inspired by literature?
“People in Iran have lived in this atmosphere, have breathed in this atmosphere and have done acts of resistance in this atmosphere, and that is why this book has had such an impact. We always understand things from a distance. It is difficult to completely understand an event when it’s unfolding. But the story succeeds in making reality meaningful. If fact, the story is one step ahead of life. It interprets the past, looks at the present and brings up future possibilities. This is what imagination does for us. By telling us the story, it allows us to take the story away from the usurper and make it our own. By reading the book, we become partners with the author in owning the story, and the story says what we want to say.”
Many Iranians who lost their eyes during protests, grieving families who have lost their loved ones and those with relatives behind bars talk about hope. The protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale has hope in the future and believes she and other women can be saved. The hope that the Islamic Republic can be overthrown is also very high in Iran. How does this hope, like the hope driving the novel’s protagonist, can contribute to the success of the movement?
This question reminds Nafisi of a quote by Václav Havel, the Czech writer, poet and statesman: “I don’t remember his exact words, but he says that hope is not the same as optimism and it does not mean that we expect to benefit from what we’re doing. Hope means we do things despite what might happen because it’s the right thing to do. And this is the kind of hope that I have for Iran. I believe that we are in an uprising, a movement, where people give up their eyes and their lives not because tomorrow is assuredly going to be better but because life means freedom.”
“But sometimes I cannot get any sleep at night. I wonder where all this courage comes from. This comes from that hope. Your heart is broken, and you must mend this heart.”
Do we have examples in history where social and political movements have been similar to events taking place in a novel or have been deeply inspired by literature?
Nafisi points to Les Misérables by Victor Hugo and the works of American writer James Baldwin: “This has happened so many times that the oppressors are afraid of writers. The best example is Salman Rushdie. I ask, ‘Did this man was armed with anything but his words?’ No! He was armed only with his words but Ayatollah Khomeini, one of the most powerful men in the world, found them so horrifying that he ordered the death of Salman Rushdie. This shows why literature, exactly because it is so close to realty, horrifies the tyrants so much that they want to destroy it.”
At the end of the interview, Nafisi mentions Moniro Ravanipour, an internationally acclaimed Iranian American writer: “She says that when she was in Iran and was trying to escape capture by the regime, she used to listen to other people’s story and kept a diary. She says, ‘Listening to other people’s stories and writing down your memoirs protects you from depression and psychological harm. I write so that they cannot kill me. I write to stay alive.’ I believe this is what we want from literature. Literature is the guardian of memory. Even without the Islamic Republic and the Republic of Gilead, we die at every moment and then, somehow, we come back to life. Only art brings back these moments to the human mind. That is why writing memoirs is so important, especially in connection with countries like Iran.”
We ask Azar Nafisi to say the first thing that comes to her mind when she hears, “Gilead,” “Mahsa Amini” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.” She replies, “The Islamic Republic,” “Woman, Life, Freedom” and “Our story, the women in Iran.”