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A Genre in the Service of Empire: An Iranian Feminist Critique of Diasporic Memoirs

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In a time of pending war against Iran, after the catastrophic consequences of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq (with more than 655,000 deaths in Iraq alone), a particularly lucrative industry of Iranian and Muslim women’s memoirs has mushroomed in the aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities. These women’s memoirs—perhaps best represented by Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), and Roya Hakakian’s Journey to the Land of No (2005), with their mutual roots in Betty Mahmoody’s Not Without My Daughter (1988)—have assumed center-stage in appropriating the legitimate cause of women’s rights and placing it squarely in the service of Empire building projects, disguised under the rhetoric of the “war on terror.”


Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran

By Roya Hakakian



As feminist scholars of Iran and its Diaspora, we suggest that these memoirs and their authors must be understood not only in terms of the politics of reception in the United States but also in terms of the U.S. imperialistic project that is informed by the historical Euro-American colonial discourses of civilization. At a time when the neo-colonial and imperialistic projects seek to build a case for military attack or “regime change” in Iran, we ask, how are these memoirs complicit with these projects?


Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
By Azar Nafisi


We identify this memoir genre as a part of industries of knowledge-production that reinforce and fuel the gendered and raced context of global capitalist relations, where the binarized notions of “freedom” and “progress” in the “West” are juxtaposed to “backwardness” and “barbarism” in Iran and in the rest of the Muslim world. Identified as an authentic and authoritative site where the “silenced” Iranian woman finally finds a voice with which to speak, these memoirs reproduce reductive but familiar narratives which pin the constructed “Third-world woman” against her male counterpart while setting the stage for what is presumed to be her salvation.


In this context, the patronizing language of women’s rights as human rights presumes and actively constructs the category of the oppressed “traditional” Iranian woman, often unaware of her own imprisonment by Islam and patriarchy.  The “somber” woman, in this narrative, must be trained to realize her rights as an individual, imagined as a “modern woman” who embodies an idealized middle class norm of Euro-American consumption.


Once the favored tale of “civilizing missions”, the contemporary rescue fantasy now has a new twist. Rather than being spoken for by ambassadors of “civilization”, Iranian women are able to speak for themselves courtesy of international publishing houses. Women selected according to the resonance of their experience within this narrative become the mouthpiece for the “authentic” Iranian experience, making the current construction of the “rescue fantasy” more insidious than ever. 


These memoirs have proved widely popular in the mass market, while the mainstream media legitimizes their authors as “Iran experts” and “women’s rights activists,” thus ignoring the well-informed and critical Iranian feminist scholarship in Iran and its Diaspora.  In fact, we are not the first to challenge the construction and mobilization of gendered “victims” in furthering imperialistic projects. We draw from a rich body of feminist scholarship such as those of Roxana Bahramitash, Inderpal Grewal, bell hooks, Minoo Moallem, Negar Mottahedeh, Ella Shohat, and Gayatri Spivak to call for a critical analysis of women’s participation in these industries and question the taken-for-granted notions of civilization, terror, freedom, democracy, and fundamentalism.  We ask why this critical scholarship is ignored, while others have been tokenized and granted generous media coverage?


As an example, we call attention to the way that Hamid Dabashi’s astute critique of the memoir genre, “Native Informers and the Making of the American Empire” (al-Ahram, 1 - 7 June 2006, Issue No. 797), was maliciously attacked and his arguments deliberately distorted by North American neoconservative outlets as an assault on Iranian women’s struggle for autonomy, freedom and democracy. That Dabashi’s critique was singled out while the works of women feminist scholars were ignored is a telling example of the sexist assumptions and essentialist gender and racial binaries that underpin the genre’s popularity. Assuming a monolithic category of “woman,” such binaries grant authenticity of voice to certain women such as Azar Nafisi, who are assumed to represent all “Iranian women,” while denying legitimacy to Hamid Dabashi, who becomes the ideal type of the “misogynistic Middle Eastern man.” Furthermore, by dividing the world into binaries of East and West and assuming an inherent notion of Iranian-ness, both the promoters of this genre and nationalist elites tokenize certain Iranian writers and make them the representatives of a homogenously imagined Iranian people and culture.


Lolita and Beyond: Foaad Khosmood interviews Hamid Dabashi


 We deplore the marginalization of critical engagements with this genre and declare that the version of the romanticized and Orientalist portrayal of Iranian history and women’s struggle depicted in the recent memoir industry is not only a gross distortion and undermining of Iranian women’s active participation in political and cultural spheres, but it also deliberately represses working class and rural women’s hardships, hopes, desires, and aspirations. 


In today’s Iran, women are at the forefront of literacy, educational, artistic, journalistic, and legal advancements.  In a social, literary, and political tradition of resistance that extends from generations of peasant and working class women down to Tahereh Qorrat al-Ayn, Shirin Ebadi, Shams Kasma’i, and Forough Farrokhzad, Iranian women continue to struggle for their dignity and civil rights. Iranian women took two monarchic dynasties to task and they now hold the Islamic Republic responsible to address their demands.  Any military or economic sanctions against Iran will only set Iranian women back in their achievements, and cause nothing but hardship and tragedy (as disastrously evident in Iraq today).


We are firm believers that historically, any militarist mobilizations, nationalist or imperial have been to the detriment of Iranian women’s lives and their struggles against misogynistic laws as well as their aspirations for welfare and democracy. We object to militarism imposed by “local” and diasporic nationalists, religious or secular fundamentalists, or neo-colonialists and imperialists.  We consider any bullet fired at the direction of Iran, or any other country, targeted against the historical struggle for freedom, equality, dignity, and democracy.


A longer version of this article will soon be available at


Niki Akhavan, University of California at Santa Cruz, USA

Golbarg Bashi, Bristol University, UK

Mana Kia, Harvard University, USA

Sima Shakhsari, Stanford University, USA

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