Half of Iran’s citizens are regarded by the state as chattel, so it is not startling to find so many women writers in the most exposed positions of dissent. Azadeh Moaveni’s memoir, Lipstick Jihad, (a perfect title for the practice of fashion ketman and the struggle for femininity, as well as feminism) was a salient effort in this regard, and it is good to see her helping to co-author Iran Awakening, the autobiography of Shirin Ebadi, the country’s most recent Nobel laureate. Ebadi was the first woman to be appointed a judge in Iran, in the waning days of the shah, and she lost that job almost as soon as the revolution (which she supported) had taken place. She opens her book with a commonplace and uninteresting testimony to her enduring religious faith, the sincerity of which is impossible to gauge. If this is ketman—the apparent sharing of a belief with those who despise and oppress her—it is the price of her ticket. Without such protestations of faith she would almost certainly be dead. As it is, she was on a death-squad list drawn up by allegedly “rogue” elements in the Ministry of Intelligence, which debated only on the propriety of assassinating her before the end of the month of Ramadan. Her extraordinary fortitude in pressing on with her legal inquiry into the murders that had already taken place is not only a testimony in itself but also a window into the almost unrivaled sordidness and cynicism of the Islamic Republic. Here is a state that holds that a father cannot be convicted for murdering his own daughter; a state in which teenage girls are hanged in public for immorality, and virgins raped before execution because the Koran forbids the execution of virgins.
In Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi views matters from still another perspective: the special ketman of ironic cartooning. In smart and confident strokes she draws a history of the Khomeini revolution as seen by a girl who was nine when the old fanatic returned from exile. The whole chaotic world of parents and other adults, faced with crises that are wholly new and frightening to them, is affectionately and ironically caught by a girl who has a real talent for overhearing. Marxist relatives keep up false hopes that the people have not been fooled; Saddam Hussein’s planes disgorge bombs over the city; veils are imposed on small children; the Jewish neighbors get into a spot of bother; and, yes, a young friend is legally raped by a Revolutionary Guard before being shot. Most stark are the growing girl’s encounters with the komiteh, the brutish and depraved louts who are employed as the enforcers of morality and who take a special pleasure in the taunting and bullying of women. But there is low farce as well: the bastards who come looking for the homemade wine are actually seeking only a bribe, which becomes clear only after the precious fluid has been hastily poured away for nothing. The solidarity of the little family and its friends turns out to be less fragile than it looks. Yes, the bearded sadists do stop women in the street and harshly smell their breath for telltale traces of love, but, as in the resolution of Uncle Napoleon’s madly hermetic domestic despotism, amor vincit omnia.
May it be so. The PEN anthology, as well as the work of Shirin Ebadi, was for a time treated as mere matter that could not be viewed by Americans. Reflecting a level of stupidity that would not disgrace the dumbest authoritarian state, the U.S. Treasury Department believed that unless Ebadi applied for a special license, the book’s publication in this country would amount to trading with the enemy. A possible penalty of up to a million dollars or ten years imprisonment was mentioned. Prompt litigation held off the official notion that the words of Iranian writers can be forfeit as a “foreign asset.” American readers have a special duty, in view of the distraught history between our two countries, to take an interest in this “asset.” Whatever the outcome of the current confrontation, we have the right and the duty of engagement with a people and a culture very much imbricated with our own. How agreeable to be able to report that this is also a tremendous pleasure.