Abnousse Shalmani’s childhood as the carefree daughter of a leftist, educated, bourgeois family in Tehran ended with her starting Primary School in the early 1980s. Iran had just undergone a fundamentalist Islamic revolution forcing the Shah into exile and installing Muslim cleric Ayatollah Khomeini as Iran’s supreme leader. For Shalmani, being suddenly forced to wear the headscarf and cover up for the classroom triggered what would turn out to become a lifelong rebellion against Islam’s denial of the female flesh.
The family eventually has to flee Iran, going into exile in Paris in 1985, where life is both an affront and a liberation. The formerly wealthy parents are thrown into comparative poverty, making ends meet working as a child minder and a photo lab assistant, struggling to reconcile their Iranian cultural background with the political attitudes and lifestyles of a Western liberal democracy.
Like for so many migrant families, it is the second generation that will reap the benefits of moving countries and for Shalmani, life in France offers freedoms which would be unattainable in her native Iran. She finds her way into French society through the literature of her adopted home. First Victor Hugo and then the libertine literature of mainly pre-revolutionary France culminating in the books by Marquis de Sade, which to her are an anti-dote to the intellectually and sexually restrictive rule in Iran.
With the narrative seesawing between Tehran in the 1980s and contemporary Paris, her memoir is a rejection of the attempts by the “beards and crows”, as Shalmani calls the religious zealots running her native country, to render women invisible by covering up their bodies. It is also a book about the emancipatory power of transgressive literature.
Sade is an unlikely poster boy for women’s liberation. Credited with the invention of the term “sadism”, his work revolves around violence, sexuality and power. There is a reason why late Italian film director Pier Palo Pasolini used Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom as the basis for his deeply violent allegory of fascism. Nevertheless, Sade has its admirers among the female intelligentsia and Shalmani’s adoration of the Marquis is preceded by such luminaries as Simone de Beauvoir with her famous essay from 1951 “Must we burn Sade” and later Susan Sontag.
It is his uncompromising opposition to any form of institutional constraint, the rejection of all societal norms and the centrality of the body, the physical self, which appeals to them.
Khomeini, Sade and Me, however, deal less with literature and philosophy than with politics. Sade merely serves as a focal point for Shalmani’s anger about the freedoms lost in the Iranian revolution and the obsession by fundamental Islam with the female body. In this, her memoir is closer to the denouncements of Islamic patriarchy by Somali-born human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali than the reflections on the Western literary canon in Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Iranian academic Azar Nafisi.
Both Ali and Shalmani depict the female body as the site of the battle between religious subjugation and personal liberation, and fearlessly call out the misogynist nature of radical Islam. A “woman’s body is perceived as a good indicator of the state of law, equality, and education. Each woman’s body carries the history of her country,” writes Shalmani, and Khomeini, Sade and Me puts a spotlight on the fetishizing of the female body by so vigorously denying it a public space.
Where the essays by Ali resemble lectures, albeit passionate ones, reading Khomeini, Sade and Me is more like listening to an acquaintance developing an argument over dinner, replete with exclamations like “I mean, really!” and the like. While this conversational tone makes what is in essence a polemic more than a memoir accessible, it also highlights the arguments’ blind spots.
The strict focus on the female body under fundamentalist Islam both enlightens and restricts.
Many aspects of the rise of fundamentalist Islam that enables this suppression of women’s rights are underrepresented or dismissed outright. For example, scant attention is given to the role of the specific historical circumstances that aided the rise of Khomeini and the subsequent suppression of the liberal urban elite in Tehran.
Most puzzlingly for an avid Sade devotee like Shalmani, the role of economic and cultural alienation in the radicalisation of Islamic youth in the West is all but rejected as naive left wing claptrap. Yet, she writes that the Marquis “strips everything away. In his wake, the earth is burned, flowers are dead, good taste smashed to smithereens.” Sade’s rejection of clerical authority was very much of its era, but much of his timeless attraction lies within his radical nihilism, the shocking beauty of tearing down all manifestations of the establishment regardless of what it represents. I would have thought that it is exactly this which attracts many disenfranchised youth from the suburbs of the capital cities in the West to radical Islamic groups.
Abnousse Shalmani. Khomeini, Sade and Me (translated from the French by Charlotte Coombe). World Editions Ltd (review copy courtesy of the translator)