Azar Nafisi says Iranian women worked for their freedom in the election [GALLO/GETTY]

Azar Nafisi is best known as the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, an often harrowing portrait of how the Islamic Revolution in Iran affected one professor and her students.

Her new book, Things I’ve Been Silent About, is a memoir of growing up against the background of Iran’s political revolution.

She is a visiting professor and the executive director of Cultural Conversations at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC.

Nafisi is a professor of aesthetics, culture and literature, and teaches courses on the relation between culture and politics.

Al Jazeera gets her thoughts on the Iranian elections.

Al Jazeera: What has just happened in Iran?

Azar Nafisi: Well, what has just happened in Iran is a continuation of what has been happening for thirty years. Iranian people took up opposition and used an open space to express what they want. Their vote was not just against [incumbent President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad but for what he stood for.

But it seems like Ahmadinejad has won an overwhelming majority?

But the most amazing thing is that so many people came out into the streets to demonstrate and protest and to make their wishes known.

"I was thrown out of the university that Mousavi shut down as part of the Cultural Revolution."

This is great because it disproves the myth that the Iranian people want the extreme laws imposed on them by the Islamic regime. In any society you will have extremists.

There will be always people who will support those like Mr. Ahmadinejad, in the same way that many Americans supported Mr. Bush or support Christian fundamentalists. But that does not mean that the Iranian people prefer a theocracy to a pluralistic country with freedom of religion and expression for everyone.

In their slogans and demands during the elections they asked for freedom and democracy and repudiated the repressive laws. But just as important is the fact that many within the ruling elite in Iran are realizing they cannot rule the society the way they claimed they could.  A good example is Mr. Mousavi himself. 

In order to win Mousavi had taken up the progressive slogans, which he had previously fought against. I was there at the beginning of the Islamic Revolution when he was the Prime Minister, and implemented many of the repressive measures which he now denounces.

I (like many others) was thrown out of the university that Mousavi helped to shut down as part of the Cultural Revolution.

The fact that Mr. Mousavi or Karoobi choose to talk of freedom and human rights show the degree to which the divisions within the regime are affected by the resistance of the Iranian people. I think these are the important points about the elections and not only who won or who lost.

But don't you think this election result, the election of hardline Ahmadinejad as opposed to a reformist Mousavi, suggests that the majority of Iranians want their theocracy to continue?

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For me, elections in a country such as Iran don't have same meaning as in countries such as the US. We hardly have a choice in who we vote for anyway. There was also not one single international observer.

A sizable number of people can't even read in Iran and they will vote for Ahmadinejad.

I admit that I might be wrong, but for me the real poles are not the number of votes.

The real poles are what sort of platform the candidates use in order to win. It was really amazing and interesting to see what Mr Mousavi chose as his platform to win.

He didn't just campaign against Ahmadinejad but against the very foundations of the Islamic Republic.

The fact that Mr Mousavi risked his political career to take up this position suggests that a sizable number of the population don't want what exists now.

So you, as a liberal, are optimistic about these election results?

Yes, definitely - let me say - not optimistic but hopeful. I lived for 18 years with the Islamic Republic - through the worst years.  What gave me hope was the way this society non-violently resisted official rule. And I have had no reason to change this view.

But the Iranian people voted for this official rule - they voted for the Islamic Republic. They have now voted for an orthodox president.

One of the problems with revolutions is that it is a time of great excitement but also great confusion. It always worries me. People are very certain what they don't want but not very certain what they want. When people voted for the Islamic republic, they didn't know what they were voting for.

The results of these elections have taken the world by surprise. Was there a failure here of the international media to guage Iran's affairs and sentiment?

"The homogeneous picture of extreme belief where the majority of people believe in orthodox Islam which comes out of Iran is not true."

Yes! That is what fascinates me most ever since coming to the US. When I wrote about students reading Lolita in Tehran, I was accused of saying Western literature is great. That is not what I was saying - I was saying people in Iran are taking these texts and analysing and seeing them in their own way - in a way the West doesn't.

The homogeneous picture of extreme belief where the majority of people believe in orthodox Islam which comes out of Iran is not true. Iran is a country of different ethnic minorities and different religions. Many of the Muslim minorities have been oppressed by the regime. This is not Islam - this is a state using Islam for power and we have to break this myth.

You've talked about and write about the importance of literature and culture in the fight for human rights and liberty in Iran and around the world. But is art, culture, literature ever going to be more powerful than religion? Is it enough to start a revolution?

If you look at it in the long term - yes it is. I never forget when Paul Ricoer, the philosopher, came to speak in Iran.  He was an eighty-year-old but was treated like [the American rock star] Bon Jovi.

At one point the minister for Islamic Guidance said to him: "People like us [politicians] will vanish but you people will endure." That will always remain with me. We don't remember the king who ruled in the time of [14th century Persian poet] Hafiz, we remember Hafiz.

You work for Johns Hopkins University as executive director of Cultural Conversations. How is this election going to influence Iran's conversations with the rest of the world?

Part of it depends on the rest of the world - how will they choose to converse with Iran.

The US government is sometimes silly in its response to Iran. For them, supporting human rights translates into giving money to various groups and individuals and to have a hostile stance on the country. But the point is not to go behind one individual but to give voice to the people. Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel prize-winning lawyer, is someone whose faith in Islam cannot be disputed. The media should give as much space to her as to Ahmadinejad.

I think [US President Barack] Obama should acknowledge that the Iranian people have a history, a culture and aspirations, which is different from what the regime claims.

Your last book focuses on a group of women living in Tehran and you have conducted many workshops for women on human rights and culture. What does this election result say about women in Iran today?

I think Iranian women have become canaries of the mind. If you want to guage a society and how free it is, you go to its women.

Iranian women have really worked for their freedom this election. Look at their signature campaign - they choose a non-violent campaign to educate people inside and outside Iran about the country's repressive laws.

They played an important role in the beginning of the last century in bringing about a constitutional revolution. In the beginning of this century, they will play a central role in changing society towards openness.

Source: Al Jazeera