Commencement Speaker - The University of Tulsa

Commencement Speaker

Azar Nafisi

woman wearing a flowing brown and black robe smiling at the camera
Azar Nafisi (credit: Stanley Staniski)

Azar Nafisi is a lifelong champion and ardent supporter of the importance of humanities and liberal arts and the role they play in the preservation and promotion of democracy. She is best known as the author of the bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, which electrified its readers with a compassionate and often harrowing portrait of the Islamic revolution in Iran and how it affected one university professor and her students. Earning high acclaim and an enthusiastic readership, Reading Lolita in Tehran is an incisive exploration of the transformative powers of fiction in a world of tyranny. Reading Lolita in Tehran has been translated into 32 languages and has won diverse literary awards, including the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger, Non-fiction Book of the Year Award from Booksense, the Frederic W. Ness Book Award, the Latifeh Yarsheter Book Award, the Grand Prix des Lectrices de Elle and an achievement award from the American Immigration Law Foundation, as well as being a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for Memoir. Her new book is Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times.

Between 1997 and 2017, Nafisi was a fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies where she was a professor of aesthetics, culture and literature; she was also director of The Dialogue Project & Cultural Conversations. Nafisi studied in the U.S. in the 1970s and earned her Ph.D. at the University of Oklahoma. She returned to Iran and taught at the University of Tehran, and in 1981, she was expelled for refusing to wear the mandatory Islamic veil and did not resume teaching until 1987. Nafisi then taught at the Free Islamic University and Allameh Tabatabai, after which she held a fellowship at Oxford University, teaching and conducting a series of lectures on culture and the role of Western literature and culture in Iran after the revolution in 1979. Nafisi returned to the United States in 1997, earning national respect and international recognition for advocating on behalf of Iran’s intellectuals, youth and especially young women.

Nafisi has lectured and written extensively in English and Persian on the political implications of literature and culture, as well as the human rights of Iranian women and girls and the role they play in the process of change for pluralism and an open society in Iran. She has been consulted on issues related to Iran and human rights both by policymakers and various human rights organizations.

In 2011, she was awarded the Cristóbal Gabarrón Foundation International Thought and Humanities Award. Nafisi also received the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Creativity Laureate Award. She has been awarded honorary doctorates from Mt. Holyoke College (2012), Seton Hill University (2010), Goucher College (2009), Bard College (2007) and Nazareth College. Nafisi was a Georgetown Walsh School of Foreign Service 2018-19 Centennial Fellow.

Nafisi also has written for The New York Times, Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. Her cover story “The Veiled Threat: The Iranian Revolution’s Woman Problem,” published in The New Republic (Feb. 22, 1999), has been reprinted in several languages. Nafisi’s book on Vladimir Nabokov, That Other World, was published by Yale University Press. She also wrote the new introduction to the Modern Library Classics edition of Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad, as well as the introduction to Iraj Pezeshkzad’s My Uncle Napoleon. She wrote the foreword to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the afterword to Babbitt. Nafisi has published a children’s book (with illustrator Sophie Benini Pietromarchi) titled BiBi and the Green Voice. She is the author of a memoir about her mother titled Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter. Additionally, she wrote The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, a powerful and passionate case for the vital role of imagination and ideas in democratic nations to combat the rise of authoritarian states.