BOSTON - There is a moment in Azar Nafisi's memoir of life in Iran when she describes what it was like to be a captive in someone else's dream.
"A stern ayatollah," she writes, "a blind and improbable philosopher-king, had decided to impose his dream on a country and a people and to re-create us in his own myopic vision."
Ms. Nafisi's book, whose very title - Reading Lolita in Tehran - would set all the ayatollahs on edge, chronicles her resistance to this "myopic vision." She created an air pocket in the suffocating atmosphere of the Islamic revolution, a private classroom where a handful of students could come and talk about literature and life.
The subject of her book is not only freedom but what it was like for a woman to lose it.
"Now that I could not call myself a teacher, a writer, now that I could not wear what I would normally wear, walk in the streets to the beat of my own body, shout if I wanted to or pat a male colleague on the back on the spur of the moment, now that all this was illegal," she recalls, "I felt light and fictional, as if I were walking on air, as if I had been written into being and then erased in one quick swipe."
This "memoir in books" is a remarkable blend of imagination and politics. But it's a way to think about Iraq and Afghanistan as well. You see, things are not going so well for the women in the countries that we have "liberated." There is a struggle there too with "stern ayatollahs."
Last Wednesday, another school south of Kabul was torched, the grounds littered with leaflets saying girls shouldn't be in the classroom. Outside the cities, modern women no longer wear the burqas by fiat; they wear them by fear. In places where warlords rule the roads and Islamic clerics rule the courts, little has changed.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, have you noticed that the man-on-the-street interviews in Baghdad are, literally, man-on-the-street interviews? Saddam Hussein is gone, but women don't feel safe; kidnappings are common, and so is rape, according to Human Rights Watch. There are signs in the market - "Sister, Veil Yourself" - and cars line up outside the schools to pick up daughters who cannot walk home safely.
As for women in public life, well, this summer the appointment of the first female judge in years was "postponed" in Najaf after a senior ayatollah ruled that judges had to be mature, sane and male. And this week, the Iraqi Governing Council appointed a Cabinet - 24 men and one woman.
Through it all, there's a curious silence from the White House. In 2001, right after the Afghanistan war, the president proudly declared that "we fight for the values we hold dear," and one of those values was the freedom of women. He said, "The central goal of the terrorists is the brutal oppression of women," and so women's freedom was proof of our victory. "Women now come out of their homes from house arrest, able to walk the streets without chaperones."
Now I wonder. Women in these countries have had their rights given and taken away before. Will they find themselves used as a cheap bargaining chip with the religious - male - fundamentalists?
The other day, Noah Feldman, whom I met a decade ago when he came before the Rhodes Scholarship committee, was interviewed about democracy and Islam.
A law professor who has worked on the new Iraqi constitution, Mr. Feldman cautioned against expecting full equality. But he added, "We should not think that just because right now there is deeply unequal treatment of men and women, that stops Muslim countries from ever being democratic." After all, he said, America was once a full-functioning democracy with deep inequality.
But America was once a democracy with slavery too. Would we accept a democracy without freedom today? Without women's rights?
Remember Abigail Adams' letter to her husband in 1776 as he wrote the laws for the new country? "I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors."
Women in Afghanistan are better off than under the Taliban, those poster boys of oppression. And few women in Iraq miss Mr. Hussein. But we are at a point of great uncertainty about the future of our "liberated" women - whether they will be free or forced to conform to a womanhood imagined by a theocrat.
So I am haunted by the story Ms. Nafisi tells of a 10-year-old who woke up inconsolable, racked with guilt, for having had an "illegal dream." There is no room in the dream of universal human rights for an illegal dream.
Once more: Remember the ladies.
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.