A woman in hijab looking out at mountains.


Lessons from Iran’s Long Lost Freedom

The Iranian-born writer, who now lives in the U.S., watched her home country devolve into a brutal theocracy, hoping it would return to some semblance of normal. That was 40 years ago. Could it happen here too?

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On the airplane, they sprayed us. Up and down the aisle walked the French flight attendants, releasing a spray over Iranian passengers as if we were livestock whose Tehran germs weren’t allowed in Paris. It’s reasonable to assume that wasn’t how they meant it, but with no previous warning and no announcement, that’s precisely how it felt while flying from Iran to France for the connecting flight back to America. At no point did we learn what was the substance—diluted rubbing alcohol? some terrifying chemical?—or to what protocol it adhered. It was the mid-’90s and the offensive mist seemed to confirm that even though we’d recently become American citizens, someone somewhere would always find a way of othering my family and me. Being sprayed also bookended the shame projected onto us a couple of weeks before on the arriving flight to Tehran.

It was a different kind of shame then, the kind religious men force on women in the name of piety and modesty: My mother and I weren’t allowed to deplane in Tehran without putting on headscarves. I had known in advance this was coming and had tucked a pretty paisley scarf in my carry-on before departing New York with my parents. In fact, I’d started out amused at the novelty of having to observe the hijab, without an inkling that when it’d come down to physically putting it on, I’d end up queasy with resentment over being stripped of my choice in the matter. In the 1970s, while still living in Iran as a child, whoever chose to wear a hijab, did so, and if they didn’t, they weren’t automatically considered less religious. For them, it was more of a cultural choice.

When we were sprayed on the outbound flight, the implication was that we were dirty because we were Iranian. The inbound compulsory hijab had implied we were dirty because we were women.

It was my first visit to Iran since getting away as a 9-year-old prior to the Islamic revolution 15 years earlier. We had gotten out through a four-year grant awarded to my father, soon to discover ourselves in accidental exile, so our move became permanent.

My father once said I would’ve been dead—as in executed—if I’d been made to grow up in post-revolution Iran. I wasn’t good with authority. During this trip, I was in my 20s, but my parents weren’t going to let me out of their sight.

* * *

I learned early that the loudest bark accounts for which of two parties appears to the other to be in power. It was the potential bites you had to worry about, not for the physical harm, but because the anticipation of harm induced fear, and therefore, a precedent of weakness. It’s much harder to get up than if you remain standing in the first place, a position from which you could out-bark your opponent into worrying you might be a biter yourself. My mother was my opponent. 

Saying I learned early, I meant as a child, while my mother, having been only 19 when pregnant with me, was also a child. Barking back from the floor just didn’t have the right effect, and I was down there by default for years, first as a crawler, then at the height of a toddler and so on. So I had ample opportunity to absorb the theory of weakness and strength.

Although ours wasn’t an easy mother-daughter relationship, the dynamic wasn’t complex: I didn’t want to be told when to sleep or how long my baths should be, and my mother didn’t want a child who disobeyed her, but lacked the patience to be less than totalitarian about it.

Two willful children at odds is a kinder narrative I’ve allowed myself than the one I believed growing up in which my mother was a tyrant. The way I saw it then, only a tyrant would make her daughter go to bed at 4 p.m. Now, I don’t blame her for wanting to be done with parenting by afternoon.

I would’ve benefitted from a free-range upbringing while parenting to her meant exerting power over a child who was allergic to it.

* * *

Until our trip to Tehran, my mother, herself allergic to power wielded against her, never had to put up with the overt oppression of the Iranian people at the hands of clerics who took over. Hers had been a cosmopolitan Tehran where she had the relative freedom to pursue whatever, and dress however, she wanted, with the advantage of marrying a gentle-natured man who called himself a feminist. 

Yet an underlying system of sexism and celebration of machismo sullied her psyche with a film of oppression when she lived there, because she only felt truly at home once she moved to New York. She considered it a great stroke of luck to never live in Iran again and while visiting, took only shallow breaths, as if a heavy rock was compressing her chest. She couldn’t wait to leave.

I, on the other hand, felt a deep geographical connection to the country. Even now, as I zoomed in on a satellite map to get a sense of the distances we drove to the villages around Tehran twenty-five years ago, an unexpected pang sprouted in my chest.

Driving by weeping willows and beyond them, rounded hills in beige and ecru, on the way from Tehran and to Hashtgerd to visit the tomb of my great grandfather, my brain’s encoded images from early childhood sprang to life. It was astonishing, and while our reasons were different, just like my mother, I found I couldn’t breathe deep.

Although I was an adult during my family’s visit to Iran, my parents wouldn’t hear of me heading out to the streets on my own lest I unknowingly behaved the wrong way.  They knew me as defiant and contrary, so it surprised them when I didn’t argue about it. I wasn’t familiar enough with the rules of conduct in this new Iran, and my parents didn’t want the patrolling Revolutionary Guard—or as they called it, the “committee”—descending on me if some errant hair slipped out of my headscarf, or if I stood too close to a man in public to ask the time. 

When we all ventured out together, I also couldn’t breathe deep because I found it unbearable to see my people, with their lush country and rich culture, under psychological siege. Why weren’t they in the streets right now, protesting? If enough of them did it—if enough people “barked loudest” while standing—they might overtake the corrupt government.

* * *

The theory of weakness and strength required practice, so my baby brother was a natural subject.

By around age 4, I had experimented with the consequences—the bites, if you will—of not doing what was I told. If my non-compliance resulted in grounding or spanking, I took it as an act of war and retaliated by maybe breaking a vase or marking up the walls in unsightly scrawls. Perhaps unleashing my own tyranny on my little brother was an emotional outlet too. 

I dictated to him where to sit and how to arrange his toy soldiers, and I don’t recall too many days that ended without a physical tussle. I was physically bigger and usually won, but that child held his ground and resisted for years, until the day he grew into the bigger one. 

Later in New York, he would call me “Khomeini,” Iran’s newly appointed mullah despot, because it was the very worst insult he could think of. It didn’t immediately occur to me that he saw me the way I saw my mother.

By the time I turned 13, my mother lost all control over me. Whether it was smoking cigarettes, leaving home without permission for days at a time, or dropping out of school, my teenage rebellion was in full effect. In the future, I would refer to it all as normal family dysfunction. 

Eventually, we all grew up, my brother forgave me, and I forgave my mother. My mother never forgave Iran. Our family did become calmer, but our former country remained in turmoil.

* * *

Walking up an old road at the foot of Mount Damavand with my father during the visit to Iran, we saw a ruby Persian carpet laid out by the side of the path with a handful of people gathered on it around a brass samovar, sipping from tea glasses. A sense of longing and absence opened a chasm inside me. Similar scenes with tea circles took place before Iran’s people found themselves under an oppressive regime, so I didn’t understand why its preservation evoked a sense of loss in me. 

Keep them fed and occupied just enough to keep them complacent—had the uneducated mullahs really managed a version of bread and circus effective enough for Iranian masses to accept a religious dynasty? Where were the underground rebels? How did one rise and lead others to resist? Was it a calling? Sad at my own helplessness, I wondered whether I really would’ve died had I been forced to grow up in mullah-run Iran. Or would I have just conformed and let them break me?

On the way back to Tehran from Mount Damavand, I sat next to my father as he drove. The road was lulling him into a trance, and he joked, “Wake me up, I’m falling asleep.” We’re an affectionate family, so I reached for his face, careful not to block his eyes from the road. Then I planted as loud a kiss as I could on his cheek. He cringed and pulled away with blazing eyes, a response I found shocking. I had no time to be offended because he’d plunged into a rant about the “committee” and the risks of getting pulled over. The law required a man and woman in each other’s company to carry papers proving they were married or blood relatives. 

We, in fact, had identifying documents in our possession while in an enclosed car on an empty road. Though I may have made a crack about hovering patrols with X-ray vision spying through car roofs, in truth, I was shaken by my father’s alarm. I thought of the people who actually lived in Iran and the dread they must have woken up to every day.

As non-residents who weren’t subjected to the daily oppressions imposed on Iranians, we were privy to the stories of punishment and execution. While visiting, it took my parent’s consistent effort not to draw attention to ourselves to drive home in me the extent of power Iran’s government held over the people. 

Maybe Iranians weren’t taking to the streets in protest because they were already knocked to the ground by the fear of bites, in this case, flogging, prison, hanging or bullets, and it was just too hard to get up.

* * *

Upon landing in Tehran, when my mother and I were told to put on headscarves, my own reaction had surprised me. I hadn’t expected to feel revulsion—it was just a scarf and lots of women wore it proudly and by choice. I’d even chosen to wear it out of respect for certain cultural events. But this government-enforced hijab was hard to stomach. For a fleeting moment I considered not complying.

Just then my mother had caught the defiance in my eyes and instantly recognized it from our days of battling wills. Rather than becoming irritated, she gave me a reassuring smile, which confused me. Neither of us was one to accept an unjust exertion of power. Then again, it had been our own choice to visit Iran. 

With a neutral yet rigid expression I knew to be her way of swallowing pain, my mother took her time putting on a scarf, nodding at me through it. I followed suit, unable to swallow anything at all, not even my own saliva. Compassion and an understanding of each other’s essence passed between us. It was a kinship we hadn’t shared before.

It wasn’t until two weeks later, and the moment we set foot on the departing flight, that my mother’s face relaxed again and she drew normal breaths instead of weird shallow ones. When the flight attendants sprayed the passengers up and down the aisle, my mother remained unfazed, telling me it was easy to tolerate the same treatment as hauled cattle because she knew she was on her way to freedom.

* * *

When you have freedom, you don’t think about its fragility and the nurturing it requires. Only after its destruction do you realize what you’ve lost is that which you had taken for granted. At the end of 2016, along with some 66 million Americans who voted for a different administration than the one they ended up with, I too found myself in what seemed like a perverse alternate universe, dreading I might witness the ruin of my country twice in one lifetime. It no longer seemed impossible that my second country could undergo severe unwelcome change like my first country. Each time I heard democracy referred to as an “experiment,” I shuddered. The ground began to feel dangerously close—from there I knew it would be harder to get up and fight than if one remained standing in the first place.

When Ayatollah Khomeini grabbed power in 1979, the Iranian intellectual elite regarded him by turns as an illiterate cleric and a malevolent buffoon. He rose as a result of a populace fed up with corruption under the Shah. Among Khomeini’s most avid supporters were the poverty-stricken people of rural Iran. Through religious law, women’s rights were trampled. In New York in the early 1980s, my mother and I had to cover our heads even for photos while renewing our Iranian passports. 

My mother’s simple act of protest had been to don a skullcap instead of a headscarf for the passport picture. She handed me the hat for my turn. That long-ago expired passport, still in my possession, bears the face of a child wearing contempt for a regime she wasn’t forced to live under. Others weren’t so lucky.

As much as it hurt to witness Iranians under oppression on my one trip back, I didn’t become part of a resistance on their behalf. It turns out one’s rebellious nature is more easily relegated to one’s own household, and the societal blanket of complacency is heavy to lift. Instead, along with most of the Iranian diaspora, I’ve been waiting for my birth country to go back to “normal.” It’s been 40 years.

Besides, home is America now, where my mother and I are free and living comfortably, and where democracy is sure to continue working in spite of my anxiety. Isn’t it?

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