This week, Tablet looks back on 40 years of the Iranian Revolution.
All the years she lived in Iran, my mother’s greatest sorrow was that she was not born male. Her second greatest sorrow, which she readily shared with my two sisters and me, was that she did not have a son.
She was no misogynist, my Tehrani Jewish mother. She did not doubt women’s potential, didn’t question their right to be equal to men. She was aware enough, educated, and capable and ambitious enough to know what she could have achieved had she been given permission and opportunity. But she grew up in a time when a girl’s only good option was to marry well and have many sons.
A pixie of a girl with remarkable zest and a mind unyieldingly her own, she married at 15, had her first child at 17. My father was the only son of a French-educated, worldly, and well-off Jew and his French-born, career-minded wife. When it came to the treatment of women, he and his family might not have been as enlightened as a handful of others in 1960s Iran, but they were decades ahead of most. In our house on Shah Reza Street where she went to live with her husband and his parents, my mother was allowed to continue her education, albeit only with tutors who came to the house. She had permission to speak in front of strangers, laugh without covering her mouth, dance at family gatherings. She could wear makeup and Western clothes, visit her parents and siblings, appear on the street chaperoned by an older woman but unaccompanied by a man.
These are small mercies by today’s Western standards, it is true. But in a country that was 97 percent Shia Muslim, in a Jewish community that applied at once the harshest practices of Judaism as well as of Islam against its women, in post-WWII Iran, you could say my mother had it pretty good.
Still, she chafed at the limitations placed on her because of her gender: She wasn’t allowed to work outside the house, inherit property, make financial decisions, have too many opinions, own a passport or travel within the country without written permission from a male relative. She couldn’t challenge her husband, his father, her own male next of kin, her teachers and rabbi and elders on any matter concerning herself or her body.
“I could have been somebody if I were a man,” she kept telling my sisters and me. “I could have done something with my life.”
I didn’t know this yet, but my mother was far from alone in feeling this way. Years later, in America, I would hear the echo of her sense of loss in the writings of other Iranian women. I would read it in Farideh Goldin’s 2003 memoir, Wedding Song, about growing up female in a working-class, observant Jewish family in Shiraz. I would read it again in Azar Nafisi’s 2008 memoir, Things I’ve Been Silent About, about life in a secular, upper-class Muslim family in Tehran. Their stories would remind me of that famous line by the French writer, Marguerite Duras: “Very early in my life, it was already too late.”
In Wedding Song, Goldin’s mother is born into humble circumstances in the Jewish ghetto of Hamedan. In 1951, at age 13, she comes home from school one day to learn that she has been promised her in marriage to a much older man from Shiraz. She begs her parents not to send her away, but to no avail. Her soon-to-be-husband has decided to marry because he needs a healthy, young woman to do chores in his house and wait on his mother and siblings. The lowest creature on the Shirazi family’s food chain, the little girl from Hamedan will be imprisoned, enslaved, beaten, and humiliated not only by the men, but also by the other women in her new family. Desperate to escape, she writes letter after letter to her own parents, asking them to bring her home. Their answer is long in coming, and then only to remind her that “her husband’s house was her home and she had no other home.”
It is a particular horror of so many women’s stories that the cruelty they suffer is as much caused by men as by other women. Goldin grows up watching her grandmother and aunts humiliate her mother. One of those aunts, when Goldin is 15, complains to her father that “everyone in the community knows that your daughter reads nonstop, corrupting herself, giving us all a bad name.” The father builds a bonfire and burns all of Goldin’s books.
This collective shame, inherited and passed through generations, has always been an extraordinarily effective self-policing measure among the oppressed, especially if they are female. The threat of it—of having one’s good name tainted by the actions of a family member, however distant—turned generations of women into jailers and tormentors of their own daughters. And though it was an easier ax to wield among the poor and the religiously observant in pre-revolutionary Iran, it didn’t spare the upper classes.
Azar Nafisi’s Things I’ve Been Silent About exquisitely draws the arc of 20th-century Iranian women’s fortunes by tracing the fate of four generations of her own family. She begins with her grandmother who, in the 1920s and ’30s, lived in a world that “sanctioned stoning, polygamy, and the marriage of girls as young as nine. Women were scarcely allowed to leave their homes, and when they did they were chaperoned and covered from head to toe. There were no schools for women, although some among the nobility provided their daughters with private tutors.” Two decades later, Nafisi’s mother is able to appear in public without a veil, go to a French school, and meet and fall in love with her first husband while dancing at a party.” In the 1960s and ’70s, Nafisi herself attended university, dressed freely in Western fashion, and “took our education and our books and parties for granted.” By the mid ’80s, her daughter would be subject to “the same laws that had been repealed during my grandmother’s and my mother’s lifetimes.”
The threat of shame turned generations of women into jailers and tormentors of their own daughters.
“If only I were a man,” is a refrain that, like me, Nafisi grew up hearing. Her mother was the smartest and most promising student in her class; she once dreamt of becoming a doctor. Like so many others of her generation, she is “an in-between woman who felt that her capabilities and talents were stifled by her condition.”
The “condition” is that of being female in a universe where educated women are assumed to be ugly, or too smart to make a good wife, or both. Married to a man from a well-known family, Nafisi’s mother is effectively a prisoner in her father-in-law’s house. Married a second time, she resents the domestic life for which she has sacrificed a possible career. She lives what to her own mind is an inconsequential life, one not worth talking or writing about. She is, in the words of her best friend, “another intelligent woman gone to waste.”
It’s a devastating recognition—to know that one is worthless, or worth less; that one’s life is of no consequence, a story not worth telling. Because they did not work outside the house, had no financial or civic power, Nafisi’s mother and mine, Goldin’s mother and grandmother—Iranian women of every faith going back for millennia were made to believe they were without value. They had barely begun to come out of the shadows, test their voices and push at the muzzle during the ill-fated reign of Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, when the Ayatollah arrived.
For all the hand-wringing in the West over the past four decades about the causes of the Islamic Revolution, the reason is actually rather simple: Iran has been a deeply religious country for 1,400 years. Its history during that time has been shaped by an ongoing duel between the ruling monarchies and the mullahs who believe they have a divine mandate to rule. The Ayatollah’s victory in Iran was an aberration only in that it was absolute and uncompromising: Rather than try to maintain the upper hand, the mullahs entirely did away with the monarchy.
They did so, it’s important to realize, with the support not only of millions of religiously observant men, but also women.
One of those women, in a tiny village of 100 families on the Caspian shore, was Masih Alinejad’s mother, as she recounts in the new memoir, The Wind in My Hair. The poorest of the poor, her spine permanently curved because of the years spent working the fields, she embraced the revolution both for its religious nature and its promise of looking after the mostaazzafin—the meek—of the country. She raised six children in a one-room hut made of cow dung, mud, clay, and straw. Her husband and sons volunteered to fight in the Iran-Iraq war. She forced her daughters to wear, beginning at age 7, not only a maghnaeh (a combination hooded neck and head scarf that resembled a habit, tightly covering the forehead, chin, neck and part of the chest) and a manteau (a loose-fitting, longish coat, and a long skirt), but also a chador. And yet one of those daughters—Masih—will soon become Iran’s first and most influential anti-hijab activist, an international symbol of both the strength of character of Iranian women and the hardness of the obstacles that surround them.
Born two years before the revolution, Masih instinctively chafes at the chador and questions the gender-based double standards of Iranian society. The family is so poor that she has no warm shoes in which to walk to school in the snow. When she finally does get a pair of boots, she has to share them with a cousin. Because there is no money for books, she has to “liberate” (read steal) them from the stores or the public library of the nearest town.
Forever the insurgent, in high school she gets together in secret to read political texts. Soon enough, she’s carried off to prison and sentenced to five years and 74 lashes. She’s 18 years old, engaged to a boy she has agreed to marry only because it is her ticket out of the village and, she discovers when one of her interrogators breaks the news, pregnant.
The pregnancy buys her a reprieve from the sentence, but brings great shame onto the family. There’s a quickly arranged wedding, a move to Tehran, the birth of a son, then a divorce when Masih’s husband falls in love with another woman. By age 21 she is impecunious, unemployed, alone in the big city, a former convict, a high school dropout, and heartache for her parents.
If ever there was a woman who could have embodied Marguerite Duras’ sentiments—“very early in my life, it was already too late”—it’s Alinejad. But far from being a chronicle of defeat and loss, The Wind in My Hair is the tale of how this 5-foot-tall village girl with a northern Iranian accent that makes her barely comprehensible to the rest of the country ascends every bulwark and barrier constructed for the specific purpose of keeping her contained. It would have been an exceptional story anywhere in the world; for an Iranian woman of Alinejad’s religious and socio-economic background it is nothing short of astounding.
Soon after she is abandoned by her husband, she finds work as an intern in a daily newspaper. Within a year she has written a front-page article. A few months after that she becomes the parliamentary correspondent who gets to interview the president, expose corruption among the MPs, openly question the validity of all the laws and practices that are designed to keep women in check. By 2008 she has raised the ire of too many powers that be, and must leave Iran for the United Kingdom. From there, she launches a nationwide anti-hijab campaign. She wins several human rights awards, becomes a presenter and producer for Voice of America’s Persian language program, and claims upward of 1.5 million followers on social media.
Unlike the dozens of other memoirs and autobiographies by Iranian women that have surfaced in the last 20 years, The Wind in My Hair is a riveting story of battles won and demons defeated. Here, at last, is one Iranian woman who does not wish she were a man, does not feel wasted, refuses to remain powerless. Crucially, she has inspired thousands of other women, mostly inside the country and at great risk to their own and their families’ safety, to defy hijab laws.
How did she do it?
It is true that she has been blessed with a rare charisma and, depending on how you look at it, cursed with a natural inability to accept limitations that the majority of her fellow citizens would consider immutable. She has, and continues to pay a hefty price for that inability or unwillingness: to be in solitary confinement in an Iranian prison in her late teens, exiled from home and family in her 20s, cursed and—literally—spat at in public in her early 30s; to be a source of shame, even today, for the people she loves, criticized and verbally attacked by a good portion of her fellow Iranians—these are not trifling losses, especially for a person with a traditional upbringing.
But there is a much more significant, more monumentally novel basis for Alinejad’s success, and it hearkens back to an assumption that, for so long, had defined the average Iranian woman’s self-image: the idea that goodness equates obedience.
It is a notion so deeply engrained in the national psyche that even the blackest of the black sheep among us have rarely, if ever, challenged until now. If you didn’t have the advantage of belonging to a certain financial or ancestral class, or the freedom to leave the country and start elsewhere; if you were one of the more than 40 million middle- and working-class Iranian women like Alinejad, you could be virtuous and compliant, or defiant and damned.
This is what drove Goldin’s grandmother to give away her daughter in marriage to a stranger from another town, and never step in to stop his abuse of her. It’s what compelled Goldin’s father to burn her books, what kept Nafisi “silent” about the abuse she suffered as a young girl in Iran. It’s what allows hijab–wearing women in Iran today to verbally and physically assault those who defy hijab laws for a day or an hour.
And it may be the one false idol that, if smashed, will bring down the roof and let collapse the walls of the house that the mullahs built.
Read more about 40 years of the Iranian Revolution in Tablet’s special series.
Gina B. Nahai is an author and emeritus professor of creative writing at the University of Southern California.