Of Air and Freedom -- Going for a Run in Tehran

This morning as I was jogging I remembered what it was like to go for a jog in Iran.

The stifling plastic garment called a "badgyr" (wind catcher) I had to wear over my body in order to look gender neutral, lest the gaze of a male graze my way; the head scarf I had to secure to my slippery hair with pins and a head band, lest a lock of hair peak out from beneath and excite a man that happens by...and the jittery manner in which I would find my way around the streets with my eyes darting side to side ensuring that I was alone and not offensive to an onlooker, all came rushing back to me.

As I wound my way through the quiet, tree-lined streets of my American neighborhood on this foggy morning, I pretended I was back in Tehran, and jogging with apprehension again. I closed my eyes to transport myself back to the slightly exhaust laced morning air, the noise of sporadic car honks even at dawn and the sounds of people on foot in the distance... all came back slowly but painstakingly.

I straddle these worlds now more than ever with all the grim news of human suffering around the globe. Back then I was a young person on the brink of adulthood, relatively naive about the horrors of the world and the trials that human beings face just trying to live peaceful lives in unstable communities. My hurdles until then in life had been what college to go to or what car to afford. None had prepared me for the world I was about to greet.

This morning I pretended an oncoming car in the distance was a 'comeeteh' guard car approaching to apprehend me, for the un-Islamic act of breathing morning fresh air while jogging and being female. Comeeteh is the national guard corps that deploys on the streets of Iran's cities and towns to ensure proper behavior on the part of helpless citizens who are often herded, shoved or otherwise brutalized into cars that take them to detention centers or jails where a punishment suited to Islamic guidelines is expeditiously ordered with little right to a robust defense.

As I opened my eyes in a respite from my self-imposed strain, I noticed a band of gardeners ahead of me clearing brush from the front yard of a home. Again, I closed my eyes to remember the one time I was jogging in the provincial capitol of Rasht, in the province of Mazandaran. This is a beautiful province with lush landscape, laden with streams and flowers abound. As I jogged along the bank of a stream in solitude, or so I thought, deep in my own thoughts, a small stone hit my knee. Startled I looked up, then to the side a little bit ahead of me on the other side of the bank, I thought I could make out a moving figure. I suppose by instinct I would have either had to stop or speed up, so I sped ahead, and as I looked to the side I saw 2 boys staring at me laughing. One of them started picking up stones and hurling them at me while the other pulled down his pants and started fondling himself. I was aghast. My heart was racing. I couldn't breathe hard enough to both run and feed oxygen to my pounding heart. I had never seen such a thing. I barely understood what the second boy was doing. I just ran...

Back at home, I gave this incident a lot of thought. I replayed it over and over in my mind. The way my kids now play video games where they can view the arena from different angles by moving the keyboard cursors, I reviewed the ordeal from every angle my mind would allow me to conjure. I couldn't make much sense of it. I didn't understand what I had been doing wrong or why I had been accosted. Years later, with the distance that only time can provide, I put the pieces together like a half-finished puzzle. Still incomplete, I thought about stonings in many parts of the world, and how women are punished for their moral transgressions or conduct perceived to be dishonorable. The only sense I could make of it was that to those provincial boys who were likely born after the Islamic revolution of 1979, I was an anomaly in my parka and head scarf, running for pleasure along the banks of a river. I was so alien to them, that coupled with being female, I was worthy of a stoning. I was so out of their ordinary, so unimaginable, so incomprehensible that I was to be vanquished. The stones were hurled as protest and the pants were pulled down as a sign of power - a way to humiliate me and enforce their male supremacy.

These days as I run I think a lot about women running for their lives in war torn areas, or rushing to save their children's lives in places where turmoil has prevailed for generations. As a car approaches I speed up to beat it to the corner or to get to a side street. To me, its a mind game, but to many this constant chase is a reality. Just this week a cease fire in Syria was to allow humanitarian aid in to relieve some of the worst human suffering witnessed in decades. The aid convoys came under attack. And though women and children were set free, men and boys between the ages of 15 ay 54 were left behind to submit to ID checks. The Assad government is said to have a list of possible rebel names and the UN agreed to the stipulation. I can't t help but pang for the mother who is forced to leave behind her 15 year old son, and trust that Assad's list is accurate and that her son will be treated fairly. I cringe to think how she must feel walking our of a war zone relieved to save herself and her daughters, but guilt and a revolting sense of helplessness at having to leave behind her sons. By what arbitrary measure did we as a civilization decide that a boy of 15 should be treated like a man in the war zone that has become the Middle East? And why do we not look that tinder box of a region squarely in the face and decide what can be done to relieve its human suffering? By what yard stick have we decided that letting in a convoy of aid trucks and then firing on it, after years of indiscriminate killing in residential communities full of families and children, is somehow a peace offering? And why have we accepted the persistence of a murderous regime that has wreaked horror onto the lives of its people?

On another hand I read that a law in Afghanistan is set to prevent family members of a female victim of domestic violence from testifying in her defense or to corroborate her story. Excuse me for being a simpleton, but who else other than family members is likely to have borne witness to the abuse? What kind of law is it that effectively prevents a woman from being able to bring charges against her abusers? Is that what we fought and died to achieve in Afghanistan? Because if this is acceptable we didn't need to fight the Taliban.

An then again, in the distance, I see the diplomatic rapprochement with Iran taking shape under a discourse that is almost exclusively centered around the nuclear issue. But what about the humanitarian issue? What about the status of women in a nation where more than 50% of its graduates are female? Is there no room to speak of women, and their basic rights or their fundamental guarantees of legal and civil equality?

When did we sign on to a world where deals are expeditiously made behind closed doors, and people's rights are trampled, then glossed over with pithy voice overs and the prevalence of group think? Or has it always been like this and we just aren't willing to stand up for change.

Most of the time, I thank my lucky stars for the fact that my interactions with the nightmarish conditions people endure around the globe in the name of tradition or for the sake of politics are figments of my imagination. But that doesn't stop me from wanting to raise my voice to help others live in the same measure of safety. Don't you?