Across Iran, in major cities and small towns across a diverse country with a broad ranging populace, protests have erupted against a brutal regime that has maintained a choke hold on its citizens for nearly forty years; and women, are taking part in an unabashed way.
In 1979 there was a violent revolution that was billed as a populist movement of ordinary Iranians taking back their government from a secular monarchy. But it devolved fast into an iron-fisted theocracy which swiftly executed dissenters, hung brutes by crane in city centers and broke its populist promises to a hopeful people almost as quickly and easily as it made them. An ill educated, inarticulate, small minded cleric stepped off an Air France jet liner into swarms of adoring Iranian fans that chanted his name, and pinned upon him their hopes and dreams of a better Iran. Soon, those hopes faded as the dreams of a theologian began to look more like a national nightmare, particularly for women who were hurriedly cloaked under Islamic veil.
Since then, the resistance has been on. Iranian women have been relentless in their passive and active fight for rights. Within weeks of the theocratic takeover of the judiciary, Iran rolled back hard won legal victories for women in the courts, and regressed to a medieval code that gave only half the weight of a man’s testimony to a woman’s, accorded only half the inheritance rights to sisters compared to brothers, required Islamic attire and modest body covering from head to toe for women in public and rolled back the marriage age from a civilized 18 years of age to a childish nine. Women were incredulous, and as they fought the onslaught of regression, they were beaten and brutalized with batons and acid thrown into their faces. Women in dark chadors tasked with enforcing the new moral order would hide razors beneath their billowing veils, then slash unsuspecting girls who dared to show a lock of their hair, or a daring ankle.
Still, though they veiled, women never gave up. Within a decade the Iranian Islamic hejab was looser than the Mullahs ever had in mind. Women experimented with color and style, while shop windows boasted fashionable versions of coverings hardly worthy of the modesty inherent in the Arabic root word “hijab”, meaning to screen or seclude. Women refused to give up makeup, laughter, music, fashion, cigarettes, nail polish and even hair color. They also persisted in attaining an education.
By the early 2000s, Iranian women made up more than 60% of university students and graduates. They refused to give up their place in the workforce, and although their numbers dwindled with only 25% of graduates emerging into the nation’s working population, they were present in government offices and entrepreneurial start-ups across the country. Bankers, traders and local shop owners were not uncommonly female, and while the workforce was unfriendly at times, with jeers and harassment the norm, women didn’t relent. They persisted.
I lived in Islamic Iran from 1990-1994. I was among the working class, as an advertising executive at first and later as a journalist and editor at a newspaper. I can attest to the robust presence of women in the workforce, and the downward pressure to yield jobs to men who were head of households. Still, I went to work each day to a tense but welcoming boss, and an opportunity to grow.
That was then; this is now. Today, economic opportunity in Iran is scant, and patience has run lean. A young Iranian who worked hard for an education and hoped for economic growth commensurate with experience in a land replete with natural resources and a strategic geographic location in one of the world’s most volatile regions, has all but given up hope for a brighter future. They’ve also evolved to a place where over time, thick skin has formed as a barrier to the scare tactics of the Islamic regime. People are unabashedly fed up with the restrictions of an old-man’s order, rooted in an unyielding religion anchored in an outdated patriarchy. They want freedom.
This is where the Iranian diaspora diverges. Here is where comfortable Iranians living outside the repressive borders of a land they left behind can’t agree. All over social media, they argue over whether or not we should support our compatriots on the streets of Iran, risking life and limb to gain a modicum of the freedoms we so readily enjoy, or attain a sliver of the opportunity we all take for granted in our comfortable lives.
The US is home to the largest contingent of that global diaspora. L.A., a “sister city” to Tehran since 1972, where the largest population of Iranian Americans reside and where protests denouncing the “Muslim ban”, for example, were robust, people are vacillating between silence and support. Here, Iranians have come to escape the pressures of living in Iran. For wide ranging reasons, from a desire for personal freedoms or economic gain, to familial ties or educational pursuits, to an emotional need for self-determination, hundreds of thousands of Iranians have risked lives and invested fortunes into landing on US shores. Still, even here, from a safe distance, they fear supporting the protesters.
Some fear the ugly hand of the IRI reaching clear across the globe to harm them, some disbelieve the authenticity of the protests claiming they must be staged; some find it convenient to blame superpowers for the meddling that led to anger on the street, and some fear that promoting the protests, supporting the protesters and showing solidarity will lead to the fueling of a proxy war not unlike that which unfolded in Syria. This all could be true. But what is undeniable is that Iranians from all walks of life, in a “sister city’, are today risking their lives to be heard, and we owe it to them to acknowledge their voice. Whether they are crying out with hope or for change, for moderation or for revolution, to attain personal dignity or economic opportunity, social freedoms or legal rights, we ought to hear them.