A Walk Into Darkness
The repression of Iranian women.
April 1, 1989
Apr 1, 1989
11 Min read time
The repression of Iranian women.
I sprawled across the stone bench, naked, with only a damp towel between me and the warm slab. Steam filled the room and lulled me into a deep rest.
A timid knock at the door broke my thoughts. “Ba-lee,” I called, wrapping the towel around my body, “Yes?”
An old woman, wearing a long black chador, the cotton cover worn by devout Iranian women, stuck her head throught the door. “Pepsi, Madame?” she asked, motioning to the tray in her hands.
“Why not? You only live once,” I answered in English, blinking my eyes in a Persian gesture meaning “Yes.”
“Do you love the shah?” the woman asked warily as she poured the drink.
“What’s to love?” I replied, in the Persian manner of answering a question with a question.
She smiled and handed me the glass.
So there I sat in Chalous–naked, drinking Pepsi in a public bathhouse, and talking politics with a chadori, as the Iranian women who wore chadors were called.
It was 1979 and my husband, Hashem, and I had spent the night before on the rooftop of our mountain home in Tehran watching the army fire into chanting mobs in the city below. Hospitals in Tehran were running out of blood and bandages, a general strike was in effect in the city, and thousands of armed soldiers were joining the revolution every day.
We had gone to Chalous, a resort town on the Caspian Sea, to escape the revolution in Tehran, but it had followed us.
In the square outside the bathhouse, two Moslem priests were addressing a large crowd of people. I pulled the tattered drape aside, wiped the steam off the tiny window, and peeked into the street. The mullahs stood in the back of a pickup truck, wailing through a loud speaker to a gathering crowd.
There were women in the group, some dressed in tight jeans and rhinestone-studded sweatshirts, others in high heels and still others in chadors. It was another political rally in a land where such activity was strictly forbidden, where speaking one’s mind about politics could lead to disappearance in the night, to torture, and to bloody, violent death.
These were the last days of the revolution. The country stood on the threshold of modernity, while a messianic ayatollah lured it back toward medieval fanatacism. An anxious nation held its breath. Iranian women, whose quest for freedom had just begun, were especially concerned. They watched the country totter between a hated monarchy and an undefined Islaminc fundamentalism, and wondered what their role would be in the new society.
In the dressing room, I dried my blonde hair, put on make-up, and went to the foyer to join Hashem. His curly, blue-black hair gleamed in the sun-light and the wrinkles around his eyes crinkled into a smile when he saw me, although he had been waiting over half an hour. He, like most Iranians, was infinitely patient.
“Come on,” he said. “I want to buy a fish.”
At the market, Hashem haggled good-naturedly over a fat, shimmering sturgeon. “Who’s going to clean this fish?” I asked.
“Don’t worry, not you,” Hashem grinned.
We took it back to the cottage we had rented. Zara, the landlords’ eighteen-year-old daughter, grabbed it. “I must cook this for you,” she said.
“No, I will do it myself,” Hashem insisted
“Let me have that pleasure,” Zara replied. But it was all a game. Iran is, in many ways, still a feudal society and class lines are strictly drawn. Zara would clean the fish, cook it, and serve it to us. And we all knew it. Much of life in Iran is games and make believe. But they are pleasant and gracious and make life sweet.
“We’ll be back for lunch at 2:00,” Hashem said. This meant that we might come back sometime that afternoon.
We strolled across the street to my father-in-law’s villa, our one-year-old son, Michael, perched on Hashem’s shoulders.
The family, the heart of Iranian life, was gathered. A samovar bubbled in the corner, and the red Persian carpets were littered with tiny, steaming glasses of fragrant tea. Brass trays laden with fruit lay in the center of the rugs.
Everyone stood when we entered and the ritual of handshaking and kissing began. Michael was passed from person to person–tickled, hugged, and waltzed across the room.
“Betty,” Hashem’s aunts and uncles cried, “Michael is a very beautiful boy.” Iranians are shameless flatterers.
We settled down on the carpet, our bare feet tucked under. My mother in law called for a towel which she draped decorously over my knees in case I moved awkwardly. None of the women in Hashem’s family wore the chador, but they all had these “modesty” towels. The pride of an Iranian family lies largely in the purity of its women.
“Have you been to California?” Reza, a sixty-year-old family friend asked me after fresh tea had been poured.
“Many times,” I lied. What good is an American who has never been to California?
“Last summer I was in California,” Reza said. “I am going to live there next year when I retire, in Beverly Hills.”
I doubted that, but it was probably Reza’s dream, and dreams and reality often mingle in Iran.
“But they say California will fall into the ocean in the next one hundred years,” said Hashem’s father.
“So, then I will stay only ninety-nine years,” replied Reza with a flip of his hand.
One of Zara’s sisters appeared from the kitchen with a tray of pastries scented with rosewater. Her hair, unusually long and luxuriant, was covered with a black scarf.
“Why do you wear that scarf?” Hashem asked,
“The mullah says that every uncovered hair on our heads will turn into a serpent,” she replied sheepishly.
“And do you believe him?” Hashem asked.
“Doesn’t he know more than I?” she replied, scurrying back to the kitchen. The family sat clicking their tongues and shaking their heads at such fanatacism.
Iran is a land of mystery, superstition, and deeply-rooted religious beliefs. It is a land where peasant women still believe that a prayer, written on their inner thigh, can capture the heart of their beloved, and the evil eye is feared.
“Forget about religion and politics,” Reza cried. “We are here to get away from that.”
Reza’s thirty-year-old wife sat by his side. Down the street, in a house surrounded by a rose garden, his older wife spent her holiday with the children she had borne with Reza, including their daughter, Suza, a woman in her early twenties who was visiting from London where she lived.
“I hate this country,” Suza told me later that day. “For you is fun because you are foreign. But you don’t know what my mother suffered when my father married Mahin,” Suza continued as she looked down the table at Reza and his young wife. “Many women in my mother’s generation were humiliated when their husbands took a second wife. Now, it is not a common practice, thank God,” she said, spreading her hands palms up and looking into the heavens.
We never ate our fish that day, but Zara and her family said it was delicious. We dined on fessengun instead, an exotic stew of pomegranate juice, ground walnuts, and chicken eaten over steamed rice.
After dinner, Hashem’s twenty-three-year-old sister, Soroya, danced for us. Iranian dance is like Greek belly dancing but more refined and sensual. The virgin Soroya danced late into the night, a scarf tied low around her hips. Her hands swayed to the discordant Persian music, her eyebrows rose and fell, her hips undulated rhythmically, in that land of veiled sexuality.
The next day we left Chalous and drove back through the rain forest of northern Iran into the Elburz mountains with their bleak brown vistas, thin trickling streams, and meager flocks of sheep.
In a mountain village we bought kabobs which the villagers had grilled over charcoal. Sitting under olive trees, we watched women draw water from a communal well and carry it home on their heads, as their mothers had done before them. A young woman of about sixteen, anxious and eager to please, served our lunch. She stood behind a tree, her one-year-old baby on her back, and watched our every move as we ate. “It was my honor,” she said, when we thanked her for the food. She stared at her dusty shoes and said, “It was my duty.”
At the car, she presented me with a red plastic dish containing two duck eggs. “Madame,” she smiled shyly, “welcome to our village.” Then in rapid Farsi, the language of Iran, she asked Hashem if she could touch my hair. “I have never touched hair of gold,” she said.
She ran her slim brown hand over my hair and then took her baby’s tiny hand and placed it on my head. “She also has not touched English hair,” she said.
We drove into Tehran through the wealthy suburb of Shimiran, where chauffeurs lounged outside the gates, and nannies walked their charges up and down the sidewalks.
Even there the walls were covered with dancing Persian graffiti declaring, “Death to the Shah.” At night soldiers washed the walls, leaving big smears, and the next night demonstrators wrote, “You cannot wash away shame.”
We stopped at the American Supermarket around the corner from the Niavaran Palace where the shah lived. Here, among the rows of imported cheeses, frozen Sara Lee pies, and Australian lamb, the wealthy women of Iran shopped, their Charles Jourdan shoes clicking down the aisles, followed by the shuffling feet of servants who grabbed whatever the diamond and emerald studded hands motioned toward.
On the outside wall of the super-market a bold red painting read, “Thieves of the people, beware.”
This warning became prophecy the following week when the shah, king of kings, shadow of god, went into his palace garden, filled a mosaic box with Iranian earth, packed his bags, and quit Iran. Iranians, from all walks of life, were jubilant. They envisioned a more open society, a less corrupt government. Their joy overflowed into the streets, where much of life in Iran is lived. We drove slowly up Pahlavi Avenue, the main street in Tehran, that night. The carnation-strewn streets were filled with people dancing to Arabic music blaring from transistor radios. Women in tight jeans danced with abandon, their red nails flashing through the air. Children formed circles around their mothers and imitated their steps.
But the joy of Iran’s women was short-lived.
The next week, female newscasters began wearing black scarves around their elegantly coiffed heads. Day care centers closed, and female judges were replaced by males.
My friend and neighbor, Negar, an architect, who had always dressed in chic French or Italian clothes, began to wear the chador. “It’s a kind of protection,” she said, “like when American ladies study karate.”
“But they only use karate if they are attacked,” I said.
“I know, but my husband wants me to do it anyway,” she admitted.
Several days later an Armenian friend, Aida, came over to tell us about a women’s rights march she had attended at Tehran University. “The Islamic guards were everywhere,” she said sarcastically, “protecting our morals and guarding our purity, with their shirts unbuttoned down to their navels.”
Aida was a Christian and the only member of her family to support the revolution. “They are against it not because they love the shah,” she said, “but because it is a religious movement. But for me it is a new beginning. I love the revolution.”
Many Iranian women loved the revolution. The poorer ones had walked the front lines against the shah’s elite guards, thinking that his soldiers would not fire at women. Zara and Aida and Soroya loved the revolution because they thought it would lead to a more just society for everyone.
Our housekeeper, Fateh, a divorced woman with two children, loved the revolution, too. She saw it as an opening, a chance for a better life for her children.
She came to us one day and asked us to drive her to her ancestral village to visit her sick mother. In the village square a group of women had gatherd around the local mullah to discuss the shortage of soap which had occurred since the revolution.
“Did Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed, beg for soap?” the mullah asked the women indignantly.
“And did Mohammed ride around in a bullet-proof Mercedes?” Hashem muttered as we walked through the village, past the mullah’s armored limousine. Groups of women, draped in black with only their dark eyes exposed, scurried down the dusty road.
These were the women of Iran who had loved the revolution. But it had not loved them back.
One by one, the rights of Iranian women were taken away. Women could no longer sue for divorce, they could not rent apartments, or wear make-up. Their faces disappeared behind obligatory Islamic dress, symbolizing their removal from society.
Weeks later, Hashem and I packed our bags and joined the exodus from Iran. We left behind the darkness of the chador where there had once been the flash of color, the solemn chords of Islamic changts where Persian music had once tinkled like silver coins, and, saddest of all, injustice where there had had been injustice.
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April 01, 1989
11 Min read time