By now you may have heard about the protests in Iran, sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini. The scope of the protests is remarkable, sweeping across cities around the country. They’ve even led to international protests in support of the Iranian women who are leading the charge. As an Iranian American Muslim born in the United States, I’ve been anxiously watching this unfold. It gives me tingly feelings of hope mixed with fear and then . . . more fear for all my family living in Tehran. I try to keep sight of the optimism because for the first time in a very long time, this movement poses a real threat to the authoritarian regime of the Islamic Republic. This movement could free the people I love.
Like untold thousands before her, Amini was stopped for violating the dress code. In Iran, women are required to conform to the “hijab,” which is usually a headscarf and loose-fitting clothes that hide the contours of a woman’s body. Apparently, Amini’s headscarf was too loose and not “properly” fitting. She was detained for this violation, and she died in detention.
The government officially attributes her death to a pre-existing heart condition—but, of course, there are those who know the variability of truth. Especially in these situations. Especially with women.
Women, including the women in my own family, have been the symbolic standard-bearers of Islam in Iran since the revolution of 1979. Before the revolution, women in Iran looked like women in any Western country, with their miniskirts and bell bottoms. But Western street style masked the brutalities of the Shah’s regime with its secret police, detentions, and suppression of speech.
To hear my aunts tell it, in 1979, the revolution felt necessary—but the Islamic regime that resulted from wasn’t what the revolutionaries had bargained for. In fact, Ayatollah Khomeini’s first mandate required that all female employees wear the hijab in government offices. By 1983, women were required to wear the hijab everywhere. Women became billboards, people who could send a message to the world: Look, we’re an Islamic Republic, as you can see by these headscarves. Women were a marketing opportunity and controlling them was core to the Ayatollah’s vision of Iran.
Growing up in Palm Springs, California, I remember family members having postdinner conversations that started out fun but invariably turned to hardened frustration over the Ayatollah’s outbursts.
Outbursts such as: “These coquettish women,” he said in an Italian magazine, “who wear makeup and put their necks, hair, and bodies on display in the streets. . . . They do not know how to be useful, neither to society, nor politically or vocationally. And the reason is because they distract and anger people by exposing themselves.” These were talking points that seemed to say to the world, We’re a real power! Look how well we’ve subjugated these women!
But during my childhood, I didn’t see or feel any of this—not at first, at least. I’ve only ever experienced Iran as a transient. We used to summer in Tehran for weeks at a time—not quite the Hamptons, but as a kid, I loved it. Nearly my entire extended family lived there: more than a dozen aunts and uncles, both sets of grandparents, the whole Persian shebang. They showered me with love and attention, with faloodeh and saffron pudding, and they provided me with an endless supply of cousins to play with. I have entirely fond memories of my time there.
This movement poses a real threat to the authoritarian regime of the Islamic Republic. This movement could free the people I love.
We skipped a summer at some point and, when I turned 11, I was told that, when we visited, I had to wear a headscarf and a full-length jacket in public. In short, I had to abide by the hijab. Girls in Iran reach this horrendous milestone at age nine. As a tween who had a penchant for pop music and eye rolling, that totally sucked. I remember feeling hot and uncomfortable; I remember not understanding how loosely everything had to fit. I remember wishing I could feel the sun on my skin.
Again, I was transient, a tourist to this kind of oppression. At the end of the summer, I could go back home and walk into my middle school wearing shorts and a cute tank top. I could experiment with lipstick. My cousins, on the other hand, were stuck wearing the Ayatollah’s will on their head every day.
The people who enforce the dress code? The much-loathed Morality Police. They carry rifles and walk the streets, staring at ladies and waiting for them to slip up. Often the Morality Police is staffed by other women, colloquially referred to as “the Sisters.” As a Southern California girl, obsessed with boys, fro-yo, and glitter pens, I tensed up at the sight of the Sisters. Their black chadors and their AK47s felt . . . a bit much.
One summer when I was 16 or 17, I was casually strolling with my aunt in the streets of Tehran, whistling that one Skee-Lo song about wishing to be a bit taller when we passed a couple of the Sisters. My aunt pinched my arm. I was like, “Ow! What?” She leaned in and quietly told me that I should stop whistling Western songs because we didn’t want to get in trouble from the Sisters. In that moment, a whistled cover of Skee-Lo could make me an enemy of the state.
On another occasion, maybe when I was 19 or 20 years old, I was stopped for wearing sunglasses deemed too fashionable. Not to brag, but I have great taste in accessories—and that taste can be very intimidating to autocratic regimes. A Sister stopped me and asked me to remove my off-brand aviator sunglasses. Of course, I immediately did because she was carrying a gun and was deeply scary. I mumbled an apology. Was it an apology for needing sunglasses in the sun? Was it an apology for the existence of the sun itself?
Around the same time, my mother was walking with one of her sisters and was also stopped for fashionable sunglasses. The police asked to her remove them, and in a moment of panic, she handed them over to her sister, as if to say, These are hers, I don’t know anything about sunglasses. They laugh when they tell the story now.
I was confused by the government’s obsession with sunglasses. What I didn’t realize then was that sunglasses were seen as a way of hiding eye makeup. Oh yes, makeup was outlawed, too. They thought of how to control every square inch of a woman’s body.
These run-ins with the Morality Police were almost cute—a scolding, not much else. But I have plenty of family members who have had far more serious encounters in Tehran. Some have been detained in jail for hours, for days. Because so many forms of courtship are outlawed, I have a family member who was detained for being on a date. The couple was lashed as punishment. Lashed. It took them two weeks of lying on their stomachs to recover.
For Iranian women, it’s never a question of if you’ll be detained but when. My aunt was once stopped while carrying a bag of groceries. The strap had pulled her sleeve back, revealing her wrist. She was with her two small children. They detained her and the children in a car and released them after 30 minutes. But if she had said something suspect in any way, she could have met the fate of Mahsa Amini. She could have died because of an exposed wrist.
From a very early age, visiting Iran, I got the overwhelming feeling that, these people don’t want to continue living this way. Whether it was my aunts’ and uncles’ persistent concern over the lack of job opportunities (Iran’s diplomacy had made it an international pariah, replete with sanctions) or the women around me constantly cursing their headscarves, it was clear that the oppression had taken its toll. On top of it being inhumane, violent, and cruel, it’s simply exhausting.
It is Iranian women who have carried the physical burden of a totalitarian regime. They’ve done it without crumbling, without completely losing themselves. They’ve managed to be incredible engineers and scientists, Olympians and Nobel Laureates. We, in America, flip out if we’re gently asked to use mass transit or conserve electricity or vote. Can we even conceive of this kind of resilience? Can we imagine standing up to guns and tanks and torture?
Yet, we really should because if we’re not careful with our own rights in America, we might need to borrow from the strength these women have shown. Through the banal act of visiting family over so many years, I (temporarily) experienced what it was like to be a woman without rights. It helped me appreciate that, for my entire life, I’ve had the rights women in Iran have been yearning for. Sometimes that makes me feel guilty, but more importantly, witnessing that oppression has inspired me to become an American patriot and activist.
I stand with Iranian women and hope that our leaders not only support them but also learn from them. This regime has put every imaginable barrier in their way and nevertheless, they persist. I hope this movement brings real change. I hope my cousins get to feel the sun on their skin.
Negin Farsad Negin Farsad is a writer, social-justice comedian, director and actor based in New York City.