Young Afghan-American woman found Iran was “therapy”
By Fariba Nawa
June 4, 1997
Pacific News Service
For the first time in 15 years, Persian words sang in my ears. All around me, no one was speaking English. There were no signs for McDonald’s or Coca-Cola. And no woman was “exposed.” I was in the holy city of Mashad, Iran, the land of the “terrorists” and “fanatics,” to see my grandparents, refugees from Afghanistan.
After eight months in Cairo, where American pop-culture is omnipresent, I had braced myself for the changes I would have to face. On the plane, my blonde hair was covered with a scarf knotted under my throat, Iranian style. Although I wore jeans and a blazer, I had tucked a black robe in my backpack, ready to don it once I reached the airport.
The elderly Iranian woman next to me, like the other women passengers, was wearing a long, dark coat. She was telling me how she planned to smuggle a Disney videotape through customs for her grandson. Suddenly, an Iranian man dressed in a cleric’s turban and robe interrupted us. “Miss, are you thinking of departing the plane in those clothes?” he asked.
I took out my cloak and showed it to him. He nodded his head and smiled.
We reached Tehran at 2 a.m., and I discovered there were no more tickets to Mashad. Too sleepy to notice, I stumbled into the “brothers” line for standby seats. After three hours, a flight attendant poked his head out of a small window, pointed a finger at me, and said, “Miss, are you illiterate? The line for women is on the other side. Get out of this line!”
Dumbfounded, I quickly made my way through a crowd of men and stood next to a woman. I heard several men tried to calm the attendant. “She’s a foreigner, she doesn’t know the rules here.”
In Mashad, I felt safe. My family showered me with love and affection. And for 20 days, despite Mashad’s reputation as a deeply religious, conservative city, I was struck by the contrast between the role of Iranian women in public life and the submissive, powerless image the Western media promulgate.
Both on TV and in the movies, Iranian women are portrayed as intelligent, strong, capable people. The main character of one popular soap opera is a female judge. I met women taxi drivers, doctors and university students living alone miles from home. And I was able to move around the city without the harassment so typical in Cairo. No one hissed, “Oh sugar! Oh honey!” at me. Perhaps it was because I was covered.
Since my stay coincided with Ramadan, the Islamic holy month when Muslims fast, I spent most of my days with my family praying and visiting shrines. Never have I witnessed men and women so spiritually hypnotized — praying, crying, meditating. Outside the home or holy places, my cousins and I roamed freely, until the official midnight curfew for both men and women.
My four female cousins, ages eight to 24, find life luxuriously free in Mashad compared to life in their native Herat, Afghanistan where the Taliban have practically banished women from public view. But it is still a curse to be Afghan and Sunni in Iran. My family is not allowed to work, to travel, or go to college. Even after seven years, they must renew their visas every three months. My 24-year-old cousin Simin takes pride in being the family cook because she cannot pursue college. My aunt has to use personal connections so her youngest daughters can attend school, and they all avoid speaking their Herati dialect for fear of being teased as Afghans. Once they have graduated, they will stay at home — their father believes it would be a disgrace to send them to the West as he did his two sons. They can only be mobile if they are married.
My cousins admit they envy me my freedom to travel, study and work where I want. But as Simin says, “We don’t belong anywhere else but here. Morally and culturally, Iran is so much like home. I just wish we had the same rights that Iranians have.”
Although the government talks of new restrictions for women, like bicycle riding, strict implementation is rare. Fear of the comite, Iran’s moral police, has subsided, my cousins say. A few years ago, women had to wear dark colored tights and leave no strand of hair exposed. Now many model light-colored pantyhose and leave the front part of their hair exposed. Some women disregard warnings from the moral police, despite the risk of a whipping.
As we were leaving the cinema on evening, an aunt visiting from Germany and I were told to “fix your hijab” by three comite women. I pulled my scarf down to my eyebrows but my aunt cursed the women under her breath. They took no notice, and continued repeating the command like a broken record.
Instead of feeling oppressed as a woman, I felt respected and protected during my stay. Occasionally, people would glare at me in mosques because, as a Sunni Muslim, I prayed differently. But rather than feeling angry, I felt a shared bond with worshippers and left Iran a more devout believer than I was when I arrived.
Twenty days, of course, is a very short period of time. But as I wrote on postcards to family and friends in Cairo and California, Iran for me was therapy.