Growing up in southern Iran and Southern California, I had the pleasure of having a father who loved to tell stories about his childhood in Iran. Most of his stories were funny, but there was one that always brought him to the brink of tears.
Of course, he never cried; he always changed the subject right at the breaking point. It was the story of his oldest sister, Sedigeh, the smartest sibling in their large family. Because she was a girl, she was married at 16, which was not unusual for Iranian society in the 1930s. Despite her intellectual curiosity, she never had a chance to finish school. My father made it clear to me that he considered this to be a crime. My aunt Sedigeh, now 99 and blind, made the most of her life, raised four successful sons who married strong women and raised successful children. As much as she relished her family, the rest of us wondered what she could have done with her life had she been given the freedom to prosper like her brothers, all of whom became doctors or engineers.
But even my aunt Sedigeh, with all the limitations forced upon her, did not as a young woman have to wear a hijab, the head cover that was made compulsory by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The hijab has not always been a part of Iranian culture. Pictures of Tehran in the 1960s and ’70s show women wearing Jackie Kennedy-inspired dresses, short sleeves and miniskirts. But more important than their freedom to dress as they wished, Sedigeh’s generation witnessed the rise of women throughout Iranian society, in law, education and medicine, to name a few fields.
At the same time, there were many Iranian women, like many today, who willingly wore the hijab, or even the chador, which covers the entire body but not the face. That was their choice. Once the hijab became government mandated, it no longer sprung from religious belief alone. It became a symbol of a basic human right that had been taken away. In Iran, the punishment imposed on women who defy hijab laws includes arrest, flogging or a prison sentence.
Iranian women today are risking detainment and worse for an unimaginably simple request: the freedom to go outside the house without a head covering.
We all know that Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Iranian woman who died after Iran’s morality police detained her for wearing her hijab in an “improper” way, did not die of a heart attack. Since Ms. Amini’s funeral on Sept. 17, demonstrations, led primarily by women, have broken out in cities across Iran. Their grievances aren’t limited to the laws dictating how they dress. The protesters are demanding freedom from all the suffocating strictures imposed by their country’s clerical leadership. These demonstrations feel different from previous uprisings, all of which have been violently squashed by the regime. My aunt Sedigeh, blind but still a seer, said to me yesterday: “When I was a young woman, I had no idea that life was any different anywhere else. This generation knows that they deserve more; they want what I didn’t have. I want that for them, too.”
I am certain that if she could, my aunt Sedigeh would be protesting with them now.
When women are oppressed, no one wins. Iran today is full of educated, capable women who have risen to the top of their fields and whose bodies, paradoxically, are regulated by the government. Regardless of their education or contributions to society, outside their homes, every woman in Iran is at the mercy of the morality police. This is insulting, soul-crushing and not sustainable.
These brave, determined women marching in the streets want the chance to live unencumbered and to regain rights taken by a government that treats them as second-class citizens. Their level of determination, their hunger, can lead to great things. I have no doubt that Iranian women, if given the opportunity to fully become who they are meant to be, could be making even greater contributions to society that would benefit all Iranians. Instead, they are asking not to be killed for showing their hair.
How did Iran get here? I weep for my aunt Sedigeh, who witnessed women rise in Iranian society, only to see their progress erased. Without some kind of compromise on the part of the government, Iran will be headed toward even greater unrest. Women cannot live under these unjust laws forever. Iran’s clerical establishment must recognize that lifting the Islamic dress code is a necessary first step toward greater equality. Extending this most basic of human rights to women is not a complicated issue. The real issue is the mistaken belief that women’s bodies need to be monitored and controlled.
My father, an engineer who helped build Iran’s oil refineries, used to say, “If Iran hadn’t had oil, the country would have truly prospered.” Cursed with natural resources, the country lost sight of its future. Its greatest asset was never under the ground. Iran’s greatest asset is marching in the streets right now.