By Mariam Memarsadeghi
July 2, 2020
I left Iran when I was seven, during the 1979 revolution. My first trip back was ten years later, full of the excitement of seeing family we had left behind, but also the trepidation of seeing the country and the life we had cherished cancelled out by the Islamist regime, and our family suffering.
As an American teen who played soccer, had a boyfriend, spoke her mind, laid by the pool and laughed loud, I found my homeland at once beautifully familiar and grossly threatening. The morality police I had been warned about were indeed everywhere, all the time. From Tehran to Shiraz, Esfahan, and the Caspian Sea, they found ways to humiliate, violate, interrogate, threaten, and prohibit, not least because we stubbornly (or naively) traveled the country without a male escort, by itself an illegal act.
The conventional wisdom about Iran is that things have much improved since those dark days of the 1980s. But the truth is that the Iranian people have only grown accustomed to tyranny, and their suffering has only calcified. This is the nature of totalitarian regimes; time works to deepen their rot, never to reform them. All the while their societies disintegrate and their people flee, the corrupt rulers do advance, but only in their nefarious actions, military arsenals and chest puffing. Those on the inside see through the bluster, lies and deception, as their lives worsen.
A look at the last year of life in the Islamic Republic of Iran is telling: forty-one years after the revolution, the regime is more than ever preoccupied with shooting at the Iranian people, throwing them in prison, and forcing them to confess to crimes for which they are then executed. This is on top of its terror and its role in killing hundreds of thousands of innocents beyond its own borders. Syria is a clear example.
But even more than the political violence, what may be most corrosive to the Iranian nation–and conspicuously absent from media coverage domestic and international–is the everyday violence and injustice perpetrated not by Ayatollah Khamenei’s cabal but by society on society, an everyday, automatic evil. Society’s self-inflicted wounds–not just enabled but actively promoted by the state’s Sharia ideology, laws and policies–makes commonplace the harassment, beating, raping, and killing of countless Iranian girls and women, regardless of their education or economic status. A generation whose grandparents were ruled by laws that led the region in respect for gender equality are in a four decades long trap of regression, by turns numb and livid to the medieval degradations sanctified by a theocracy.
After that first trip back to Iran, I went back five more times before my views and activism made it too dangerous. Through college and graduate school, I wrote papers about the loss of rights in my homeland, especially for women, of how women’s red nail polish and sexy stockings poking from beneath their forced manteaus–displays punishable by flogging and other humiliations–made for a coded language of daring resistance, of open secrets shared by all who dissented from an imposed Islamist culture of control over women’s bodies. But since those papers in the 1990s and since Iranian women’s attempts to make more overt the demand for freedom from mandatory veiling and other prohibitions of the Islamist state, not only has totalitarianism not abated, the weight of anti-woman state officials, rhetoric, laws, curriculum, rituals, surveillance and enforcement has further and further sunken society into patterns and dispositions propelling the state’s backward ideology.
There is resistance and civic resilience, but laws have not been reformed to allow for any freedoms of choice or autonomy, with girls and women still partitioned off from boys and men in their dress, schools, workplaces, stadiums, TV, films, and social life writ large. Children still grow up knowing they must lie about their real selves, lives, thoughts, desires and yearnings. If anything, the regime has managed to widen its purview by making society more accustomed to self-policing, such that even live programs on Instagram will see unveiled young girls insulted and booted out by cowardly hosts.
By the regime’s own estimation, domestic violence, so-called honor killings and other social problems have worsened in Iran. But because the regime punishes those who try to report or research on social problems and the effects of the Islamic Republic’s mandated gender inequality, there is no way to transparently and reliably measure the rise in domestic abuse; denial of divorce, child custody and inheritance; so called honor killing; rape; martial rape; child marriage; child sexual abuse; denial of equal opportunity in education, employment and public life; sexual harassment; prostitution (including legal prostitution under Islamic “sigeh” or “mut’a” laws encouraging so called temporary marriages); human trafficking; workplace discrimination; the exploitation of women’s labor; and more.
Iranians simply know the denial of these rights makes for social crises and that these crises deepen with each passing year that women are denied recourse to justice and as new generations grow up with the expectation of the subordination of girls and women. A law just passed for the “protection” of children maintains the age of marriage at 13 for girls (and as young as nine with permission from a judge).
Because they are not in a camp controlled by ISIS but in a country of 80 million people with a state recognized at the United Nations, somehow the suffering of Iranian women is explained and even justified–with help from the West’s post-modernists and cultural relativists–by appeals to tradition and religion. All manner of apologists inside and outside the country will tell willing audiences that if only the people cared to think differently, to be more progressive, more cultured, more responsible, they could be deserving of dignity and a government that respected their rights. That it is their fault they are forced to veil, be segregated, denied protection by the law and purposely prohibited from advancing.
In the free world’s universities, the power, agency and subversion of Iranian women is studied and celebrated, but little is said of the fact over the last four decades, a brutal regime has defeated their every attempt to win back the rights and dignity stolen from them by ideologues as ever intent to erase them. That their de jure and de facto status has purposely and precipitously deteriorated while in much of the rest of the world, women have been gaining ground with government-backed reform of laws, education, social practices, and economic opportunities.
Any incremental improvements in the lives of some Iranian women has been despite the regime, not because of it, and by any measure, the rights and opportunities lost because of the turn to Islamist rule are so all encompassing that, not least for a country that economically dwarfed South Korea and Turkey before 1979, it is difficult to even imagine where Iranian girls and women would be today if their march toward full human development had not been arrested.
To acknowledge such a fall, such a profound reversal of progress, would necessitate acknowledgement of the achievements of the pro-West, secular Pahlavi monarchy that was overthrown with Islamo-Marxist revolution, something anathema to an elite college campus political correctness that holds the headscarf as a marker of progressivism and the Enlightenment as embarrassing. It is as if the regime’s deadly prohibition on knowledge and speech about Iran’s pre-revolutionary past–and especially the status of women–has permeated well past its borders, into even Western institutions once exalted as bastions of free thought and expression. So we have entire New York Times news articles on the rise of so-called honor killings in Iran without one mention of the fact that the practice was prohibited before the revolution, with society making great progress to end this and other abhorrent practices long encouraged by Islamists.
The free world’s feminists are, sadly, not an exception but a part of this denial of basic human dignity, consumed by campus micro-aggressions and “believing all women” rather than helping to solve the real, profound suffering of others in too many parts of the world. After their historic legal and social victories, one would have thought that “sisterhood is global” would mean attention to sisters still denigrated in other lands, with women who had gained their rights and their power lending to those still struggling their hard-earned lessons, support, and solidarity. Instead, it is the rare Western feminist who speaks out about those so very much less fortunate, opting instead for a navel-gazing that is a betrayal of the courageous passion and purpose of the suffragetts or the moral clarity of second wave feminists like Betty Friedan, who knew that legal equality is fundamental but only the first step to women living their full lives.
It is a good time to right this wrong: In Iran today there is an unprecedented outpouring of dissent–much of it from courageous women like Fatemeh Sepehri or Gohar Eshghi. The free world should not underestimate how its solidarity–from parliaments, universities, places of worship, labor unions, celebrities, business leaders, civic associations and more–can make a difference to at last ending the suffering of Iranian girls and women.