Michelle Assay

Iran’s Inbetweeners

In November 2022 a group of Iranian scholars and activists in exile took part in a special panel of the University of Manchester’s ‘Histories at Risk’ project to discuss the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ movement in Iran and what has been described as a new revolution in the country. At this meeting, and indeed beforehand, I frequently heard from the representatives of the generation that had instigated the 1979 Revolution, enjoining us: ‘Don’t repeat our mistake.’ That statement was addressed especially to the young brave Iranian protester and student who had joined the meeting from Tehran, using a VPN to bypass internet blocks. As with the 1979 Revolutionaries, his generation dares to dream of and demand freedom within Iran, not imposed from outside. Between these two generations came my own, the so-called Children of the Revolution, who were effectively orphaned as the Revolution was hijacked by a totalitarian and oppressive regime. Families had barely finished celebrating the downfall of the Shah when the mullahs clamped down on the intellectuals (such as my parents) who had helped achieve that overthrow.

‘But she is not even nine’, said my mum in a shaking voice. ‘It’s never too early to learn to wear hijab’, answered one of the two scary female guards. This was Tehran in the early 1980s. My mum had taken me to the then largest department store in Tehran, so that I could use an escalator for the first time. I was excited and apprehensive, fearing I would be swallowed under the metallic ending once I got to the top. What we hadn’t expected was to be stopped by these women. They were what we called ‘crows’, or more politely chaadories, dressed head to toe in black chadors, and having no function other than to check women’s (and even kids’) hijabs. ‘You go and do your shopping, sister [they always called other women sister!], she [i.e. me] can stay here with us’, said one of the two as she pushed me under her chador. ‘I’ll hide her so that men can’t see her without hijab’. Suddenly the escalator didn’t seem to be the most frightening thing about going shopping. I wanted to scream but no sound came out. The rest is foggy in my memory. I know my mum took me back and left the shop. I also know it took me at least a decade to learn to use an escalator properly.

I hadn’t started school yet and certainly didn’t look as old as nine – nine is the age of taklif in Islam (or at least in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s version of Islam). For boys it’s 15 – apparently, they take that much longer to become mature. From the age of nine, a girl has to wear her hijab strictly, to fast during the Ramadhan and to say her prayers (namaaz) three times a day (the Shiites efficiently group the five obligatory prayers into three, which I suppose is some kind of blessing). A recent photo depicting Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamanei, surrounded by young girls in white and pink chadors has gone viral around the world, with people screaming outrage at what looks like a blatant example of early brainwashing (https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/481588/Ayatollah-Khamenei-receives-girls-coming-of-age). I can quite guess what he’s telling these innocent children; it was what we were all told: ‘from this day on you should follow the path of Fatemeh al Zahra [the Prophet’s daughter; Fatemeh is what Mary is to Christians: a symbol of innocence and generosity].’ We were never told precisely what we needed to do in order follow that path. But the practicalities of our lives pointed the way.

From the age of taklif on, once a week we would be assembled and packed together in a small room for lunchtime group prayers. We would each in turn be the muezzin (the one who calls to prayer). I remember being excited by the prospect of using a microphone. My adhan (the call for prayer itself) was going to be as beautiful as the one on TV; except that I panicked and ended up sounding totally daft. I don’t remember any faces, only the piles of removed shoes, the resulting smell of schoolgirls’ old socks, and the sense of total embarrassment. I sometimes wonder what happened to those girls? We were the faceless generation – just a bunch of chadors and dark school uniforms that would cover us head to toe, even in the stifling temperatures of Tehran’s late spring. The luckier ones left Iran while they were still young enough to assimilate to their new countries. Those who remained grew up being forced to accept oppression, control and abuse as norm. Here too, I was an inbetweener, spending my teenage years in the country before finding an escape route – to Ukraine (which is another story).

I am often asked when I understood I was being brainwashed and that the regime was violating my basic freedom on daily basis. The sad answer is that I didn’t until long after the Revolution. Our parents protected us by keeping silent (they feared we’d repeat any complaints we heard at home in public and subsequently get everyone into trouble). With no internet and with severe controls on the media and information, we had no idea that it was possible to live differently. For us freedom could only exist beyond the borders (Khaarej – the common word for abroad in Persian, which literally means outside). The most tragic thing is that I assumed the awful conditions were because of being an Iranian; AND I HATED IT. I survived by creating a parallel world in my mind where I fantasised that I was adopted and was soon going to be reunited with my real parents abroad. My gateway to this magical world was music: not the compulsory patriotic-revolutionary music or the officially sanctioned traditional music, but Western Classical music, of the kind my cultured, intellectual family listened to. The only one hour per week that I felt truly alive was the one I spent at my piano teacher’s house. Even then, we had to make sure the lessons were as secret as possible, and we had a cover story in case her house was raided.

And surrounding all this was the Iran-Iraq War that raged throughout the 1980s.

So we were the forgotten generation, the one that paid the price of the naivety of our parents. Our lives were shaped and shattered by misery, war, rations, oppression and fear: fear of dying while asleep as Saddam’s rockets fell over our cities, fear of our homes not being there by the time we returned from shelters, fear of the dark and cold nights during eight-hour power cuts, fear of being thrown out of school for secretly eating a biscuit during the month of Ramadhan, fear of a school friend being an informer, fear of being whipped for talking to a man or showing a bit of hair or the slightest shape of our body’s contour (for instance by wearing a belt), and later, once away from Iran, fear of being an outsider, of being mocked, being a burden, excluded and having to catch up for the rest of our lives… If today I use a non-Persian first name, this is the continuation of the parallel life I already led, and as a result of the othering and humiliation I experienced once khaarej abroad in Ukraine and even later in France and Canada. Being an Iranian was a mark of shame or pity, depending on the country and people’s degree of stereotyping and racism. To cope I had to become a chameleon, change my name and re-invent my story.  

I left Iran in 1997 shortly before the popular election of the reformist president Khatami. For many he held out the promise of a better life; his first term felt like Obama’s. We rejoiced at his visits to the West; people even praised his sense of sartorial style! For once we were not ashamed of seeing a leader of the country interacting with his Western counterparts. Girls were delighted with the possibility of moving the scarf a few inches back. All this was, alas, a short-lived euphoria. The vicious cycle of relative liberal/reformists and hardliners has continued to shape the political and social climate of Iran. Since the Revolution, the strictness of the enforcement of hijab has been an unofficial indicator of the political climate. And now, as uprisings on the largest scale seen since the Revolution continue, many young women have fearlessly removed their scarves, in defiance of the violent reaction of the authorities, and while respecting those who prefer to keep theirs. When the leading actress, Taraneh Alidoosti, was released on bail from the jail, she defied the authorities and removed her scarf as soon as she was out of prison; she had been arrested for posting on social media a hijab-less photo of herself holding up the banner ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’, written in Kurdish. As readers of this blog will know, it was the death in custody on 16 September 2022 of the 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, that sparked the current widespread protests. She was arrested for not wearing her hijab properly (a ‘crime’ the morality police once accused me of too, though thankfully not with such dire consequences).

The 2022-23 uprising in Iran, which Iranians now refer to as another Revolution, is certainly not be the first time that people have stood up to oppressions of the Islamic Republic. But it is the first time that protests have happened all over the country, not just in Tehran, and it includes ethnic minorities, in particular Kurds and Balouchis. It is the first time people are asking not just for reform but for a total change of regime. Despite attempts from the son of the former Shah in recent weeks and from the fans of Maryam Rajavi’s Mohajedin group throughout, this is still essentially a leaderless movement. Among its slogans are ‘No to dictator, be it a mullah or a shah’. And in this lies the power of this revolution, so long as it doesn’t get hijacked along the way, in the way the 1979 Revolution was. The new revolution once again belongs to the people of Iran in all their varieties and ethnicities.

As I write these words, the regime is preparing to celebrate the 44th anniversary of the establishment of the Islamic Republic. The date 22 Bahman (11 February) has become the most celebrated red-letter day for the regime and a vital propaganda tool. I remember how as children we were forced each year to take part in the ten-day festivities at schools (from 1 February, marking the return of Khomeini to Iran, to 11 February). My theatrical debut was in one such festival, in a play to celebrate the martyrs of the Holy War (Khomeini’s name for the Iran-Iraq war). I played a tulip – the symbol of martyrdom – and I well remember the costume my mum made for the occasion. We sang Revolutionary songs and watched videos praising teenagers who threw themselves with grenades under Iraqi tanks, apparently their passage directly to heaven.

Throughout my school years, the state TV would show videos of ‘millions’ demonstrating in support of the regime and the Supreme Leader would give a speech, after which everyone screamed Death to America, Death to Israel, and, depending on who else was on the current blacklist, Death to them, too. After which my Dad would always say: ‘This is their last year. By this time next year, they’ll be gone!’ To which my brother and I would answer: ‘You say this every year’. I wonder if 2023 could finally be the year.

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