- Published on Tuesday, 01 May 2012 20:00
“Aren’t you afraid of this,” my friend asked as she shoved her laptop computer toward me. I had just told her of my plans to visit Iran, the home of my parents, for the first time in my life. I was well into my twenties and the nagging thought of seeing the country I had only heard about in beautiful or winded stories could not be ignored any more.
I glanced at my friend’s screen. She had pulled up a news web site and landed on a picture of a woman, being buried up to her neck, draped in a constricting hijab. The headline read something like, “Iranian Women Still Under Threat of Stoning to Death.” Her eyes filled with fear, the woman’s mouth was agape trying to let out a scream. My mid-western friend did a quick search of Iran and women on the Internet and somehow arrived at this image. Her idea of Iran came through the pictures that splashed on American television and the World Wide Web. Mine came through word of mouth. Remembering the fondness in which my father talked about the home he left, I looked at my friend and quickly asked, “Where in the world did you find that? Out of all the pictures you could find about Iranian women, that’s the one you show me? And no, it doesn’t scare me.”
Fast forward a couple months.
The smell of exhaust entered the terminal as I deplaned at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport. I was a combination of jet-lagged delirious and ecstatic to meet the hoards of aunts, uncles and cousins I had only seen through dated photos. My cheeks were sore from smiling. In a quick flash, as I entered Customs, the image of the woman, neck high in dirt, darted in and out of my thoughts. I was hit by an unexpected fear. The Customs agent opened my bag. He avoided eye contact as he asked his typical questions. He continued to chew on a toothpick as he rummaged the contents. I tightened the purple scarf I had around my head, buttoning the last button on my jacket. My face flushed up like an Umpa Lumpah, but I knew I was covered. My heart raced a little faster as he passed by the brand new iPod I bought my cousin as a gift. Could I go to jail for bringing that? Was that contraband? Again, the image of the woman passed through my head. The man looked up, still avoiding eye contact, and ushered me to the side with his hands. I was let through; I was clear.
I met my family in the waiting area. With a large chuckle, one of my uncles asked me, “Why the hell do you look like that?” He, along with my aunts and cousins, proceeded to unbutton my top jacket buttons and release the tight grip the scarf held on my neck. A cousin introduced himself to me with, “You have a lot to learn, you crazy American.” And with that, I entered Tehran, Iran.
Those are what I took my first few days in the foreign country. But midway through my first week in Tehran, while watching my aunt barter with a man in a jewelry boutique in Milad ‘e Noor, I was able to put away the anxiety of being a woman in Iran behind me. My aunt had brought us to the shops by navigating the public transit like a pro, and now she was chastising the man behind the counter for even suggesting such an “obscene price” for such a “simple necklace.” I thought to myself, “Man, do NOT mess with Iranian women.”
Yes, the flaws in the legal system, particularly when it comes to the rights and the worth of women in Iran, are quite evident. What I had learned, however, was that fear of government and the police did not keep Iranian women silent. The more I continued to observe Iranian women, the more amazed I became at their boldness and assertiveness.
On one of the last few nights I was there, a female cousin took me to a music concert in the south of Tehran. The crowd was young, a wonderful mix of women and men, clapping their hands to recognizable music with no lyrics. A woman, wearing a long dark chador, roamed the aisles. She was taking direction from a round man as he spoke into his sleeve. They were imparted with the task to make sure that the women were properly covered. Each time the woman would bend over to scold a young woman for having her scarf too far back, the young woman would reluctantly adjust. And each time the woman in the chador turned her head, the young woman would readjust her scarf to its original position, whispering a few obscenities as her friends chuckled. She had no fear.
Iranian women seek higher education in droves. They serve in Parliament. They are captains of ships and heads of companies. They vote, they drive, and they make a mean saffron rice with stew. Some even speak out for the rights of women and children, elevating themselves to Nobel Peace Prize Laureates (Shirin Ebadi). But, you won’t see these images too much in America; it doesn’t make the news. No one wants a photo of an Iranian woman sitting behind her computer screen at work, or lecturing her students about quantum physics at Tehran University. American media wants you to see the fear of being female in the Islamic Republic. Darkly veiled women in protest, random and rare acts of public stonings. That is what we focus on. And sometimes, even when we know better, that is where our thoughts lead when we hear of Iranian women.
So, how do we move beyond these images we see on television and the Internet? How do we move past the misconceptions? We listen to the stories of all those who come from Iran. And, as one who has been to Iran and back, I make try to tell one of those stories. We add to the images we see via our media gatekeepers with personal stories of being cheered on by a caravan of men and women as we take off our hijab to pose for a photo in the North of Iran. We tell these stories to promote the Iran we know. We become our own gatekeepers.By Neda Tavassoli, Aslan Media Contributor