Excuse me. I am taking a break from affairs of Native Americans and American history. It’s because I think what is happening today with the women of Iran is important—one of the most important things happening in the world today. And it is because I have a deep personal interest in this part of the world, and especially of the women of the Middle East. And it is because of the raw courage of thousands of Iranian girls and women.
The death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, at the hands of the “morality police,” because her hijab was not properly covering her hair, has sparked the most sustained protests in Iran since the overthrow of the Shah and the ascension of the Ayatollahs in 1978 and ‘79. Women and teenage girls have publicly burned their hijabs—hair coverings. They have been joined by women wearing hijabs who support the right of all women to choose. And joined by men and women of all ethnicities and ages across the country who have had enough of an aging and often corrupt theocracy.
In 1968, I was on the Peace Corps staff in Washington, D.C. I’d been a Volunteer in Turkey, and was near fluent in Turkish, so I was asked to take part in an evaluation of the program in Iran. I was a junior partner on the evaluation team; the leader was Park Teeter, an academic who was married to an Iranian and spoke its primary language, Farsi. My Turkish could and did serve me well in the northeastern parts of the country, where the people and the language were Azerbaijani—a dialect of Turkish.
In 1968, Shah Riza Pahlavi was embarked on a mission to celebrate himself as the heir to the “Peacock Throne,” a centuries-old symbol of Persian—Iranian—dominance in the region. New broad boulevards and statues of the Shah were going up everywhere. The Shah had some Peace Corps Volunteer supporters, who pointed to health care and educational reforms he had made in what he called his “White Revolution.” Most Volunteers were less supportive, citing his growing megalomania. Volunteer architects and city planners said that their projects were often designing and building monuments to the Shah.
But the capitol of Tehran was a thriving city, and with Park Teeter as my guide, we tasted fine foods and good beverages. I remember especially going to a bowling alley near the Hilton Hotel, where handsome young couples—the women in miniskirts shorter than those worn in Washington D.C at the time—strolled, ate, and drank. Good Muslims are prohibited from drinking alcohol, so the places where alcohol was served were owned by Iranian Christians and Jews—and frequented by Muslims.
There were women in police garb at big traffic intersections, whistling traffic through as human stoplights. And women teachers and doctors and, in general, at all levels of society.
I learned little directly about the darker side of the Shah’s regime, about his battle with Kurds in his country and Iraq, which would later result in Saddam Hussein’s gassing of thousands of Iraqi Kurds and a savage war between the two countries. I didn’t learn then about SAVAK, his secret and sometimes brutal secret police. We in the US did not know about the CIA’s role in overthrowing a popularly elected government in 1953 and reinstating the Shah. Iranians certainly knew. We knew that the Shah was a close ally of the United States, who used the country’s tremendous oil wealth to buy military hardware from the US, to outfit an air force, army, and. Navy.
At the end of our month-long visit—we covered much of the country, from east to west, north to south, interviewing hundreds of Peace Corps Volunteers and Iranians—we paid a courtesy call on the US Ambassador. I remember—and you must remember that I was a brash 25-year-old who believed in right and wrong—telling the ambassador that the Shah had many detractors among Volunteers and the people they worked with. Some thought his days were numbered.
The ambassador did not want to hear that, and I remember our meeting ending in a cold rebuff.
It took a decade, but those who said that the Shah would not last were right. And our own US government made misstep after misstep: we didn’t believe that the powerful Shah could be overthrown; we floundered dealing with the leftists, the middle-of-the-road proponents of democracy, and the Ayatollahs; and, at the behest of Henry Kissinger, the Carter administration allowed the falling Shah into the US. That last misstep, after the wiser British refused him admittance, led directly to the student occupation of the embassy where we had met with the ambassador.
It’s now been over 50 years since my month in Iran, and over 40 years since the Shah’s overthrow and the regime of the Ayatollahs. The war with Iraq was bloodthirsty and cost many lives. Electoral attempts at more moderate leadership have been stymied by the religious leaders, with absolute brutality of killings and jailings.
Many have left the country over the four decades, and many of the educated and mostly urban middle classes have found their ways in the repressive state. Women have been the most marginalized, but with wealth, many of them found closeted ways to live freer lives, wealth cushioning them against the regime.
The death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of “morality police” triggered a massive explosion of resentment and outrage by these semi-liberated women, which has spread like fire across the country, to women of all stations, ethnicities, and geographic locations—and then to dissenting men as well. Now theocracy and corruption too are under attack.
The regime has stepped up with edicts and live ammunition, killing many. But, as of today, the protests go on. I don’t know how the world can best support the women—and all the people—of Iran, but do know that they must be kept in the limelight, their struggles and gains on our lips and minds, the actions of their oppressors boldly described in the press.
That is why I tell my story.
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An undated picture obtained from social media shows Mahsa Amini.
(photo credit: IRANWIRE/VIA REUTERS)