I have great memories of stern-looking, uniformed women guiding traffic at the center of Tehran’s busiest intersections on my month-long visit in 1968—they were human traffic signals. And fond memories too of beautiful, scantily clad Iranian women with their handsome and strikingly dressed young paramours in the bowling alley next to Tehran’s Hilton Hotel.
I came away from that month-long assignment of interviewing American Peace Corps Volunteers and their Iranian colleagues and supervisors with warm thoughts about a very divided country. The division was over the Shah—those who loved or at least adhered to him and his rule, and those who distrusted and quietly opposed. Those who openly opposed courted SAVAK, the Shah’s brutal intelligence force. (Iran was a strong US ally, and I only learned about SAVAK years later.)
Peace Corps Volunteers were doing their jobs, teaching English, working in health care and in city planning among other things. There was genuine admiration by some for the advances in literacy and health care made with the Shah’s “White Revolution.” Workers had filtered to towns and villages where numerous languages and dialects of the major language, Farsi, was spoken, and brought some unity and identity to the country. Health care workers too fanned across the country. And women were uplifted in the government’s attempt at secular modernization.
On the other hand, there was a growing military machine, fueled by oil-financed purchases of American war hardware and expertise. The US was happy to provide fighting planes and ships and tools for a major ground force, helping to develop what we saw as a stable bulwark on the Soviet Union’s southern flank. We liked the oil money too.
And we barely acknowledged the separatists’ efforts in gaining autonomy: the Kurds who buffered the border with Iraq, and would eventually be gassed by Saddam Hussein; the Azerbaijani’s centered in the ancient city of Tabriz, which boasted the largest and emptiest American consulate I ever saw (from the times of the missionaries?); the Turkmen near the holy city of Qom. There was, I was told at the time, a tacit agreement that the northern Soviet border was permeable to tribal people, but the diversity of Iran was not celebrated.
Mostly, there were big preparations for the upcoming 1971 celebration of the 2500-year anniversary of the Peacock Throne, the Shah linking himself to Cyrus the Great. Some Peace Corps architects and planners were especially upset at working on monuments to the Shah rather than projects for the people.
It all unraveled in 1979, when the Shah was forced out by a broad coalition of dissidents—from communists to Islamists. There was a power struggle after the Shah left in humiliation—and the Ayatollahs grasped power and then consolidated it.
Today, the women of Iran have had enough of the Ayatollahs, and, it appears, so have many ordinary Iranians. One Kurdish woman’s death at the hands of the “morality police” has sparked another uprising. As the Guardian Newspaper reported:
“This movement without a name, without a leader, is diverse and adaptable. It has harnessed a vast and hitherto underexploited resource – the latent dissatisfaction of women at their second-class status – and turned it into a mighty asset. And it has already scored a success… for the first time since the early days of the revolution, significant numbers of women in cities across the country are going about their business without any form of hijab at all.
Hundreds of protestors have been killed and jailed, and this week a first execution is announced. There is no clear road ahead for regime opponents, but the current movement, which began with cries for “woman, life, and freedom” is not backing down.
And I imagine that the women in neighboring Arab countries, in Turkey and the “stans” of Central Asia are taking notice of what is going on in Iran. I hope the word is leaking out to close cultural sisters in Afghanistan. Autocratic rulers in the region, from sultans to the Taliban, should be shaking.
I hope the women of Iran are inspiring the women of our country, and the women of Russia, Argentina, Columbia and Germany to step forward with messages of “women, life, and freedom” to replace the messages of power, race, hate and greed that infect a number of aging white male politicos. I’m tired of reading the names of the Fortune 500 and their fascinations with space travel and instant communication, their dedications to wealth and accumulation.
I remember the peace movements of the 60s and 70s, remember linking arms with Black and White men and women in a Washington D.C. church, singing “We Shall Overcome”—directly after Martin Luther King’s assassination. “Give Peace a Chance” and “War no More” were in the songs of my youth. Hippies espoused love, and the women of Iran, proudly directed traffic and bowled in their miniskirts.
Remember when the Christians in a Montana town put a menorah in their windows after a Jewish neighbor was threatened, and when the Danes all put the star of David on their sleeves? My Christmas wish is for the world to embrace the women of Iran in that very same way.
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