If you write a book about something that is little known, you have to be prepared for questions. Some will be silly and trivial, some will be deeper: but there will be questions. I wrote about Iran. Immediately I learned that many Americans know little about that country and its culture. Many of the questions I have been asked have been about the women of Iran. They seem so different from the women of America, so different and so very hard to comprehend.
The mere mention of Iran invokes suspicion. Backwardness, fundamentalism, and terrorism were some of the words that seemed to immediately spring to American minds. Iranian men are seen as bearded, militant, hostile, and chauvinistic. The women are assumed to be veiled, oppressed, and submissive. Shrouded in their traditional black chadors (the ultimate symbol of their oppression), Iranian women shown on television appear angry. Holding their hands in the air and chanting anti-American slogans, they are more than willing to join the men in a fight against the United States.
Is the anger and anti-Americanism of the Iranian woman real? Are these so-called truths only media propaganda? Are these mass images a reflection of “the people,” or are they just manufactured collages that deprive the individual Iranian woman of her personal humanity? Exactly who is the Iranian woman?
While her appearance seems to typify inferiority and the oppression of the “second sex” that is so prevalent in that part of the world, I beg to differ with the stereotype. Having lived in Iran and having been in day-to-day contact with many of these women, I know them to be wise, proud, and highly intelligent. They are also tactful if not downright manipulative as they deal with the male dominated society around them. They are in many ways truly heroes.
The true Iranian woman may be oppressed, but underneath she is rebellious. She is subjugated but unruly. She is controlled and at the same time defiant. She may seem hushed and subservient, but she is strong in her faith—a true believer—and ready to fight for it. However segregated and oppressed she may be, the Iranian woman is a revolutionary, a fighter, and willing to die for her nation. Yes, she is a loving mother and a dutiful wife, but she has the heart of a warrior and the soul of Persia beats within her.
In short, there is a contradiction between the submissive and the fierce sides of these women. Westerners tend to see only the passive and subservient side. Perhaps that is because Western observers have been so fascinated by what they have seen as so different from their own cultures. Certainly the conflict with Western values has highlighted the anti-feminist aspects of Iranian culture and Islam. In part the revivalism of modern Islam has fortified these traditional values and appearances.
However, having lived in Iran for three and a half years, I have seen the other side of Iranian women. Oriented very much in the here-and-now, Iranian women are pragmatic and are often looked to for advice. Most Iranian men were closer to their mothers than their fathers. Of course, older sons have a sense of responsibility for their mothers and sisters should anything happen to their fathers. Also, because women are removed from men in the common run of things, they may seem somehow more enigmatic, some one who has to be understood—especially after an arranged marriage, when the man is suddenly expected to take on the role of husband, a role for which he has had so little training.
It is interesting to see how greatly Iranian women change when they come to the United States, especially those women who come by themselves. Without the pressures of family, Iranian women who immigrate to the U.S. frequently give up the chador. They wait to marry. And perhaps most importantly, they continue their educations.
While the women who come here with their families and husbands continue the traditional ways (or perhaps are pressured into doing so), the women who are on their own quickly adapt to this land of new opportunities. Perhaps the most immediate sign of that adaptation is the change in their clothing. The drabness of traditional dress is suddenly replaced with color. But underneath that exuberant change, they are still some of the kindest people you will ever meet.