For days, I didn’t know why I did it. I bought a scarf, put it in my purse, and took it everywhere. I even folded it and put it on my table at a restaurant this week, next to a glass of water.
Come to think of it, I bought the scarf on the day America abandoned ship in Afghanistan.
As a little girl in post-revolutionary Tehran, I always kept a backup scarf in my backpack in case the mandatory one on my head fell off or became dirty with sweat or debris. My mother always kept a second scarf in her purse, too, as did my aunts, my grandmothers, and nearly all of my female relatives.
Last month, I ran into one of my aunts at a Persian market in Los Angeles. “Write about what will happen to the women in Afghanistan if the Taliban comes back,” she instructed, adding, “Because we all know what will happen.” Then she pointed to a group of Iranian women who were congregating around boxes of cucumbers and lemons.
As an Iranian woman, I’ve been obsessively thinking about Afghan women lately. But the Islamic revolution that tore through Iran four decades ago and the Taliban’s nightmarish rise to power in Afghanistan today don’t add up to a linear comparison.
Iranian women knew only of a Westernizing, secularist government before the 1979 revolution. In a nutshell, they went from freedom to oppression, which continues today.
Afghan women, however, have known oppression, then freedom, and now, the horrifying return of oppression. For the past two decades, many of them tasted freedom by enrolling at universities and working, becoming entrepreneurs, journalists and even mayors, before the Taliban took control again. They were able to do things that we in the West view as ridiculously self-evident rights, such as leaving their homes without a male escort, attending school, working, laughing out loud or speaking loudly in public. They were able to wear nail polish and cosmetics, and stand on balconies. The Taliban forbids women from all of these actions, and more.
Afghan women, however, have known oppression, then freedom, and now, the horrifying return of oppression.
This week, city by city, when confronted with news that the Taliban was minutes away, Afghan women ran in search of burkas. Not headscarves, like Iranian women 42 years ago after the Iranian revolution, but actual burkas.
As I write, the murderous barbarians of the Taliban are going door-to-door, looking for various targets, including women (and young girls, whom they “gift” to their leaders), Americans, Christians, LGBT Afghans and anyone who worked with American forces. For the 19 million women of Afghanistan to return to such a nightmare after having tasted freedom is, I believe, harder than anything Iranian women faced. In fact, the Taliban is now calling Afghanistan a name it designated for the country over 20 years ago: The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
And then, there is a generation of Iranian women whose lives were upturned at the hands of merciless fanatics, after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his cronies turned Iran into a theocracy in the wake of the 1979 revolution. They even changed the name of the country to the “Islamic Republic of Iran.” Initially, Khomeini assured citizens that women would have equality. Then, he announced that all women, regardless of faith, must wear the hijab, or Islamic head covering, in the workplace and at government offices so as not to appear “naked.” In March 1979, tens of thousands of Iranians, most of them women, took to the streets on International Women’s Day to protest the shocking new laws. Eventually, by the early 1980s, the hijab became mandatory for females everywhere (except in the home), including little girls. Thugs who enforced new “morality” laws beat women in the streets, shouting “Head scarf or head smack!”
Having been born after the revolution, I don’t belong to a generation of Iranian women that enjoyed basic rights such as free-flowing hair, access to education, or even miniskirts and mixed gender parties. Like millions of other little girls in the country, I was born into the mandatory hijab, not forced to learn how to live with it (like my mother, my grandmothers or my aunts). Overnight, Iranian women raided their closets or quickly stood in lines at stores, in search of headscarves. The price of being seen without a head covering was simply too high. But for me, life didn’t become oppressive overnight because I was born into oppression itself. In fact, the system, with its brutalization of women, was already in place.
But for me, life didn’t become oppressive overnight because I was born into oppression itself.
And just as Khomeini assured Iranians over four decades ago, the Taliban announced this week that women would be safe under theocratic rule. “We assure that there will be no violence against women,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid. The bold-faced lies of these men are only matched by their medieval cruelty.
This isn’t a contest over who is more miserable or endangered. As I mentioned, the comparison between Iranian and Afghan women isn’t even linear. But ask an average Iranian-American woman about what’s transpiring in Afghanistan today and she will reveal a humble, empathetic understanding of some of the plights of Afghan women. Many of these Iranian women, whether in Los Angeles, Orange County or New York, still suffer from untreated trauma related to living through the revolution (and escaping Iran). Their voices can offer one of the most powerful and damning indictments of fanatic Islam. Sadly, I can’t say the same for some American leaders; whereas Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who hails from Somalia, sees freedom in wearing the hijab, Iranian women know firsthand the misery of the hijab when it’s mandatory (and non-adherence is punishable by arrest, torture and imprisonment.)
Yes, like Afghan women today, Iranian women have lived under the brutalization of fanaticized men. And for those of us who escaped Iran, we’ve truly come out on the other side.
Do we believe that America could ever be overturned into an Islamic theocracy? Not exactly. Not in this decade, anyway. And probably not in this century. But most Middle Eastern women have one thing in common with fanatic Islamists (hopefully, the only thing): our ancient heritages enable us to think about the future in terms of centuries, rather than mere years.
But even in America, some of us are still looking over our shoulders. And we can’t let go of our scars, or our scarves.
Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer, speaker and civic action activist. Follow her on Twitter @RefaelTabby