Three years ago this month, I had the opportunity to do something most Americans will never do: I visited the Islamic Republic of Iran. I was one member of a peace delegation organized by the women-led human rights group Code Pink. Twelve of us traveled from Chicago, Florida, Kentucky, Michigan, New York, San Francisco, and Hawaii to meet Iranians and see their country for ourselves — or as much as we could, given the restrictions on our movement.
Traveling to Iran with an American passport has never been easy during the last four decades, but in 2019, a year when the United States and Iran appeared to be on a collision course toward a possible military confrontation, the odds of receiving a visa from the Islamic Republic appeared slim to none. Yet, despite the open hostility and bellicose rhetoric, we were granted visas, allowing us to land at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport on Oct. 19, 2019.
Throughout our stay, we were warmly received as we traveled from Tehran in the north to Shiraz in the south. Iranians were surprised to meet Americans who, they said, they hadn’t seen in years. “Welcome to Iran!” was a common greeting as people thanked us for visiting their country, even as our president threatened to destroy them.
Many Iranians made it clear that their animus toward the US government and its foreign policies was not directed at all American citizens. Indeed, the Iranians we met were pleased to encounter a group of Americans who were interested enough in their country to visit and learn about the Persian culture they were so proud of.
Three weeks after our group left Iran, the country erupted in nationwide anti-government protests sparked by an overnight 50% spike in fuel prices. However, such periodic paroxysms in Iran are complicated and have deep roots fed by political, social, and economic factors. The 2019 protests and subsequent government crackdown were said to be the most strident since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, with many hundreds killed, injured, and arrested.
Nearly three years later, following the brutal killing of Jina “Mahsa” Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman who died shortly after being arrested by Iran’s “morality police” for wearing the mandatory hijab (head covering) loosely, Iran has again erupted in convulsions of rage. This time the demonstrations have been led by women and teenage girls (and joined by men) who are outraged not just by the brutal murder of Amini (and now many others) but by decades of being denied the most basic human rights.
The reaction of Iranian authorities and the paramilitary pro-government Basij militia that have tried to snuff out protests with a brutal, violent crackdown, censorship, internet blackouts, and outrageous murders, rapes, and widespread brutality against their fellow citizens, is regrettably unsurprising. It is also profoundly frustrating and sad to watch helplessly as the long-suffering Iranian people are subject to more savagery, and it makes me think about those I encountered three years ago.
While in Iran, I met women from all walks of life — religious minorities, students, shopkeepers, interpreters, musicians, educators, and administrators. They were as varied as can be imagined in outlook and experience. Their appearance reflected a range of individuals, just as it does around the world. In public, most women wore a manteau, a kind of semi-loose overcoat that rides to mid-thigh, suggesting a degree of modesty depending on how it is worn.
I saw women with showy scarves color-coordinated with stylish outfits, girls in vibrant floral tops, and at least one schoolgirl wearing a baseball cap with “ROCK” spelled out in rhinestones. Some women adhered to hijab standards closely, and other luxuriously coiffed women had the sheerest of scarves scarcely covering their flowing golden blonde locks, faces accented with pomegranate red lipstick and thick eyelashes. One of the only places I saw women dressed in all-concealing head-to-toe black chadors were the government employees scurrying from their offices at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs complex at the end of the workday.
On my first day in Iran, I saw two young women, maybe 18 years old, posing for a selfie. One wore a deep plumb-colored head scarf, modest in its bulk but riding far back on her head. Her friend wore black sneakers and skinny jeans that left her ankles bare. Her black hijab sat far back on her head, revealing straight black hair that fell like a wave over blushing cheeks and bright red lipstick. Where were these girls now, I wondered. Had they been stopped by the “morality police,” arrested, abused, or worse?
It is also profoundly frustrating and sad to watch helplessly as the long-suffering Iranian people are subject to more savagery, and it makes me think about those who I encountered three years ago.
A few days later, while in Isfahan, we stopped at a simple tea shop in a small courtyard. High walls created a private space hidden from the leafy tree-lined street beyond. Resting inside this small oasis, we stirred glasses of hot black chayee with nabat — saffron-flavored rock candy sticks. When I went to the counter in front of the kitchen, a young Iranian woman took my order, her hijab draped over her shoulders like a scarf worn on a cool autumn day, which it was. Nothing about her fully exposed, free-flowing hair was remarkable except for how ordinary it was and how carefree she appeared. Inside this de facto hijab-free zone, people just went about the business of sipping hot tea and chatting with friends beneath skinny trees with their leaves mostly fallen. Now I wonder how this young woman and her friends are doing three years later, on these violent autumn days.
On our final day in Iran, in the southern city of Shiraz, together with one of my American colleagues — Beth from upstate New York— we ordered tea in a small shop near an ornate sprawling Persian garden. Blowing on our tea to cool it, our eyes caught a family of five seated at a table, charging their phones and drinking tea. We struck up one of those well-intentioned but not particularly fluent conversations one has with people they meet while traveling when neither party speaks the other’s language. Lots of smiling, nodding, and single-word sentences: Hello. Iran. Good? Yes. America. Your children?
The mother told us they were visiting from the Shia pilgrimage city of Qom in the north. Two sons, maybe nine or ten years old, smiled and were giggly but spoke no English. Their sister, who spoke English well, told us she was thirteen. She wore a very loose grey full-length frock that fit like a tent with a bulky two-toned grey headscarf that looked far too thick for that warm October day.
Maybe because we were foreigners, the girl from Qom seized the opportunity to practice her language skills, telling us about herself, gesturing as she fixed her slipping hijab. She told us that she didn’t like the hijab or the government, indicating her displeasure. She explained that she played the piano and dreamed of someday traveling to Austria to study music. She sighed heavily, saying she didn’t think she would ever make it to Austria. It’s too difficult and too expensive, she said.
The girl from Qom looked sad but beamed when Beth asked her to take a picture together. In the photos we took with the family, the girl’s hijab had fallen (or she’d pulled it down), exposing her hair completely, if only briefly in that most unlikely of encounters.
Later that day, after visiting the tomb of the beloved Persian poet Hafez, I ducked into a shop where four girls were selling books of poetry and souvenirs. I struck up a conversation with one of the girls who spoke English as she helped me select a leatherbound copy of the “Divan of Hafez.” We made small talk, and before I departed, as I had with a number of other people I’d met in Iran, we exchanged Instagram accounts as one would share business cards — a way to keep in touch.
Three years later, I periodically receive updates from this young woman who I’ll call “Zahra.” Zahra tells me what’s happening in Iran and the suffering she and others are enduring. She expresses her frustration, anger, and sadness. Overwhelmed with a sense of being trapped in Iran, Zahra tells me she and many others are thinking of killing themselves if their protests don’t achieve the change they seek.
“There’s no future in this country, and I can’t emigrate to another country because of poverty.”
Trying to encourage her, I tell her that change will come eventually and that many people support Iranian’s struggle for freedom, but writing that feels hollow. I ask her what people outside of Iran can do to help.
“There’s not too much that you can do,” Zahra responds, “but you can be our voice…”