Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Reading Ghahramani in Tehran

By Eva Wash

Over the past few years, several controversial female authors have emerged from the Middle East—women such as Zarah Ghahramani, the author of My Life as a Traitor, who have profound stories to tell. Ghahramani’s book, published early in 2008, centers on her experience as a 20-year-old university student arrested and imprisoned for thirty days in the Evin Prison of Tehran, Iran.

Her story is obviously one of physical and mental torture and of maddening injustice. Yet, beyond evoking empathy for herself and expressing disgust for the Iranian government, Ghahramani eloquently draws out the nuances of her own path to political dissidence. Raised by a loving and open-minded family and encouraged to seek knowledge and fulfillment, Ghahramani does not seem so different from the average young Western woman, but the liberties that she was seeking as a woman are rights that we take for granted--to walk down the street with “the wind in her hair,” to even walk alone outside of her home. She clearly establishes that other Iranian women are equally, if not more, dissatisfied with their situations: she cites the story of her cousin, who tried to burn herself to death in order to escape her life.

Such cases of female suicide, especially self-immolation, are not unusual in Iran, and Ghahramani attempts to explain the motive behind these deaths as the “intolerable disappointment generated by growing up with heads full of dreams and desires that have so little chance of being fulfilled.”

While dreams of a loving and freely-chosen marriage seem so unattainable, many Iranian women continue to endure without abandoning their families, the country that they love, or their religion. This excerpt from Ghahramani is particularly potent with this idea of persistence:

“Western women think that the typical Iranian woman lives the life of a vassal, and I can understand why they think that way. I know many Iranian women—unmarried and married—whose lives are made miserable by the laws that regulate their days and nights. And nothing on Earth can be said in defense of laws that permit the males of a society to hold the spirits of women hostage. Such laws are evil, wherever they are enacted. But the life of an Iranian woman, under a saner interpretation of the Qur’an than applies in Iran now, has much more in common with the lives of women in the West, or with those of women anywhere, than might be supposed. My mother lives under laws that Western women would probably think insufferable, but she is as free in her heart and soul as anyone on Earth, male or female” (182).

Her mother finds freedom in loving action, not in words of protest or complaints. As Ghahramani comes to discover, her mother has been overcoming the oppressive political injustice “in a subtle, almost stealthy way.” Of course, I think that injustices cannot merely be ignored; people have to speak up. Yet, words are mere words, while, with each successive generation, determined action is what often makes a gradual and lasting difference. (Perhaps this is the message that President Tilghman was trying to underscore during a recent lecture when she encouraged female students to “ignore sexism.”)

I highly suggest reading Ghahramani’s My Life as a Traitor: it is a book rich in wisdom and revelation, especially for young women.

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