first person

The Morality Police and Me

I was lucky to leave two encounters unscathed. Why did it take a tragedy for the west to care about Iranian women?

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Courtesy of Subject
A collage of photos of a teenager wearing a headscarf.
Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Courtesy of Subject
A collage of photos of a teenager wearing a headscarf.
Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Courtesy of Subject

When I was little, my mother told me bedtime stories about Iran before the revolution. Her memories painted the country in vibrant Technicolor, its people exuding warmth and spirit. In one of these stories, my mother and aunt snuck out of the house for a rock-and-roll concert, where they caught the eye of the touring musician. I could imagine my mother, dressed in flared jeans and fringed threads, laughing in the back of a stranger’s truck, or swaying to the beat of the music, eyes closed and mouth open, repeating the lyrics under her breath.

Growing up in New York City, I’d always felt disconnected from my American peers. At home, we ate polo khoresht, not Hamburger Helper. As my classmates packed for sleepaway camp, I grumbled my way through Farsi lessons. By the time their mothers took them shopping for training bras, I had been shaving my legs for years. Outside of the glossy pages of teen magazines, I didn’t understand the American teenage experience. I clung to the belief that perhaps, in Iran, the fractured pieces of my identity would papier-mâché themselves together and I’d feel whole.

But the first time I can remember traveling there, when I was in middle school, I found myself even more outside of my body. I yearned to push up my sleeves and pant legs in the hundred-degree heat, to pull down my roosari and itch the top of my head. I thought that being surrounded by people who looked like me would feel freeing. But I’d never received more looks in my life than I did on that visit. From older women, who judged the way I wore maxi dresses or jumpsuits beneath my robe in public. From men, who saw I was unaccompanied.

Even though I was too young to fully comprehend the country’s complex history, I was aware of how unfair life was for Iranian women. I so clearly recall wanting to get my fortune read by a parrot at Darabad, a small summit at the foot of a mountain range outside Tehran, and being told that women weren’t allowed to engage in such activity. It was the law, but nobody could explain to me why. It filled me with rage that there were spaces I wasn’t allowed to enter because of my gender.

For two summers while I was in high school, I returned to Iran to work at a center for women who had run from domestic abuse. Technically, domestic abuse doesn’t exist in the Islamic Republic, where women are seen as the property of their father and, later, their husband. The center was classified as a school and I served as music teacher. There, I heard harrowing stories from girls barely older than me, who had been raped by family members as teenagers or fled abusive husbands from whom they could not get divorced. Despite their hardship, the girls were boisterous and optimistic. They wanted to know more about American culture and my daily life. Did I have a boyfriend? Was it true I could dance to music on the streets? Sharing these mundane details bonded us together and we became fast friends.

It was also on these trips that I became acquainted with the morality police. The first time, in 2010, I was walking with my relative in an indoor mall when an armed officer dressed in the tell-tale dark-green uniform approached us. He asked for my name and age. I panicked. Every day, on my way to the center, I passed a giant mural on the side of a building that read, “Death to the USA.” Worried the officer would pick up on my American accent when I spoke Farsi, I accidentally gave him the wrong age. He turned to my relative and asked about the nature of our relationship. Once he accepted that I hadn’t been fraternizing with a man who wasn’t my husband or blood relation, we were free to go.

The second time, in 2011, I’d been inside Tajrish, a traditional Tehrani bazaar, browsing the lush hand-dyed fabrics and fresh produce when I heard women scream near the covered entrance. The morality police were rounding up women that they deemed “inappropriate” and placing them on a bus headed straight to the local jail. Terrified and alone, separated from the relative who came to the bazaar with me, I ran in the opposite direction. Then I felt something pull on my arm and drag me beneath a table inside a stall. A woman around my age stared at me with deep brown eyes and raised a finger to her lips. “It’s alright,” she whispered in Farsi. “They’ll eventually let them go. They do this all the time. Every day.”

I had the privilege of leaving the country after each of these run-ins, unscathed. But some of these routine encounters escalate to violence. Mahsa Amini drew the world’s attention to the morality police in September, after she was arrested for improperly donning her headscarf, allegedly beaten, and died while in custody. Her death inspired national and global protests and sparked a growing revolution, with Iranians demanding “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi,” or the Kurdish “jin, jiyan, azadî” — woman, life, and freedom.

Over the past three months, authorities have arrested at least 15,800 people and over 300 have been killed in the protests. Evin Prison, known for housing journalists and rebels, was set on fire; students at Sharif University, an elite institution in Tehran, were attacked; and the regime began publicly executing protesters. The protests are no longer centered around one incident, because the morality police are just the weapon being used to carry out a sentence, not the sentence itself. Iranians won’t be satisfied with getting rid of the force and compulsory hijab laws; they are leading a revolution, committed to fighting for democracy and basic human rights.

While some of my peers have echoed their solidarity with the demonstrators, others have betrayed their appalling ignorance. I’ve watched people repost black-and-white film photography from the shah era on Instagram, shocked by how “normal” Iranians looked in the ’70s. The insinuation is that Iranians are more worthy of empathy, of outrage, when they’re westernized. Westerners are often surprised, too, when I inform them that the majority of women in Iran are highly educated. That education, combined with their frustration at being socially repressed and economically marginalized, is powering their desire to fight for regime change.

Westerners don’t have the framework to understand that what’s going on in Iran is an unprecedented mass movement. There is no singular political message that is bringing people to the streets. There is no organizing party, no formal leadership. People tired of being mistreated and oppressed by the regime are doing whatever they can to destabilize it. The Islamic Republic is having so much trouble putting out this fire because they can no longer pinpoint the origin. They keep asking protesters, “Who put you up to this? Who told you to come here?,” but no one person is the answer. They arrest one demonstrator and 50 more protest. They throw 20,000 people in jail and the country goes on strike. They kill one child and hundreds show up to their funeral.

While I have seen friends post calls to action, demanding that American lawmakers act, intervention is not the answer. Signing petitions and emailing officials can help to put pressure on the Islamic Republic, but the revolutionaries do not want to be freed by the United States. They’re fighting to free themselves. The best way we can support them is by being their voice. Letting them know that we hear them, we are with them, and that we are proud of them.

As more news comes out by the day, I’ve been struggling to articulate my emotional state. I’m angry that it took so long for people to pay attention to the oppression of Iranian women and that so many Westerners are surprised to learn about what pre-revolution Iran was like. The knowledge that more beautiful young people will give their lives for the cause makes me feel helpless and ashamed that there’s so little that I can do to protect them.

I’m afraid that outsiders’ support for the protest movement will devolve into a familiar Islamophobic rhetoric we’ve seen time and time again since 9/11, which negatively impacts all Middle Eastern people living in the diaspora, but especially those who don a hijab. I also fear that something might happen to my own loved ones, many of whom remain in Iran. I know the government watches, listens, records every word whispered behind closed doors. Even writing this essay is a calculated risk.

But above all else, I feel an ember of hope because all of us, in the diaspora and under the regime, are connected to the same land. One day, my mother and I might return — not to the Iran of her past or the republic’s present, but a new nation shaped by the young people who risked their lives to forge it. And together, we will let down our hair, push up our sleeves, and dance in the streets.

The Morality Police and Me