“Sir, I was born hundreds of years late. If I had been born earlier, I would not have allowed women to be so humiliated and trapped in your chains.”
—Sediqeh Dowlatabadi, Iranian feminist activist and journalist, (1882-1961)
I was born on February 11 of the year 2000, and grew up in a quiet street in Teheran, right off Midan Toopkhaneh (the Imam Khomeini square). My birth date was in itself a bad omen, as 22 Bahman (February 11 in my country’s calendar) is the anniversary of the Iranian Islamic Revolution. I should have known better, and chosen another day for my arrival into this world, but oh well, there are things in life that one cannot control, and this is definitely one of them.
My mother tells me that before my birth, she used to call February 11 “Doomsday,” but my “advent,” as she describes it, changed that, and it became her luckiest day ever. She named me Bahar (Spring) even though I was born in winter. I was her first (and only) daughter after four sons, and I was showered with love, by her as much as by my father and older brothers. When one is the recipient of such a blessing, one almost always grows up to believe they can be anything they want, even if they were living in a large prison (1,648,195 square kilometres) in the shape of a false republic.
Ever since I was little, I used to notice a stark contradiction between what I was told at school about life and women and the Islamic Revolution, and what I heard at home from my parents. Mom was fifteen and Dad twenty-one when the infamous “Doomsday” happened, and their whole lives changed on that day. Both are from secular, middle-class families that were directly involved in the formation of the National Democratic Front, a liberal political party that was founded during the Revolution, in order to counter the new Islamist theocracy that was being established in the country shortly after the takeover by Khomeini. But the party was crushed and banned afterwards by the Islamic government. My grandparents and many of their family members and colleagues were either jailed or killed. Mom and Dad always told me to keep quiet about all this. They lived in constant fear. Even when they discussed these issues in the privacy of our home, they’d whisper. “Hezbollahi thugs have an ear in every wall,” they’d warn.
And we believed them.
When Mahsa Amini died on September 16, 2022, succumbing to her injuries three days after the morality police had brutally beaten and tortured her for not wearing her headscarf properly (a few locks of hair were showing from under her hijab — a few locks of hair worth a whole life), my mother and I were among the first protesters who gathered outside the Kasra hospital. We chanted “Death to the dictator!” And: “I will kill whoever killed my sister!” I personally tore a poster of Khamenei into a million pieces, and we both removed our headscarves and stomped on them. We were outraged, we were angry, but our anger was nourishing, strengthening us, like a fountain of hope. And God knows we needed hope.
“God.” I say the word but I don’t know what it means anymore. I heard so much about it growing up, but never quite understood the concept. I went to a private school, but religious education and study of the Quran were obligatory for local children in all institutions, whether these were public or private. Only the expat children were exempt from it. It was also an all-girls school, since Iranian schools are segregated by gender.
I didn’t like the god they taught us about at school: The god who wanted me to stay silent, to obey blindly, to not think and not say and not do so many things that I wanted to think and say and do; the god who ordered me to cover every inch of myself in order to protect my “chastity;” the god who told me that because I was a female, I was “less than” and “dirty;” the god who expected me to prioritize marriage and childbearing before everything else in my life. This is not a god who loves me; this is not a god I wanted to believe in.
One day I remember I asked my father: “Bābā, aren’t the words ‘Islamic’ and ‘Republic’ contradictory?” He burst out in laughter; it was a proud laugh. But Soraya, my mom, was terrified: “Don’t you ever repeat that elsewhere, Bahar! I beg you!”
That first day of the protests, my mother got heavily pepper sprayed. She was asthmatic, and soon she started gagging and gasping for air. I don’t know how I managed to push the security officer away from her, from us. He was sweating like a pig and I could smell the stink from his right armpit as he raised his hand to club her on the head with his baton. I screamed and shoved him away as if he weighed five grams. Where did I get that force and audacity? (“From me,” I heard Mahsa answering in my head). As soon as I saw him fall to the ground, I took her hand and we started running. We managed to escape and reach home before getting arrested. Many others weren’t that lucky. As I was washing her face with water, our eyes met in the bathroom mirror and we smiled at one another. Behind all the redness and the swelling and the pain, in her eyes I could see a fire that had been waiting for so long to be kindled. An old fire that had always been there, concealed, restrained, yet very much alive. It was the same fire that taught me and my brothers the importance of fighting for one’s freedom and dignity; the same fire that protected us from religious indoctrination and Islamic brainwashing; the same fire that had pumped so much patience, enthusiasm and optimism through my father’s veins along the years, as he told us repeatedly. “Your mother saved me from cynicism,” he would say, “from despair, from the misery of believing nothing will ever change and that this is what we deserve.” She was his goddess and he was her temple, up until his last breath.
Later on, every time I’d feel scared or in doubt during one of the several demonstrations I participated in, I’d picture my mom’s red, swollen, fiery eyes, and I’d feel invincible again.
I will never forget the first time I shouted “Woman, Life, Freedom!” What a sad day it was (Mahsa’s funeral on September 17), but then again, but then especially, what a glorious day it was as well, for all of us who believed in a different motherland: One where our human rights were respected; one where there was no gašt-e eršâd (vice squad) following our every move and enforcing the Shari’a law on us; one where we were free to dress as we wished, free to choose where to go, free to express our thoughts and opinions; one where I could dance or sing or hold my boyfriend’s hand in public without fear or shame. “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi!” we roared all together, and it felt more like a sacred prayer than a revolutionary mantra. It felt like a tomorrow. Like a “Finally!”
Like a Yes to Life.
That evening, as we were recollecting the events of the day, Mom told me she had already participated in similar protests with her own mother in March 1979, when she was merely a teenager, after Khomeini had decreed mandatory veiling for all women, and termed the unveiled as “naked.” Thousands of women took to the streets of Teheran then, to protest the compulsory hijab, especially feminists feeling betrayed by the revolution. They chanted: “In the dawn of freedom, we have no freedom.” Men participated too, just like they are doing now. They formed human chains on both sides of the women protesters to shield them. “Your father was there; that is where we met,” said Mom, blushing as if she were still 15 years old. “We were constantly attacked by mobs with knives and bricks, but we kept on protesting.” However, when the liberals were eliminated in the early ‘80s, no more resistance was possible. The veil was enforced on all women, and my mother had to wear it too. Her head, neck and hair just had to disappear, swallowed into darkness.
Her soul too.
I went to the protests every day. My parents and brothers also went, as well as many of our neighbors and friends. The spark that ignited us could not be allowed to die out. I’d take off my headscarf, I’d shout, I’d chant, and I’d feel alive. One day I even cut my hair off along with other women, young and old, while the crowd was cheering and filming us. Bābā was sad at first. He loved my long, black, shiny hair. From childhood he’d nicknamed me “the queen with Night as her crown.” I told him not to be sad. “My hair will grow back soon,” I said, “but Mahsa and all the others who lost their lives for the sake of our liberation will never come back. This is such a small price to pay in return for spitting in the face of the supreme leader.” He kissed me on the forehead. Bābā seldom needed words to express himself. He used gestures and gazes. He relied on hugs and kisses.
And that was the last time he kissed me.
Bābā was killed on October 11, 2022. His friend Reza, who was just a few steps behind him, told us they were all shouting “Death to the dictator” during a mass rally in the capital when security forces opened fire and my dad and others were shot. He immediately fell to the ground. The death wish he was sending out came back and hit him like a boomerang. He got six bullet wounds in his chest, face and neck. Not one, not two: six. This decent, loving, noble man, who had never hurt anyone in his life, who always strove for a better country, a better life, a better world, was slaughtered, exterminated as though he were a criminal.
Meanwhile, the dictator continues to live.
By the way, do you notice, like I do, how hard it is for evil people to die? It’s as if they were indispensable to the order of the universe. As if they had struck a deal with Death: “Torture, persecute, beat, tyrannize, kill, and I’ll stay away from you.” The same goes for rich people: they get wealthier, while the destitute get poorer; the powerful become mightier, and the powerless weaker. Is that some kind of natural law? Are the vicious and merciless of this world indestructible?
Talking about viciousness, one day I read a quote from Ayatollah Khomeini’s book, “Tahrir Al-Wassila:” “A man can have sexual pleasure from a child as young as a baby. However, he should not penetrate her. If a man does penetrate and damage the child, then he should be responsible for her subsistence all her life. This girl will not count as one of his four permanent wives and the man will not be eligible to marry the girl’s sister.” I threw up moments later. I was shocked, outraged and disgusted: “How can this be O.K., how can ours be a normal world?” I wondered. I also felt ashamed. Not only because of such men, but for them as well. Pedophiles are jailed everywhere, but not all of them. Not those who have religion as their sponsor. It should be one of their recruitment slogans: “Are you a sick child molester? Join us and molest your way to Heaven.”
That evening, I wrote in my journal: “Religion is the best criminal guarantor ever. It provides its clients with immunity and protection at once. It helps them get away with so much: Child brides? Check. Honor crimes? Check. Holy wars? Check. Suicide bombing? Check. Persecution and imprisonment and repression? Check. White supremacy? Check. Killing of homosexuals? Check. And the list goes on.”
After my father died, we were inconsolable; all of us. But we didn’t stop going to the protests; none of us. We were angrier, fiercer, more determined and fearless than ever. I can’t say how many posters of Khamenei I burnt, how many middle fingers I raised, how many protests I marched and slogans I shouted.
I’m not sure exactly on which day I died. Nobody from my family does. I disappeared for nine days in late October before my brothers managed to locate my body in some morgue. They were not permitted to see my face; they were only shown my arm which had a big, recognizable birthmark on it. The birthmark had the shape of a butterfly, and I used to hate it and try to hide it as a child. One night, on the eve of my 13th birthday, my mother told me how butterflies are the only living creatures that give birth to themselves. The caterpillars push and push until they finally succeed in emerging from their shells, and then they fly. That is when I started loving my birthmark. I used to think: I, too, shall give birth to myself one day. I, too, am a caterpillar and I shall emerge from this big jail and fly. I’ll be a free, independent woman, and I’ll feel respected and appreciated instead of insulted and undermined.
That is exactly what I did. The day I died, I gave birth to my story. To my truth. To a version of myself that will always be alive somewhere, and that shall endure and inspire other girls and women in Iran and elsewhere, just like Mahsa, Hadis, Roshana, Ghazaleh, Shirin, Nasrin, and hundreds of others who died before me, have inspired me.
Māmān, I am finally a 22-year-old butterfly.