It was the first day of school, in the first academic year after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Until the year before, my sister and I had been attending Tehran American School (TAS), then the largest American school outside the United States. When the revolution came, it was the first school to shut down and disappear into oblivion.
My father was a colonel in the imperial air force, and we had grown up on sheltered military bases in Iran and the U.S. In the summer of 1979, we moved to Gisha, a middle-class neighborhood in west Tehran.
This was a new experience.
It was a brisk 15-minute walk from our apartment on the corner of 39th Street to our junior high school, Nezam Mafi, where my sister and I were to attend an Iranian school for the first time — a post-revolutionary Iranian school, to be precise.
Gisha was set on a hill with gentle slopes marking the descent from the top, where we lived, to our new all-girls school at the bottom.
The tiny silk scarf meant to cover my hair as per the new school directives kept sliding down the back of my head as I tried to keep up with my mother. Frustrated, I put it away. The hijab had already become compulsory at schools and public offices but we were still allowed to let our hair show while walking the streets.
A few trees dotted our path, but they were scraggly and diminutive, many years away from exploding with broad leaves and long branches that could wash the gray from the buildings and offer shelter from the glare of the late September sky.
The street grid in Gisha was packed with mostly unremarkable two- and three-story residential buildings. Because of the hills, they seemed to be stacked on top of each other — an incongruous jumble of building blocks, chips off a brutalist metropolis already in decline.
There were no street names, just numbers, sprouting outward from the bustling commercial drag that anchored the neighborhood like a fat tree trunk. We lived on the far end of one of the higher branches. A roadway closer to our apartment snaked down. This was the short cut we took to school that morning.
Each street we crossed spat a stream of unsmiling girls out onto our path. They swooshed past us without so much as a glance. We blended in, it occurred to me, unlike at any other school we had attended. I was intimidated by my new classmates. They were strong and aggressive, jockeying for space on the crooked sidewalk, prompting us to move faster. Their rapid pace looked easy on my mother, who had long athletic strides, gliding downhill free and hijab-less. I tried not to stumble. Despite the heat, I was buried under several layers of clothing. Growing up wearing light summer clothes and sandals, I was unaccustomed to so many barriers between my skin and the breeze, barriers that felt restrictive. My new school uniform was cut rough, wide and long. The heavy material fell all the way below my knees, coiling around my legs as I tried to hurry. Decorative creases along the chest obliterated any body lines or curves, adding to the billowy parachute look I sported that morning.
As if that wasn’t suffocating enough, we were required to be fully-dressed underneath. The absurdity of it was exacerbated by the memory of going to school in shorts and flip-flops. Between the shuttering of TAS and the start of the first academic year in the Islamic Republic, we had briefly left the country and attended schools in California and Hawaii. To think that just a few months earlier I had been learning to surf in Honolulu was like invoking memories from a lifetime ago — a mere fantasy, something I had concocted in my head to escape the nightmare quickly unfolding around me in Iran.
As we reached lower Gisha, dwellings tapered off on the right, and a dirt path cut diagonally across an undeveloped tract of land, veering toward the walled-off school building. Nezam Mafi was wedged at the corner of a buzzing two-way street and a freeway, dousing the landscape in smog and fumes.
We stood at a distance, paralyzed. I was used to going to school in pretty places, or at least ones surrounded by acres of green manicured lawns, even at our Lavizan campus in north Tehran. I stared at our new school as if reporting from the trenches, taking in the picture of someone else’s misery. But now it was mine.
I shouldn’t have been so surprised. I had caught a passing glimpse of the school several times from the highway, but never this close with the details in clear view.
As the procession continued toward Nezam Mafi, some of the girls who were not already covered paused before reaching the school gate, drawing long, ink-colored scarves from their bags to throw over their hair. This made me even more nervous. Their hijab looked nothing like the ones my sister and I would soon be donning. Unlike us, they managed the mechanics effortlessly, like they had much practice, even under the now-deposed shah. I watched as one girl expertly made a thick flap over her forehead, a big fist-sized knot under her chin. There was no way we were going to be able to get the scarves we had to do any of these tricks.
To meet the new “modesty regulation” of the Islamic Republic, as interpreted by my parents, or at least my father, any old scarf would do, even those adorned with the motifs of the French bourgeoisie. My mother had rummaged through her suitcases the night before and dug up the closest thing she could find that resembled a hijab — two colorful scarves meant to be tied elegantly around the neck as you strode down a street in Paris. Our father, in his infinite optimism, had assured us these would be fine.
“I don’t want to wear it,” I protested.
I was the daughter of star athletes. I wanted to run and play, climb trees and chase butterflies. The hijab had always looked as oppressive to me as high heels, both framed around a man’s gaze.
“Put it on,” my father said. “It’s just a gesture of respect.”
“Respect?” How odd, I thought. “For whom? For what?”
He had no answers to give me.
“Just put it on and get on with it,” he said, visibly frustrated.
He had not let on about the new hijab mandate until the night before, leaving us no time to negotiate. Maybe he had not been aware either. We had all been locked up in the house studying over the summer, not following the news. But I’m sure if he knew, he would have kept it from us anyway.
The revolution was not going as planned.
My sister and I started fumbling nervously with our hijabs again. If we stayed really still and cocked our heads at a certain angle, a tiny knot could be managed. I knew we looked ridiculous. Still, I tried to calm myself. Maybe my dad was right and these girls were overdoing it. Surely! We were about to enter a sex-segregated zone. The teachers, school officials and support staff were all women. Even by the strictest dictates of the Quran, as I understood it, the hijab was unnecessary in such an environment. Who would care that our hair stuck out? Even the schoolyard, partially covered by walls and bars, veiled us sufficiently from the public. Besides, what suicidal motorist whizzing by was that desperate for a glimpse of the girls inside the schoolyard when he could ogle any bare-headed woman on the street in full view?
Logic was no comfort.
At least we had the ugly uniforms down pat. Each school was assigned a somber color: tan, brown, gray or navy. Navy would have been OK, but gray was the color assigned to us, perhaps to match the monochrome around us. Indeed, I had never seen so many shades of it. Even in our uniforms, we all looked so different, like we had come from different planets. I had never seen such diversity in Tehran, not all concentrated in one place. In features, height and signifiers of social class, we were all over the map. In fact, Gisha looked like a microcosm of the country, after you got rid of the upper class.
All this and more raced through my mind as the three of us continued to stand frozen in place. A woman with a loud, jarring voice shattered our moment. She was yelling out of one of the school windows, calling for everyone to get in. Her ferocious tone touched off a wave of panic, and there was a stampede toward the school gate. Clearly she thought she was herding cattle, not schoolgirls.
My sister and I moved only to clump closer together, clinging tighter to our mother, trying to save one another from the vortex forming around us. I could tell my sister was beginning to lose it. At 10, she was only two years younger than me but — from my perspective anyway — infinitely more vulnerable. She had always had me to steer and protect her when our parents weren’t around. Looking at her that morning made me even more nervous than I already was. The long sleeves of her oversized uniform were rolled up, and the top button was left undone because of the heat. She wore a tank top underneath, exposing a little bit of her bare neck. Unlike me, she had bangs, and they stuck out — all the more so because she had gotten the smaller, flimsier scarf.
“And the rest of you stragglers,” shouted the woman again, this time through a bullhorn. “Hurry up! Are you deaf? Get yourselves in here fast!”
Whatever courage I had mustered to face the day fell to the wayside. I looked up at my mother, who for the first time in my life appeared helpless, like she could no longer protect us. I began to cry, which set off my sister, so I stopped. I don’t remember what I told her to coax her away. I never lied, but I needed to do something to alleviate her anxiety. I would try to be strong for her. I was grasping for anything, however small. I told her things would be OK, but I knew they would not.
Over the summer, as we prepared for our transition to Iranian school, I kept telling myself this would be a fascinating and highly educational experience. My reading and writing in Farsi would improve and reach the proper grade level, resolving the handicap I had in my own language as a result of attending American schools all my life. And it would be a transformative experience to be among my own, I told myself.
But now that the day had finally arrived, I was willing to forgo such lofty aspirations. I would have groveled at the depths of ignorance to be spared the experience.
My mother stood still as my sister and I wrenched ourselves away from her. We heaved our bodies slowly forward, away from the magnetic center, down a mound of dirt that dropped to the sidewalk leading to the school gate. Monitors accosted us, checking our bags, not for guns or weapons but for lipstick, hairbrushes, even little mirrors that could reflect a bit of vanity. Any object aiding and abetting the enhancement of physical appearance was considered dangerous contraband. Anything other than mandated textbooks, corresponding notebooks, pens and pencils was confiscated. No comic books, magazines, newspapers or photographs passed this threshold. Nothing that could take the mind off the propaganda at hand was tolerated.
A final frisk and then we filed into the courtyard where everything looked even more depressing than it had from the outside. There were no trees, no grass, no architecture, no benches nor a single seat. There were bars on every window, like a penitentiary. I had seen the bars on the higher floors while driving by the school earlier that summer. My father, spinning his optimism, had told us they were there for safety, “to prevent falling out.” But now I could see there were bars on the ground floor windows as well. Everything was geared to keep us forcibly in place, at least from 8 a.m. until 2 or 3 p.m., when we would mercifully be let out again.
Hundreds of students were already assembled in semi-coherent lines, arranged alphabetically by grade level. My sister and I had to separate. I assured her I would be nearby. I reluctantly took her to the sixth-grader line and left her there.
As we waited in our respective lines under the beating sun, Islamic chants with themes of “Holy Victory” and “Death to the Evil Empire” blared from a tape recorder. For greater effect, the contraption was placed in front of a microphone on the second floor before an open window. Unequipped to handle the decibel level, the cheap sound system delivered a deafening thud each time they tried to raise the volume to hide the fact we weren’t chanting along. To avoid highlighting this, school officials kept having to turn the sound of the recorder down and then yell at us to shout louder in the ensuing silence.
“Long live Khomeini! Death to America!” the chorus went. We all knew the slogans from the demonstrations. But now in school? After the revolution? The slogans didn’t shock me when they were uttered in the throes of street protest and upheaval. But now, in school, among children, they no longer resonated. Somewhat to my relief, the girls standing next to me in line broke out into smirks and nervous giggles. Like my sister and me; like our mothers and grandmothers, even some of our great-grandmothers; they too had grown up in a very different Iran from the one now being imposed upon us.
The revolution was not going as planned for them either.
Instead of repeating the slogans, as ordered, my classmates mouthed the words only when they suspected a frustrated administrator was spying from the second-floor window or moving through the lines among us, like a shark.
There were so many of us only miming these strange words and giving the impression of participating that most of the yelling continued to come from upstairs.
A first act of rebellion.
When the tape recorder was finally turned off, a deafening silence fell over the school. Two girls standing nearby whispered conspiratorially, yet audibly enough for me to make out rumors of a new principal. Or was it an envoy from the revolutionary committee who had been dispatched here? We soon caught a glimpse of whoever she was. Flanked by underlings, spewing bile from her mouth, she emerged from the school building and marched the length of the courtyard, then up and down the straightened lines.
I had religious relatives on both sides of my family, including some claiming descent from the Prophet Muhammad on my mother’s side. But I had never seen anything like this woman. Her manteau was bulkier than ours — if that was possible — as well as darker and longer. At the beginning of the 1979 school year, we were still allowed to wear thick socks instead of pants under our long uniforms and most of us did just that to cover any exposed skin. But she, instead, wore very baggy pants made of the same dark material as her manteau, hiding her ankles and the shapes of her calves. Her headscarf covered not just her hair and forehead but also her chest and shoulders. Her hair was pulled down tightly underneath it; the headscarf seemed glued over it. Not a wisp of hair could hope to find its way astray into hell. Even the bare skin of her hands was covered under thick, black leather gloves. These gloves were showy, contrary to the objectives of the hijab, as I conceived of them. They drew more attention to her than away from her, which I thought defeated the whole point. (Later, in the dead heat of the afternoon, I would see her wrap herself head to toe in a black chador as she prepared to leave the school premises. This while still wearing a headscarf a mile long, a heavy manteau, pants, socks, covered shoes and gloves. Bulletproof.)
Her face was chiseled and strong, like a commander of a kind I had never seen. Yet she did not have a voice to match. The minute she launched into a tirade that morning, her weak voice began to crack. It was not a voice that was used to being exercised loudly, I remember thinking. It was a voice teeming with rage, after many years of suppression, for I imagined she must have belonged to the conservative social strata that were often treated like second-class citizens under the shah, suffering discrimination from the secular elite and strong patriarchy and sexism at home.
As she continued her march, she visibly basked in all the fear and attention. Each time we heard someone rustling among us, we took a deep collective breath and prayed to be spared her venomous gaze.
We were spared.
She had started what turned out to be the inspection of our hijab and uniforms at the far end of the yard, with the sixth graders.
Her angry, disembodied voice began to flare up again, this time as if she were slaying dragons. Her heinous shriek was eclipsed by piercing screams of pain from her first victim. From where we were standing, there was no way to know what was happening.
Moments later, she yanked her young target out of line and started dragging her to the front so everyone could get a good look at her.
“Whore! Scum!” she was hollering. “You dirty, dirty whore!”
As the two of them crossed my line of vision, I was horrified when I recognized the victim. It was my sister. Her arms and legs were flailing, her small torso contorted. The woman was pulling her by the collar, choking her. My sister was kicking, trying to get a foothold in backward motion, failing.
The sky seemed to go red and crash to the ground, freezing everything in sight. I dropped my bag and lunged forward, using both hands to push and shove people out of my way. The neat lines had dissolved into waves as students moved closer to the front to get a better look at the action. I was not moving fast enough. I started to scream for her to stop.
My voice didn’t carry. The shouting and gagging continued.
“What kind of get-up is this, huh? Why do you look like this?! Whore! Scum!” the woman said.
“I’m going to break your arms, then I’m going to break your face, then we’ll see what you look like after I’m through with you!”
Some people had turned to look at me now and were moving to let me pass through.
“Let her go! Let go of her!” I screamed. “She’s a child! A child!”
This seemed like a crucial piece of information that the principal should have known, something that would magically bring her to her senses. But even up close, this woman didn’t seem to see or hear me. She was crazed, possessed.
I tried to latch on to her hands and pry them loose from around the neck of my sister, who I thought was going to suffocate to death any second.
I’d never felt a more muscular grip. Not on anyone, no man and certainly no woman in those days.
As I learned years later, some of the revolutionaries were secretly trained in guerrilla warfare at Libyan and Palestinian camps to revolt against the shah. In retrospect, this was probably how she had bulked up into such a brute.
Her muscles extended from her arms down to her wrists and fingers.
I could do nothing but try to get in her way. She knew I was there, but she would not acknowledge me. She knew what I was trying to do. She shook me off with the slightest jab of her shoulders. She kept turning, facing her back to me. In the seconds that followed, I tried to jam the weight of my body into her. I tried to leap onto her from the back and take hold of her by the shoulders. Maybe then she would turn around and fight me instead. But I seemed to bounce right off her. She was as solid as a rock and I was a mere feather.
On the verge of hyperventilating, it occurred to me to grab her hijab, pointy in the back.
Forbidden, low hanging fruit.
Did I dare?
I managed to grab it and pull. It was so tightly locked in place that it didn’t come off. But a mere tug at something so sacred was enough to get her attention. She turned around, directing her otherworldly wrath and fury at me. Miraculously, she let go of my sister. I quickly put myself between the two of them and braced to be struck hard.
Yet she didn’t hit me. I looked at her. She looked away. She refused to meet my eyes. She looked in my direction long enough for me to try to see into hers. They were dark and impenetrable, as if she had veils over them too. She made no attempt to grab my sister again. She was through with us. For now.
But she raised her voice again.
“Look at this one,” she said, referring to me. Her voice had gone down some.
“She’s not dressed that much better herself! What kind of look is this, huh?”
“You too, then!” she continued. “Get out of my sight. Go fix yourselves up, and don’t you dare let me catch you looking like this ever again!”
A student approached from the crowd and handed us our bags. I had forgotten about them. My sister had lost hers in one corner and I had thrown mine off somewhere in the back. I took them quietly. If I said anything to show my appreciation, I don’t recall. At that moment, it was as if the compassion of every girl in that school coursed through my veins. I slung the bags over my shoulder and put an arm around my sister, who was too traumatized to lift her head. She was trembling, trying to breathe. I led her toward the entrance to the building, away from whatever was going to play out next. If the school gates had been unlocked, we would have run away.
The ground floor corridor was dark, cool and empty. I tried a door near the end of the hall. The classroom was yet to be occupied. We went inside. We held onto each other, standing against the back wall, sobbing uncontrollably. A teacher came in a few minutes later.
“What happened?” she asked, not without concern. How could she have missed the commotion outside? Or was it the norm around here?
“Rufuzeh shodeen?” she asked. “Had we flunked out?”
I shook my head. I was too weak and frazzled and dehydrated to answer. But in a moment I would learn the meaning behind her comment.
As we were led back outside, walking across the yard, I noticed a small group of girls who looked as traumatized as we were. Because of the strict standards of Iranian schools, a percentage of students get held back each year, separating them from lifelong friends, throwing their lives into disarray, further limiting their already-constricted futures.
The students who had flunked out were made to stand in the middle of the yard, as if under a spotlight, serving as a cautionary tale for those who did not obey or study hard.
This being the first day back at school, as the class lines were ordered to move and the gulf between friends and classmates widened, reality set in. It was too much for them to bear. They cried uncontrollably, full of shame. A couple of their friends left their lines and ran up to them. They held them tightly and wept with them, just as sorrowfully.
Forty-three years later, I watch in disbelief as young Iranian women burn their hijabs and bareheaded schoolgirls screaming with power drive a male official out of the school gate.
My own hijab came off at Fiumicino Airport in Rome the day we fled the Islamic Republic in the mid-1980s. I disposed of it in the first bin I came across upon landing.
A small act of defiance. Nothing like the fire and fury of this generation. Perhaps they will finally succeed in taking our country back.