My Captivity under Islam and Freedom from It
04 Aug. 2003
In my experience, beliefs can be dangerous things. Whether they are political, religious, or romantic, they share one thing in common: they require one to ignore all information that is contrary to them. Case in point is how Iranian women fought themselves right out of their own civil rights in the recent Islamic Revolution; not realizing this until after the damage was done. Their belief in a religious revolution as a cure-all for social ills had completely blinded them to the fact that history did not support this premise.
Women of the People of the Book (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have never fared well in strictly religious regimes. The daughters of Eve are forever accursed for tempting Adam with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge while the weak-willed Adam gets off Scott-free to wreck war and intolerance on the world in the name of God; as if war & intolerance were good and knowledge were bad!
I was raised a Pentecostal Christian, but the fact that I invariably had questions I wasn’t allowed to ask led me to the firm conviction that it wasn’t for me. Why, according to Saint Paul, was a divorced man allowed to remarry, while his ex-wife would be stoned to death for adultery if she should do likewise? Questions like that got me shouted down by my Sunday school teacher and called “The Tongue of Satan” by him. What it didn’t get me was answers.
I didn’t know about the women in Iran when I gullibly dropped my own religion and turned to Shi-ite Islam because, in Islam, I was allowed to ask questions and nearly always got reasonable answers. My teacher in this new religion also taught me the belief that women were never sex objects in Islam, but always treated with the highest respect. Having previously fallen into the guilt trip imposed on me, like so many young girls, by the experience of date rape, I fell for that like a clown into a bucket a hundred feet below.
I met Reza in college and fell madly in love with him. This, despite the fact that some of my fellow countrymen were being held hostage in his country and all the Iranians I saw on television were shouting “Death to America!” at the top of their lungs.
Innocently, and contrary to all evidence, I believed Reza exempt and blameless for the hotbed of bloodthirsty lunacy from which he’d emerged. After all, what was he doing here in what he called “The Great Satan” (America) if not to escaping from the terror and repression of his own homeland?
Likewise, Reza believed the average American to be “blameless victims” of our “evil regime” in spite of my protest to the contrary: we were not victims! We chose our own laws, freedoms, and government (which is NOT evil) and, for the most part, like them very much. Never mind it isn’t perfect. Nothing ever is.
I married Reza in spite of my family’s strenuous objections (I thought them unfounded), and agreed to visit his family with him in Iran while I was pregnant. First impression: a woman in front of me at Teheran’s airport customs station is arrested for the strand of hair that peeps from under her scarf and a romance novel in her suitcase. On the way to Reza’s home, I was disturbed by the near-uniformity of the always-escorted women who crowded the sidewalks. They were bundled in chadors (predominately black), faces hidden, or wearing earth-colored shapeless, long-sleeved, high-necked midi dresses with rouseries or marnais; they seemed both faceless and ageless. These impressions were swiftly followed by the confinement of the courtyard walls of Reza’s home, from whence I was forbidden to go without an escort.
The Iranians I met were a study in contradictions. They shouted “Death to America!” in huge hate rallies. They were also kind and generous hosts at every opportunity – even to the foreigners they shouted against. They could recite ancient history and the crusades like it had happened yesterday and to them personally. They took for granted the existence of spirits, “Jinn.” The men professed great respect for women yet accorded them no rights and strove constantly to pinch their bottoms. Little boys told me how to make cocktail malatovf and how they wished to be martyrs. I was horrified to see a 12-year-old strap on a belt of grenades and roll under an invading Iraqi tank and rather sympathetic of the Iranian woman I heard of who strapped on a similar belt and threw herself into the arms of the mullah who’d had the most to do with the loss of women’s rights in Iran. Iranian architecture, poetry, art, and many of its social customs charmed and fascinated me in spite of the hostile environment. I counted myself as lucky to get to see it as a non-tourist.
Still, I was extremely eager to go home. The violence, hate rallies, and loss of basic rights just didn’t sit well with me. After I gave birth to my son Javid Ruhollah, however, my husband coldly informed me that I would never see my homeland again. He was so cold about it, I suspected him to have been putting on a deliberate romance hero act when I “knew” him Stateside. I even found evidence that he’d been paid for it; I just couldn’t find out why. Meanwhile, my pushy mother-in-law took over the raising of my son, making it clear she didn’t want him tainted with any American ideas.
Captivity taught me more about freedom than anything I have ever experienced. When first they locked me a room, I was outraged and shocked. Only once before had I ever been locked in a room and then it had been my own bedroom when I’d rebelled at my parents’ interference in my choice of husbands: Reza, when I’d first eloped with him and my parents had recaptured me temporarily. I’d been rather obedient through childhood: I knew what an unpleasant experience it could be to make Mom unhappy with me and how pleasant to be on her good side. This new captivity, this discipline, was not parental and it completely pissed me off. I threw a ranting, screaming, tantrum, yet I broke nothing. I rattled the locked doorknob, pleading, shouting imprecations, and pounded on the glass door panes, but not hard enough to break them. I felt helpless. Eventually, I fell to sobbing, quiescent submission, but I did not attempt to escape.
I was like a domestic elephant captured at a tender age and kept in chains while it learns obedience and its spirit is broke. It is not yet strong enough to break the chains and life is more pleasant for it if it simply obeys without question. By the time it is grown, an elephant can easily break those chains, disobey at will, and trample its mahout, but it doesn’t. Why? Because once upon a time, a habit made its life easier and now that habit is a part of the elephant’s identity.
The next time, or perhaps a time or two later, when my husband attempted to restrain my American notions of free will, I deliberately broke some expensive furniture while aiming it inexpertly at his raging head as he chased me up the stairs. My aim might have been better if I hadn’t still some inkling of love for him. Afterward, I took a beating for my act of defiance. Still, when he left me, I sat against a wall, hugging my knees, and smiling anyway. He’d been enraged beyond all rational thought! He couldn’t be complacent in his control of me, and I had broken furniture. There was a hairline fracture in a link of my chain.
It wasn’t long before I began to take careful stock of every room I entered, studying every possible escape route and weapon as well as the individual weaknesses of the people around me. Soon, I could escape every room they locked me in. I would do it just to prove to myself I could, then let myself back in before they were aware of my absence. I found it fairly easy to lull them into trusting me again even on the occasions that they did catch me at it.
Really, they were far too gullible, far too trapped by their own paradigms. The mahout expects obedience from his elephant charge. Even the occasional brief, if ever, flare of disobedience has predictable limits. Realizing this, I did my best to be unpredictable. It should have put them on permanent guard, made them more vigilant, but it didn’t. They just didn’t believe what they were seeing. Or maybe they were just stone blind.
Religion, science, politics, law, culture, gender, age, and race define and guide us. To some extent, they are nature and even useful to us, but we are more than nature. Spirit and mind can rise above such mendacities. Limitations can only exist where we allow them. Like the Devil, they can only enter your house if you invite them in. If we are too slavish in our devotion to these confines, we can see nothing but darkness without. I knew there was an outside. I even found that I could send my spirit traveling without my body. This was in a spontaneous, accidental, and somewhat frightening, first experience of astral projection. I can only suppose that the stress precipitated it. And that’s when I found a new limitation.
The most insidious limitations are the ones that tie us to our physicality. Not only can the will to survive override us, but our ties to people, possessions, and honor obligations. I could escape at will, both physically and spiritually, but I had no place to hide until I had confronted my own demons and tied up all the loose ends behind me. Learning freedom was, foremost and always, learning who I was outside of both shackles and sanctuary.
In the end, I escaped from Iran by being a terribly disobedient prisoner. I was in my teenage rebellion phase at the time. They sent me back to the U.S., but without my son. My husband promised to follow me with him later. This turned out to be a lie intended for use in manipulating me. When it didn’t work, Reza remarried and I lost my son for his entire childhood, unable to find the means to retrieve him. Also, though I’d at least regained the opportunity for freedom, I kept the headjob, religious restrictions, and fear of enjoying life that I’d learned in Iran, even while hating them. The Iranian males I’d been around considered any woman who didn’t wear headjob to be a whore and any person who failed to follow every religious stricture damned to Hell. The whole thing was gift-wrapped in guilt and fear of momentous proportions.
My mom, seeing my convictions simply as abnormal and hurtful, badgered me constantly to just drop it.
By June of 1985, having gone through every argument there was to defend my headjob and insistence on halal meat; my own arguments began to sound hollow to me. It wasn't me defending a religion that, other than being a source of temporary enlightenment, was nothing but a pointless ache in my heart and a resistance to everything I cherished and viewed as normal. These were Reza's arguments that he had so painstakingly pounded into my head. I had been brainwashed. The hollowness changed to anger.
We were riding in my stepfather's convertible Corvette with the top down that sunny day. There were long lines at all the gas stations because of oil embargoes with Iran and the radio was playing, "All She Wants To Do is Dance," by Don Henley of the Eagles.
The song seemed, to my ears, to describe an American woman stuck in Iran, restless for the simple, harmless pleasures of her homeland -- "All she wants to do is dance and make romance," -- while all everyone else want to do is hold hate fests and make bombs. "I can feel the heat beating off the streets," it goes on, "She wants to party, she wants to get down . . .." Then it describes an airport filled with anti-American demonstrators shouting at her even as, finally, she boards a plane to go home: "Go home Yankee! Get away from here!"
I thought for sure the song must have been written for me. So compelling was the thought that it gave me serious pause. My grandmother HAD talked to an awful lot of people about me, had she somehow reached Don Henley too?
My mother's voice droned on beside me, almost beyond my notice, as I fingered the ties of my rouserie. That propitious moment was when she surprised me by breaking through my dour musing with blatant bribery: "Look, if you'll at least take that damn headjob off I'll take you to Disney World for your birthday."
Without even commenting, I untied my beige rouserie, and let it fly loose on the wind. It was like casting off chains, formally unveiling all of the lies I had been told, as well as those I had resorted to telling myself. I was nobody, if not a person I knew. My hair blew freely around my face and, for the first time in a really long time, it felt absolutely right.
To celebrate, my mother immediately took me out shopping and bought me loads of pretty new clothes to replace my Islamic drabs. She had long ago given away my pre-Islamic clothing to my cousins when she had thought I would never return to normalcy, much less come home from Iran. Better still: I got Disney World for my 21st birthday.
Only now and then would I touch my hair, caressed by sun and wind, and fight a moment of panic. I did recover, however. I won't ever let anyone or anything control me like that again.
Used with permission from Faith Freedom