The targeting of Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old girl shot almost two weeks ago by a Pakistani Taliban assassin, brought back memories of my teenage years in Tehran, where theocratic zealots were similarly in control. The words of the Taliban’s chief spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, had a chillingly familiar echo in my ears. A bullet had Malala’s name on it, he explained to the news media, because “she has become a symbol of Western culture in the area; she was openly propagating it.” He also called her “the symbol of the infidels and obscenity.”
The zealots of my era, circa 1982, prowled Tehran’s streets in khaki-colored Toyota SUVs and stopped girls and women of all stripes, ages and ethnicities, warning them if their scarves had slipped back. On good days, rather than arrest and haul us away, they would only scold: “Our men are being martyred by Saddam to protect your virtue.”
Iran’s war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was then in its second year; it was begun by the ambitious Iraqi dictator, who harbored expansionist dreams. But in the course of daily life in Iran, where harassment of women was reaching a fever pitch, the war was not over land or resources, but the honor of the nation’s women.
The war with Iraq was not even the one the country was told to gird itself against. The bigger, bloodier but ultimately triumphant jihad was yet to come, Ayatollah Khomeini reminded us daily. It would be against “world-devouring” U.S. imperialism and its proxies, the “blood-sucking Zionists,” he said; they were at the root of all the world’s evil.
That all-out war, forever looming, has never come. But the war on women has been raging ever since.
At the school gates every morning, we were greeted by our own Taliban, members of the the morality unit, in charge of “preventing vice and promoting virtue.” They rubbed the face of my rosy-cheeked classmate to the point of bleeding to make sure she was not wearing rouge and pulled at the long eyelashes of another to see if they were real. We missed months of math that year because schools were newly segregated by gender, and there were not enough trained female instructors in the country to teach in the girls-only classrooms. Two months before the end of the year, a few of us signed up for private lessons given by a man who stared at the ceiling while teaching, lest he violate segregation laws by looking at us.
The burning effigies of Uncle Sam, and the inflammatory rhetoric against modernity and the West, had done their work. The world cringed and turned away from Iran. Just then, the age of marriage was lowered to 9; the weight of a woman’s testimony in a criminal trial was halved against a man’s; divorce, abortion, inheritance and custody rights were slashed; several academic fields and careers were banned to women; and the Islamic dress code was reinstituted. Public spaces in Tehran, including buses, were segregated by gender, and the faithful’s fists pumped into the air, punctuating Friday prayers with “death to America” chants.
Credit for the discovery of this wicked double helix — the pairing of dramatic acts of anti-Americanism with an insidious assault on women, which subsequently infiltrated the DNA of fundamentalists throughout the region — goes to Ayatollah Khomeini.