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Being a Woman in Iran

An Iranian teenage girl, Armita Geravand, fell into a coma for nearly a month after a brutal attack by the country’s “Morality Police” at the Tehran metro station. Her only offense was not wearing a headscarf. For a month, I followed the news with a little hope, but it was shattered yesterday when I learned from unofficial sources and statements by political activists that Armita had passed away. Her 16-year life began and ended in a struggle.

There are half-awake, half-asleep nightmares where you run but get nowhere, scream but your voice won’t come out. Now, it’s as if I’m in all those nightmares at once. It’s as if they’ve choked me with thousands of headscarves. Those headscarves have become nooses, constricting my hands and stifling the words I could use to cry out my pain.


I was in Iran on a study visit on September 16, the same day 22-year-old Mahsa (Jina) Amini was brutally murdered. It was symbolic for me to be in Iran for the first time on that day, and before the trip, I made a clear decision not to wear a headscarf as a tribute and in solidarity with the memory of the innocent victims of the patriarchal, tyrannical regime.

During my visit, I explored different cities, and discovered that Iran is a wonderful country. Iranians are some of the kindest and most sensitive people in the world. I wish the world could see the real Iran beyond the veil of dictatorship. I wish the world could see and understand the people of Iran.

Some experiences are so difficult to put into words; sentences feel inadequate, and paragraphs seem illogical. These were my experiences as a woman during my 10-day visit to Iran. Some experiences were familiar, while others were entirely new.

It seems that women in Iran should either not have eyes or their eyes should be made in such a way that they only look at the ground. A simple mistake such as making eye contact with a man can make you the target of his gaze. Their stares are so brazen that you want to disappear in the underground. Even if you don’t wear a headscarf, the stares become more daring and frightening. They follow you with their eyes until you vanish from their sight.

One day, while walking through one of Iran’s serene gardens, I noticed two men ogling a woman dressed in black with revealing eyes. I was already accustomed to being looked at that way because my clothing was considered “unacceptable” to the locals. But seeing those stares directed at a woman in a burqa made me realize, once again, that the problem isn’t the clothing; it’s deeply rooted in people’s minds. Perhaps the regime, which champions “morality,” should consider establishing a “Morality Police” for such cases too?

In Iran, it’s considered disrespectful to turn your back on someone, and you’re expected to apologize if you do so. At the Isfahan bazaar, a woman apologized to a merchant for speaking with her back turned. The merchant responded with a famous Persian saying: “a flower has no front and back.” I had never heard such a hurtful expression. While it may be seen as a display of friendly behavior and something poetic, it’s problematic, especially since it’s often directed at women. It felt as if they were stripping you of your face and identity.

One night, on our way back to the hotel from a restaurant, with two other girls, we found ourselves lost in the labyrinthine streets of Yazd. For nearly an hour, we desperately searched for the minaret of the mosque, which would serve as our guiding light to the main street. Panic set in as we realized we were in Iran, we were women, and it was past midnight ….

Yazd’s narrow, winding streets are unpredictable. You walk 20-30 meters, only to hit a deadlock with a group of men appearing in front of you. Your legs start to tremble, and you instinctively search for a headscarf, which isn’t there because you’d decided to be rebellious and principled. Trembling, you cross to another street, where two men are fighting, and a motorcycle speeds past you…

I held a sharp hairpin made of orange wood in my hand, planning how I would defend myself and protect the other two girls with it in case we were attacked. When we finally located the hidden minaret among the Round Roofs of Yazd, my atheist soul was ready to convert to Islam at that very moment (I know you’re laughing now). That night, I experienced the greatest fear of my life, though I’ve been in many such situations.

In addition to that incident, my decision not to wear a headscarf was a genuine challenge because I could have attracted the attention of the police at any moment. I realized that I could suffer the same fate as Mahsa and many other Iranian sisters. I wore a headscarf only in mosques and at checkpoints in some places, taking it off again afterward. I won’t describe the views and attitudes I encountered during that time; it was an unpleasant experience. I was fortunate not to know Persian, which spared me from understanding what was being said to and about me.

When I began to lose hope due to the dirty looks and words, young women of my age suddenly appeared on the streets like beams of light. Just like me, they let their beautiful, rebellious hair flow in the wind. We exchanged secret smiles and silently thanked each other for our acts of rebellion, solidarity, and mutual protection.

They are beautiful signs of hope, like those small drops of water that, over time, pierce the hardest and thickest rocks. One day, these stones of tyranny will be pierced, and freedom and justice will flow through those holes like light. It all starts with the audacious drop of those small drops. Everything great in the world begins with small drops.


When we hear about someone’s death, we usually start to imagine ourselves in that person’s shoes. But the death of Armita, my younger sister, is a situation where you don’t just imagine; you feel the loss deeply. It becomes so personal that it’s as if you’ve been robbed of your own life, which was just beginning.

I was a woman in Iran for only ten days, but my sisters were born into that violence, lived their beautiful lives, and squandered their potential under the rule of that oppressive regime. It’s difficult to put into words what it means to be a woman in Iran. Let each person decide the answer based on their beliefs and experiences. In the end, I can only say that I am not truly free, and I won’t be until all women are free. Women need life and freedom. And in the end: Jin, Jiyan, Azadi.


Yelena Sargsyan