One Iranian woman
You do not have to have read de Beauvoir to be a feminist. You just have to have
az Kobra Khanom
March 1, 2002
International Women's Day is approaching and I find myself thinking that maybe
I should write an essay about being an Iranian woman or about women in Iran. How
does one start a piece that is so much about oneself and so much about a whole half
of the population of a nation, not to mention the world? How does one begin to discuss
something that is at once personal and collective, private and public? How do I begin
to talk about a subject I have pondered since I was old enough to think?
Then I thought to myself maybe I should write about an Iranian woman in my life who
acted as a role model and as an inspiration. Maybe I should just write about one
Iranian woman. Not your typical successful professional abroad or in Iran but an
ordinary woman with extraordinary qualities whose memory gives me hope and brings
a smile to my face.
From my early years two women had a great influence on me. My mother and
my naneh, or nanny, Kobra Khanom were literally the first Iranian women in
my life. My mother I can write a book about and I will leave to perhaps another occasion
when she herself wishes. But Kobra Khanom, or how I remember her, I want to share
with you on this occasion. Because she represents a kind of Iranian woman who is
not much mentioned or studied in a feminist context.
They were as different from each other as possible, my mother and Kobra Khanom. My
mother was a kot daamani (skirt suited) Westernized woman who worked for Saazemaan
Zanaan Women's Organization and read Erica Jong. Kobra Khanom, on the other hand,
was a baa hejaab (veiled), traditional woman. She came from what my mother
called, a relatively well-off family. But an unfortunate turn of events had made
her seek employ in our household. It was her first job ever.
She was supporting her own children and her deceased sister's as well and needed
the money. A family friend of ours and close relation of hers had introduced her
to my mother. Even when she stopped working for us Kobra Khanom remained great friends
with my mother and visited us regularly. Her daughter, a fine physician, now lives
here in the U.S. Her sister's daughter, whom she also raised, is a chemical engineer
in the U.K.
I remember how my mother admired Kobra Khanom for taking her life in her own hands
and doing such a great job of raising her children. Without any formal education,
Kobra Khanom was a very wise woman. My mother always asked her advice and listened
to her stories and had long conversation with her over tea. She knew a lot about
Persian herbal medicine and always had a cure for every ailment from heart palpitations
to just a heavy heart. She had a husky voice and loved me unconditionally. When she
came to visit she would always bring me khoroos neshaan chewing gum that she
kept in her long black purse the kind that has a big clasp on top of it.
When I was a teenager and confided in her, she often
would shed a few tears with me in the good old Shiite tradition of sharing tears
with loved ones. She was always cheerful despite the fact that she had been through
so much in life. She smoked a great number of Oshnoo cigarettes that came in the
flat white box with the crown on it. I simply adored her. I can still close my eyes
and smell her rosewater mixed with tobacco scent and feel her warmth.
Kobra Khanom was definitely a feminist in her own right. She raised her daughter
and niece to enter the work force and be independent. Having tasted the difficulties
of life and having had to support a household by herself Kobra Khanom, like single
mothers the world over, knew the value of a woman's financial independence instinctively.
You see, you do not have to have read Wolstoncraft, Wolfe, or de Beauvoir to be a
feminist. You just have to have common sense. To some women, even men, it comes naturally.
As does, let's say, the sense of fair play. Because that is what feminism is essentially
about: fair play. The belief that all people, regardless of gender, should get equal
pay for equal work does not take a lot of theoretical training to grasp and swallow.
It is much easier to understand than the notion of a Velayate Faghih or of
a Constitutional monarch for example. The idea that a woman should be an equal partner
in a marriage is not that progressive. It is just common sense. You do not need to
be literate even to believe it.
Khanom knew and every one around her knew that, of course, she could be as full a
witness in any court as any man. No man or woman doubted her good character and judgment.
The religious precepts and laws that existed and still exist did not necessarily
reflect the mentality of the people in this case. As it happens often in the history
of women's subjugation ordinary individual women make the reality less bleak than
the laws would indicate. There is a commonsense pragmatism amongst the traditional
and even the uneducated and rural sectors of the population that is refreshing --
that we Westernized Iranians underestimate.
I firmly believe that if any opposition movement wants to find the greatest common
denominator in Iran they should look to the question of women. I believe that a referendum
on hejab rather than the preferred type of government is a surer way to judge the
real secularism that exists amongst ordinary folk in Iran. I think that the question
of hejab can be the most unifying rallying point for change in Iran. Khatami was
elected more for the promise of social openness and liberation that he personified
than anything else. If seventy plus percent of the votes does not indicate that there
is a momentum for change on the question of hejab I do not know what will.
Kobra Khanom was a devout Muslim. She always wore a chaador, (black veil)
she seldom missed her prayer or her fasts. She was what we call in Iran a namaaz
khoon, one who does not miss the saying of their daily prayers. But she hated
the theocratic regime that came to power shortly after the revolution. She knew instinctively
that this regime was inherently hostile to women. Kobra Khanom thought of these akhoonds
(Shiite priests) as hypocrites. She had an image of the akhoonds as crafty
and sly that has existed in the Iranian imagination for many centuries.
Kobra Khanom was a chaadori feminist, who had no formal education, and who
hated the clerical regime. She is not your typical idea of a feminist icon, but the
memory of who she was gives me hope for Iranian feminism. (By feminism I mean quiet
simply the belief in the right of women to equal opportunity, equal pay, equal treatment
as full citizens.) She gives me hope because she points to the possibility of finding a common
ground on the foundations of common sense that all Iranian women, religious, traditional
or liberal, happily share.
You see, Kobra Khanom was a woman in hejab who hated the fact that I had to be forced
to be in one too. I believe that the majority of my devout sisters share the same
heritage of womanly common sense that you can find the world over.
You may think I am being naïve or idealistic but I tell you my optimism comes
form the fact that I once knew a devout chaadori, named Kobra Khanom, who
was illiterate but who hated to see my right to go out without the hejab be taken
away. Her memory gives me hope. Today I commemorate all the Kobra Khanoms out there.