Written by: Ghazal N.
It started when I was 11. I was wearing a t-shirt and a new pair of jeans, waiting for my mom outside an old supermarket in Tehran. I liked looking at the people passing by; I liked looking at the signs around me, so I’d wait outside. An old man walked by, yelling, "Where's your chador? How old are you? You're old enough!" He was loud enough for my mom to hear and step outside.
The day after that, I still had no interest in wearing a hijab, but I didn't intend on getting yelled at either. My next time waiting outside the market was in the car. I sat on the ground hiding bare-headed instead of wearing a hijab. My parents couldn't talk me out of it. I did not want to wear a hijab.
By the time I was 13, I finally gave in. I wore a hijab & took the backseat. That’s when I started living a double life.
At school, being conservative about your opinions was the way to go. Despite that, I always enjoyed when discussions about society, politics, and religion would break out in class. I liked it when a certain word or phrase triggered people to break out of their conservative shells. I liked when teachers were challenged. I liked conversations that made people uncomfortable. I liked when I could sense my peers enjoyed it too. I liked when they dropped hints; "Yes, I too live a double life."
In college, being conservative became more important than ever. Yet, for some reason we felt like we had a newfound freedom. We felt like we could talk and we could be heard. We could not bear to keep things bottled up any longer. We wanted to fight —but this was, of course, only the beginning of the story.
Then you'd hear about how professors treat students who oppose them and you'd hear about the suspensions, and you start to bottle everything right back up. You tell yourself that you have bigger battles to fight in this country, greater things to accomplish, and you can't afford risking your future for this. You swallow your thoughts, mute your voice. You start reading books and listening to music in class because you can't bear listening to what's being said. That's when you start to feel helpless. Helpless because you would never dare tell the girl sitting next to you, "this is bullshit, we have to say something." That would just get someone else in trouble on top of yourself. Every week for 3 hours, I would sit back in class and enjoy my book.
I took a sociology class during my sophomore year of college. We were discussing women’s rights and feminism when a boy in my class turned to me and said: "You can't have the same salary as me even if we have the same position because you get maternity leave."
There I was— sitting in one of Iran’s finest universities, in a class taught by a female professor, among 50 students— completely in shock that this person was disregarding my choice to have children. My humanity was being equated with maternity. I challenged him to try getting pregnant, trying to get him to realize that maternity leave is not just for women. To make matters worse, not a single one of my classmates stood up for me. I was furious, but at the same time I was frustrated with myself for being unable to put my thoughts into words. I grabbed my bag and stepped out of class, shaking. He kept talking about me after I left. He went on and on about how I'm a devil worshiper all because I have a tattoo on my hand and that, "this is what the West does to you!”
I was too angry to tell him that I knew what he was implying. He assumed that: because I have a womb, I’ll have children; and because the baby will grow inside my body, I’ll be the sole caretaker and stay at home. I wonder how he would have replied if I said, "what if I don't want a family?" I wonder if he’d still count me as a woman if I didn’t.
The next time I went to class my professor pulled me aside and asked me to not get “too sensitive” and that “we all have different opinions.” From that point forward, I decided not to engage in classroom discussions.
You see how I'm living a double life, right?
I’m forced to live within this “one size fits all” box. Even though I’m fully aware that there is more to life, I continue living within the confinements of this box because I know it will keep me out of trouble. I’ve seen what’s happened to those who've challenged it.
If I embrace my true self, I get shamed by others.
& I shame myself if I live my double life.
In one sense, living in this conservative-box physically protects you from a lot of misery in Iran, and in another sense, it kills your spirit. Regardless of what you choose to do, all you do is barely survive.
We only have one life to live. Do you understand how exhausting it is to deal with something you don't think you should be dealing with? To pretend. To have a second life. To live a double life. I don't have enough time to pretend that I’m happy, content, heard, and cared about when I know I’m not.