This story is published in collaboration with ELLE.
There have been so many paragraphs, anecdotes, general news about the world, or other things that I thought of as the beginning to step into my side of the story here. But, as all adult life is about, making a decision and picking one out of the options is what defines who we are.
And it seems that with this beginning, I am seeking your understanding and eventually your forgiveness. Forgiveness of what, I do not know yet.
Mahsa Afaridah*, 43, Poet, Tehran
I’m dancing with my friends. I think it is my birthday party. Maybe it’s just a gathering. I am drunk. I am absolutely happy. Suddenly the door opens and my mother in black veil enters the room and gives me a hard look. She definitely is going to kill me. I am not wearing a hijab. I am surrounded by boys. My heart starts pounding.
And I woke, shaking, sweating, breathless. Again, that hunting nightmare which probably won’t leave me till I die.
I remember exactly the day it started. I was five years old. My cousins and I were playing some stupid game. They made me a bride, redded my lips with a colour pencil. One of the kids said let’s go out. As soon as I stepped out, I saw my mother walking down the alley. She gave me the same stern look that still appears in my dreams. I ran back to the house.
I’m now 43 years old and afraid of posting a single picture of myself without a scarf on Instagram. So I wonder if I have religiophobia. I know how religious beliefs can harm children, especially girls, in a religious family.
It was during the Iran-Iraq war, which started with Iraq’s invasion in 1980 and lasted for nearly eight years. Every Monday night we gathered in front of the TV and watched Oshin, a Japanese television drama about a miserable woman who suffered all the bad in the world. Sometimes during air raids we had power cuts and had to run to the basement. The first thing I did was get the radio so we could listen to the sound of our favourite serial being aired. When the characters didn’t speak, it was nerve racking. We had to just imagine what was going on.
The cartoons we watched on TV during those years were not any better. I wonder if it was a kind of strategy, so we suffer less from our miseries knowing that there were more miserable people out there.
According to Islam, girls since nine have to follow the Islamic rules, boys since they are 15 years old.
So when I was nine, I had to fast during Ramadan. My father was fighting on the frontline. We had to go on with small sums of money. I was suffering from malnutrition. To make the matter worse, I desperately missed my dad.
There is a rule that says if fasting is harmful for your health, not only do you not have to do so, but to fast is a sin. My mother said it was my responsibility to decide whether I should fast or not, whether fasting would harm me or not. Because she didn’t want to be responsible for putting me in Hell in the afterlife.
Back then, I didn’t know what I should do. I fasted for the whole month, and at the end I got so sick, I was so weak that I barely could walk to school. For a while I would often faint. When my own daughter was a teenager and at some point she was in a religious mood, I forbade her to fast.
It has been more than a month that I haven’t seen my child. Amid our marital problems, I applied for divorce, and he started to take our daughter to his brother’s house every day when he went to work. Throughout the process, my husband took our child and wouldn’t let me see her. During the years of our marriage he was not willing to look after her even for one hour. When I desperately needed to go to the dentist, for example, he would ask the neighbors to look after her. Now he was hiding her from me, as if I could kidnap my own child.
I remember crying to death at nights, holding her clothes tightly to my chest. It is how I missed her.
According to law, I am entitled to custody of her before the age of seven. She is four. When I went to family court seeking help they said it was absolutely my right to see my child, but they couldn’t do anything about it. It was my own job to convince my ex husband. So one day I couldn’t bear it anymore and I went to the door of my ex brother-in-law. They didn’t open the door. But I knew they were at home.
I went to a car repair shop nearby and bought some gasoline and a match box from a supermarket. I emptied the bottle all over my clothes and with the match in my hand I went back to their door, knowing they could hear me. I shouted, “I want to see my child. Either you let me in or I will burn myself alive right here in front of your building.” When the neighbors started to gather around, my sister-in-law finally buzzed me in. My poor baby was playing alone in a room. I held her in my arms and as I headed to the door my sister-in-law locked us in. I went to a small balcony. Now I was literally kidnapping my child just because I missed her. I cried for help. I held my child from her armpits and gave her to some neighbors on the street. Then I climbed over the waist high bar and jumped down.
Since I had left my husband, I rented a small apartment. I thought that he didn’t know where I was living. When we got home I changed my clothes and lay down in the bed with my child. Suddenly there was someone at the door, ringing the bell constantly. I looked through the peephole and my heart shuddered. It was him.
Later I found out that he had asked his brother to follow me from my work. Now he was banging vehemently on the door. I thought it would break into pieces. How had he entered the building? (Later my neighbors said they buzzed him in because he had claimed he was from the gas company.)
I called the police. When they arrived they took us to the police station.
There, officers said, “We don’t want to interfere in your family issues.”
They simply took the weeping child from me and gave her to her father.
As I walked home, it was getting dark. I crossed Azadi (Freedom) Street crying silently without paying any attention to speeding cars, thinking if only I was lucky enough to be run over by a car…
Somayeh Malekian, 39, Journalist, Tehran/London
It was my first session with that therapist, Ms. M. I was led to a small room with two chairs, a table, and a tissue box on it. There were no decorative objects in the whole room or on the walls except for a small frame hanging on the wall with a sentence I will never forget: “Understanding everyone is forgiving everyone.”
I was born in a small room of an old house at the end of a long, dark dead-end alley which was not asphalted at the time and would become muddy all of the fall and winter. It was a big house with a huge yard in the middle and around six or seven rooms around it. There was a stable for the two cows of the extended family where some sheep and lots of hens were also kept. I remember two turkeys among the herd as well.
“Tell me if your mom now has a little niece or a little nephew,” my dad asked his own little niece after I was born, just to know if his kid was a girl or a boy. As is tradition, he had not been allowed in the room where my mom was giving birth to me. And even after having two sons before me, my dad remained shy about asking my grandmother or the midwife the gender of his third baby. Anything with the slightest connotation of love-making is wrapped in shame, such that a father will not ask about his own newborn baby.
We are five. Though I make this tense mistake. We “were” five siblings before we lost our third brother in a terrible bus accident about eight years ago. Now we are four, me and my three brothers. Mehdi and Ali are older and Hossein is younger than I am.
Sona, 20, social work student in Europe
As told to Somayeh
I was born in 2001, a second child of a Turk family in Shiraz, a beautiful historical southern city in Iran. I can’t remember much from the house where I was born. But I have heard it was a very tiny place filled with stuff our relatives had gifted to my very young parents so they could keep up with their tough financial situation. My uncle had brought a small electronic heater, the other one some blankets and dishes.
My mother was 18 when she got married to my 22 year old father. She had lost her own parents at a very young age. Her marriage had been a way to move from her father’s house, where she took care of her younger siblings (since the death of her parents).
The last year of her high school, my mom sold sandwiches she had made at home to help my dad make ends meet. She got pregnant with my brother Soroush when she finished high school. She still tells the story of sitting at the nationwide university entrance exam when she was pregnant with my brother.
I was born four years after that, and it seems that their life started to boom since then. My father got a proper job in the oil industry in the south of the country and my mother started to spend more time with us.
I had a happy childhood filled with lots of memories of joyful ceremonies at school and spending time with friends. The oil company was famous for providing many facilities for the employees. Besides many often cheerful celebrations for any random reason at school—which is not that common in normal schools in Iran—we used to get so many presents at school from books to toys. I remember that my father would also get us many books. His favorite was one he had purchased on one of his trips to Malaysia. It was an English picture dictionary for children. So, at night, when he wanted to put me to bed, he would read me English sentences and translate them for me. I knew no English at the time. Now, in retrospect, the beauty of those nights is doubled when I remember that years later, it was me who would read English books to my father, helping him with translating the parts he did not know.
As close as I was to my father, I always struggled keeping my distance from my mother. I wanted to stay away from her, no matter how hard she would try to approach me on different occasions in my childhood, through my teenage years, and even now that I am 21.
I know that she herself went through a lot in her childhood after my grandmother’s death. Maybe it is why she always wanted to be supportive to me. She wanted to be my patience stone. She wanted me to trust her enough to tell her about the first time I was dating someone in high school. But I always resisted. I could never trust her.
Unlike her family, who are all conservative and traditional in every regard, including anything related to women, my father’s family are very open minded. It was a strange paradox.
By any means she tried to buy my trust, but I always and still resisted. I rarely hug my mother and only kiss her once in the New Year and once on our birthdays. That’s it. This is the distance I defined.
It is strange enough as I was the closest person she had. I have always been the person who fully knew her and understood her, who could see the depth of her pains. All the pressure she would constantly endure from my father’s family. Her determination and commitment to make sure everything is in good shape at home from preparing three fresh meals every single day to setting up the home and arranging all school-related things.
But with the palpable tension persisting in our house, her attempts were never enough to cut that distance short. Recently, I have started to get more distant even from my father.
There is something that I have started to deal with, it originates from a very young age. My parents were cheating on each other at the time and I knew that. It was so bad that I knew everything since I was around six, before going to school. My childhood and teenage years were living in the intervals of feeling anger and hatred towards my parents and enjoying my time filled with cheerful moments spent with my friends.
I still remember the day that I later realized was the moment my mother found out that my father was cheating on her. I was only four. It was full of shouting and breaking dishes and throwing phones and stuff at each other. I clearly remember the details as I was standing at a corner watching the scene in shock.
At the time we were living in Lamerd, a small town in the south of the country where my father got a job. There was a young woman, a second cousin of a relative or something, who was studying in Lamerd University and used to regularly come to our house as we were the only relatives she had in town. I liked her a lot. She was young and kind and would play with me anytime I asked her.
Until the night there was a big fight between my mother, father and this girl. I wasn’t in an age to understand what was going on. But I got the deep hatred between my mother and her. My only question that night was why my mother was fighting her despite knowing how much I liked her and how kind she was with me.
Even if I would not miss any chance to explain that fight to myself, it wasn’t until a few years later that I slowly decoded what exactly happened.
People thought I had become an angry girl, a sensitive one who just cries over every little thing. They would think my tears were shed for no reason. But, in my head, I kept telling them that they did not know what I knew.
I am not sure where my brother was the night of the fight. He is not in the picture I had in mind from then, but I remember that I started to think that I had to protect him from knowing the evil that was going on in the house.
We were a happy family that everyone would envy. Caring parents and two lovely, healthy kids. I did not like to be the one who proves it wrong. Actually, I always wanted to make my father proud. He was a respectable man in the family and his line of family name was the most important thing.
My father is from the nomad tribes, the Qashghaei. He is the first generation of that tribe who settled in a city. He had studied his elementary school with other nomad kids in different winter and summer schools where the tribes would travel along with all their sheep and tents.
In those tribes, father is a big figure. Everyone is known by their father’s name. The closer you are in line of the “khan” succession, the more respected you are. And I was always proud of him. I knew any shame to him would shame myself.
Now that I look back, I hate myself for all those feelings and what lingered years after. I blame myself for being more angry at my mother for her cheating than my father’s. To be honest, I do not know whether what they did was a mistake anymore.
I remember the first time I talked about it was with my therapist in Switzerland. It took me so many years to accumulate the courage needed to speak out. And her reaction shook me. She said, “Well, it is not a horrible mistake.” And I was like, well, you do not know about my background and the mindset I grew up with.
About my mother, I realized that she had an affair with someone; she had an extra phone hidden in her bag. It was always there and she would only use it when no one was around. I had caught her using it when she was in the room by herself. It was like I had realized there was something going on that she did not want anyone to know about, and I let her think I didn’t notice it every single time. Just as we would pretend that my dad had stopped his affair with that relative girl while he obviously hadn’t. It was like a public secret that had to remain so for a bigger benefit, the benefit of his honor and the family’s dignity.
It was a spring afternoon I think. I was in the second grade. My mom had come back from work and was about to take a nap on the sofa in the living room. It was just me and her at home and I asked if I could buy an ice cream for myself. She said I could grab some money from her purse in their bedroom. I went to the room happily to take the money. The moment I was looking for her wallet in the purse, my hand touched the hidden phone. I just knew that was the time I finally understood what was going on.
The decision wasn’t a tough one. I just took the phone and unlocked it. It was an old classic Nokia 0011, very easy to unlock. And there it was. A long list of a chat with a man I want to name Ali here. A man who was not my father. A man that I did not know and had exchanged many love messages with my mother. I was frozen from shock. But I had to quickly leave for the ice cream. I couldn’t let anyone know that I knew.
I left home, got my ice cream and went to days of silence. I do not remember what was going on in my eight-year old mind. But I remember I went silent for weeks. It was strange. I would disagree with anything that anyone would say without any reason.
The silence slowly changed to panic attacks any time I thought my mother picked up her purse. Or anytime I thought my father was somewhere else other than where he had told us. My parents would always find a way to justify the attacks. Justifications that I never resisted accepting. They would think it was because of my school test, my puberty years, my quarrels with my boyfriends, etcetera. I could never talk to them about it. Even thinking about disclosing the secret was suffocating.
So far I knew my mother had an affair with a man and all I knew about him was his name. And that my father had an affair with that distant relative girl that I loved as a kid.
It was at a wedding that finally Ali got a face. We had gone to Shiraz for that wedding and all of our relatives were coming to the town from across the country. We were staying at someone’s house whom I did not know. My father had left us there and gone to buy something I guess. My brother was not around. It was me, my mother, the old hosting couple and a young man named Ali. I am not saying that I immediately recognized him, but it was not at all difficult to understand that he was the recipient of all my mother’s love messages.
My mother and Ali had underestimated me. But I could see what was going on. And it was tough. I was around ten years old.
I was thinking of these details when I was preparing my long, colorful, traditional Qashqaei costume to wear for a recent wedding. I remembered getting ready for that wedding. I remembered what made the whole thing worse was that this man was married. And I remembered we had gone to his wedding. It was then that I realized why my mother was nervous that night. Why was she weeping after she got home from that wedding?
But now that I think of that afternoon, I think how naïve and inconsiderate Ali and my mother were. Ali was leaning back on a traditional cushion. Why should have Ali asked me if his wife was more beautiful than my mother? Why did they leave me in the living room and go to the bedroom together when the old host couple were away?
I knew what was going on. They either underestimated me or did not care if I would get it. But there is something I can in no way forget, the authentic smile on my mother’s face. She was happy, clearly happy.
I was sure then that I had a secret to hide. I had to hide it from everyone. It did not matter that my brother was older than I was, I knew I had to protect him from knowing what I knew.
Khadijeh, 60, Isfahan, Somayeh’s mother
As told to Somayeh
These are the pages of my memoir that your hands are turning. How can you just stand, watch and do nothing?
I used to sort of murmur this song at the carpet workshops, but later sang them loudly along with my friends when I could manage a 15-20 minute escape, when no one was around.
I would pretend that I wanted to go do some random things, like checking if others were ready to go fetch water, so other friends would come to one of our friends’ who had a more relaxed family. We would sing and dance together. One of our friends knew the basics of playing ‘tombak’ and I was the singer. My friends would tell me to sing, they said I had a voice.
Googoosh was very famous and trendy those days. There was a line that I liked. It says: “There is a calling from behind the walls, walls of my heart. I know the voice…” But my friends did not like it. They wanted an upbeat song so they could dance to it.
I can’t remember all the lines as I stopped singing after some points. I think because I could not sing at our own house and later I got married and I never had the time or spirit of singing. My dad was against music and of course dancing. He was so religious that the first thing my sister and I had to do in the morning as soon as getting up from the bed was wear our head scarves. Only the circle of the face could be shown, not a single strand of hair. He would frown at us and shout if our brothers could see our hair. It did not matter to him that brothers were ‘mahram’ (religiously close family members who women do not have to cover in front of).
It seemed as if being happy was haram—forbidden—in our house. We shouldn’t even laugh out loud. My dad used to say that Satan would get happy if he heard the sound of laughter.
So, those ten or twenty minutes of escape were time to be happy and sing.
Besides that, we had two or three other days in a year to have the whole house for ourselves. It was the grape harvest season in summer when not only my father and brothers would go to the farm to harvest their fruits, but our mothers had to go with them to help so the grapes would not rot on trees.
It meant that all house chores were on us, daughters. But we would do all the work at home so fast, cleaning and preparing food for when they return, and then we had the rest of the day for ourselves.
My friends would come to our house because we had a pond and we could go into the water and play.
So, that was the plan: on the first day we would quickly clean and wash the pond which would only be used for watering the garden and washing the dishes. Then we would drag water out of the well using the windlass. We would take turns to turn the wheel and carry the bucket and in about an hour the pond would be full and we would undress and go play in the water. We could happily scream and shout and sing and dance without anyone around to hear us. We then would quickly settle everything in its former place and my friends would go back home before people returned from the farms. Those were probably the happiest times of our childhood, when we would laugh loud and could hear our friends laugh.
There were few winter nights when we would go to our relatives’ place to sit and spend the long nights. There was no television at the time. People knew nothing about politics those days, so no political discussions, no games, nothing. The only thing we would do was recite the Surah al-Hamd from the Quran and the rest of what we say in our daily prayers. The older people would correct the mistakes in our Arabic accent. Even in those rounds of prayer reciting sessions, girls would not talk. We would just sit and listen to the boys and fathers. My father would renounce anyone even having a smile on their faces at the time, saying it was disrespectful to Quran and prayer.
I got married when I was 13. I had never seen my husband before we religiously became man and wife.
Here is how it started.
I remember that it was a weekend but I was at a carpet workshop, working. About two or three hours into work, my mother came and told me to go with her to my sister’s place because a few of our neighbors had decided to go on a one-day trip and the driver wanted to do a headcount. I got extremely happy because I did not need to work on the weekend and for the first time I was hearing about going on a trip. I quickly grabbed my chador and went with her.
But we did not go to my sister’s. Instead, we went to one of her neighbors. It was only us and the neighbor. Then came a man, who they told me was the driver. The neighbor brought us tea. I was waiting for the rest of the people who would join the trip. But the driver left after he had tea. And a few minutes later my mother said that we had to leave. I asked where the other people were, and why the driver did not wait to count everyone after they came. My mom just said that was it. I went back to the workshop and spent the rest of the weekend weaving.
A few days later, I would see my mother was setting up the home and cleaning everywhere as what we normally do for Norouz, to get ready for the rounds of relatives coming for a new year visit. I would also hear things, like some people were supposed to give us a visit and sit for writing “the contract.” I thought they meant the buying and selling contract of some farm or land that sometimes my dad had with his farm mates.
Then came the day. I remember I had come back home from carpet weaving for the lunch break and was taking a short nap before leaving again. It was when my sister, Fatemeh, 15 years my senior, woke me up, saying, “Hey, you! Get up! Do you know it is all about you? We are marrying you off. We are going to send you out of the nest.”
I remember the strange feeling in my stomach. I got up and quickly grabbed my chador and went to the carpet workshop. I told one of my mates there who was two or three years older than me. I told her what my sister had said. She soothed me saying this is what all of us had to do sooner or later.
Two of my friends from the carpet workshop, Batoul and Zahra, had gotten married before me. No matter how much the whole concept of marriage was shrouded in secrecy, it sounded like a duty to me. Everyone would do it, so I would accept it, too. It was up to my parents to decide. I was too shy to ask about any details like who the person is, or what I have to do. I had no one to ask. It was too much of a taboo for a girl to talk about.
Once my friend Batoul got married, she stopped doing carpet weaving. After a few weeks, I missed her so much and asked my mom if there was a way to see her. Even if she was living just a few alleyways from our house, I was not allowed to go there, I did not know why. But once, my mother helped me to quickly give her a visit, telling my dad that I was going to help her aunt who was living in the same alley that Batoul did. So I went there and said hello, had a quick chat over tea and in less than an hour I was back home.
When I told my other friend at the workshop that I had visited Batoul, she frowned at me with disgust. She asked if we have discussed what she does with her husband. She told me it was very inappropriate for a girl to visit a newly wedded woman. I did not understand her reasoning as I did not know what she was talking about but, having realized there might be something inappropriate about a possible conversation about men, I did not share that I had seen Batoul with others.
Then came the day that my in-laws-to-be came to our home for the first time. They were served with tea and fruit and then the men of the family wrote the ‘marriage contract’ and left. The contract would include my ‘mehrieh,’ the amount of money that my husband had to pay me if he wanted to divorce me. I did not know the amount. No one asked me anything.
It was just a day or two before that I realized they were the same family who lived on a familiar backstreet, that my brother was going to marry their daughter. It was a scary thing. I knew that it would never be easy. And then one of the women at the workshop told me, “You are doomed.” She believed that when two families exchange bride and groom both families will be affected not just by their own troubles, but also by any problem that the other family goes through.
But my sister told me not to care about what they say. And later my mom said once I get married, I should never share what happens at my husband’s house with others.
I was also worried because I had never heard anything good about the men of that family. That they were such angry men who would fight over any minor matter. I had heard that their daughters are not sincere at all. And, like everyone else those years, I knew that I had to live with them in a room at their house for years.
A few days after the contract signing, we had the religious ceremony of marriage. It was then that I realized that the supposed bus driver was the groom. At least he knew what the person he wanted to marry looked like.
I was extremely shy and could not look at his face. I would keep my face down not to look at him. I am sure he was the same. It was a strange feeling sitting beside a man who I did not know at all. I did not raise my head even when I wanted to put the gift watch my mom had bought for him around his wrist. Of course I did not look at him either before or after he put a necklace around my neck.
There are some moments in my life so dark that I am ashamed to remember them and talk about them even to myself. How on earth can anyone understand what you mean by “I attempted suicide for a pair of jeans?” Yet, it is what I did when I was 15.
After saving up for months I finally bought a pair of black jeans. I loved the blue ones but I knew my mom would never let me wear blue jeans. Here was my mom’s rule: any light color or any piece of clothes that attract attention are forbidden for girls and women. So she had this monthly or weekly ritual of rummaging through my stuff to find anything that could possibly violate that rule, something like a pair of white socks. It turned out that according to my mom black jeans were an “eye catcher” too.
When I got home I went directly to my room (which actually was not “my room,” we never had our own rooms; it was just a room that I shared with my younger sister and brother and often with guests). My mom came right after me, without asking any question, grabbed my shopping bag, took out the jeans, and said I should go to the shop the next day and give them back.
Then she went to our neighbor. That night I couldn’t blink an eye, thinking, “I don’t want to live anymore.” It was not just the stupid jeans. Wearing something that I loved was never a dream that would come true in my whole life. Since I was a little girl I always felt ugly in the clothes that she permitted me to wear.
So the next day I found some mouse poison in the pantry, stirred it in a glass of water and drank it. I still remember the taste of it.
I had a friend named Farnaz who often came to our door; then we walked to school together. I still don’t know in what condition my mom found me but that day my friend came, my mom let her in, so she absolutely knew what was happening. Farnaz took me to hospital and there they saved me and sent us home, without bothering to wonder why a 15 year old girl tried to kill herself
The saddest part—it still bothers me—was that my mom knew what I had done and did absolutely nothing. She never mentioned a word about it. If Farnaz hadn’t come over that day, I doubt that my mom would’ve done anything at all to save me.
Now I am a 43 year old woman, and the mother of a 23 year old girl. It’s been years of my mom trying to get emotionally connected with me but I just can’t.
I don’t have a single memory from my childhood of my mom hugging me. Actually the first time I felt that my mom loved me was when I was in the labor room giving birth to my child. The pain was gripping and loosening and I was shouting and crying. In a very short silence I heard my mom crying behind the door of the labor room. And at that specific moment I thought, “Oh, she loves me.”
I spent the first 11 years of my childhood in Qom (the most religious city of Iran). All people that I had any contact with were religious, including our relatives, neighbors, people on the street. The first woman I saw in my life without a hijab was on the cover of a cookery book belonging to my mom. She was a blond, slim young woman wearing a short skirt (again, first short skirt I ever saw), she was holding a bowl and stirring something in it, maybe flour.
We were living in a narrow long house with all the rooms in a row, something like a boarding house. After the front door there was my father’s study that served as a guest room too, just male guests. My two older brothers used to go out to play with their friends and ride bikes. As I was a girl, I was not allowed to go out.
I spent all my childhood by myself, painting or playing with toys. I particularly loved to spend time in my dad’s study surrounded by books or in a small room that my mom used as a store room. I had some cousins that had a relative living in Usa. This guy used to bring barbies as a souvenir for my cousins. These barbies were not something to play with or even to touch; my cousins used to put them as decorative objects in shelves with glass doors, locked doors! They occasionally brought the dolls out and I was allowed to have a close look at them.
Now whenever I look at my daughter’s Barbies I wonder if I was unconsciously buying them not for my child but for myself. When I was around seven, I had a beautiful dress with a pleated skirt that I loved, but when I wore it with a big scarf that covered my long hair I felt I was the ugliest girl in the world. Actually it was what I felt till I got married, when I no longer had to wear a full covering.
I feel ashamed when I think about my obsession with clothes all my life. It was not just about religion. Clothes, and appearance in general, was the last thing in the world my mom cared about. I saved my pocket money, sometimes stole some from my dad’s wallet to buy some clothes. But it was never enough to feel good. Because, for example, I would buy a shirt but a nice shirt doesn’t look nice when you wear it with worn pants and shoes.
Some days ago my friend and I were going to a party. As I was in my friend’s place she offered me to choose one of her dresses. I picked an elegant green dress. Just before leaving I felt I was suffocating; I urged her to unzip the dress and went to the party with my casual clothes. Elegant dresses make me feel stupid. I feel I am trying to be someone that I am not and people would notice it.
My mom used to say that I am her punishment from God. I remember her praying: “Please God, guide this girl or kill her.” She used the word “kill,” not some less brutal expression like “take her. ” (My worst sins were that I didn’t fully cover my hair). That’s why I think the day I tried to commit suicide she probably hoped that… I don’t know. It hurts even to think about it.
My mom lost both of her parents when she was five years old. One morning in winter, after a heavy snow, the roof of their house collapsed in front of her eyes. “After that,” she said, “I was like a ball my relatives kicked to each other.” Her relatives didn’t let her go to school. Instead she was babysitting their children or doing their chores. She always says that she will never forgive them.
When I was in my last year of high school and studying for the university entrance exam, she kept telling me, “Don’t bother, I will never let you go to universities, where boys and girls are sitting next to each other and God knows what they are doing.”
I try to forgive my mom because I know what she has been through. I really try, but I just can’t.
Marziyeh, 38, housewife
My childhood was both sad and happy. I was a daddy’s girl. Unlike my mom, he always had my back. He would take me to the park, buy me junk foods I liked, and play with me. Actually, I was his favorite kid. But, when it comes to my mother, it is more of a sad story. She was the one who would tell my father not to take me with them on trips. They would leave me at my grandma’s, but used to take my two other sisters with them, both older than me. It still stays with me as a complex when people talk about going on trips. It reminds me of being a broken hearted little kid seeing my parents going on trips with my two sisters, but not me.
However, I must say I had a good time staying with my grandma, my mother’s mother. Like my father, she was also good at entertaining me, playing with me, etc.
My father used to take me to his workplace. He used to have a shop. But the good days all passed when my father went bankrupt and was left jobless. It was then he started using drugs.
I have gone through days that I never want my own kids to experience. I do whatever I can to keep them away from tasting the sadness and helplessness that I had to bear.
My school days were full of the most bitter days I remember. Not only were the days of going to the park with my dad over, we became very poor. I was always being humiliated because my classmates would laugh at me for my torn shoes or old clothes. I had to wear my older sisters’ clothes. I would never have any snacks in my bag for the break times. I never liked school for those sad feelings.
I am 38 now, and still I wonder why my parents did not do more. Why didn’t they take me on a trip with them? Why did my father not go to work after he went bankrupt? Did he not see us suffering? Why did my mother not make us breakfast for even one single day before we went to school? Why did they not care? Why did she not care?
I loved my dad, I still do, but he could’ve done more. He could look at his kids and their sufferings, stop using drugs and start doing some decent work.
And my mother, she could be kinder to us. She always recalls her own childhood filled with great memories, with great joy of going out and playing with her friends beside Zayandehrood River in Isfahan.
My mother was the first child of a well-off family. She says she was such a precious gift to her parents after seven years of their marriage. Her parents used to provide all the best for her, from recreational activities to booking the best doctors in Isfahan when she became sick. But she would not do the same for her own kids.
I think my parents could do much more for us. I remember my sister started to work as a cashier in a pharmacy when she was only 18. She would pay for all the household; that shows how we were raised.
Now, I can remember the nights we had nothing to eat. It was a recurrent thing back then that my mother used to pour water into a pot, put it on the stove and turn on the stove pretending she was cooking dinner. We would wait forever till she finished cooking and would finally fall asleep hungry. Now, I can also understand how tough it was for them.
My parents used to fight over everything. My mother would ask my father to get out of home and find a job; he would fight back with nonsense. And me and my three other sisters would go to the room until the fight was over. We would close the door and try not to get involved or we would be beaten. Then, when things would get slightly calmer, we would get out of our cave, trying to help them reconcile and assuring them that everything was going to be alright.
But, I expect my mother to do more now, at least.
She could come visit me after I gave birth to my child. But it was after a week she came only to stay for a few hours and leave for weeks after that. She never helped me after my delivery when I was in pain. Nor did she deal with how to raise my kids.
When I think of my parents and my childhood, I think I have to become better of a mother than my mom. I sit with my 3 year old daughter and talk to her when she is sad, when she cries, when she is upset. I talk to her. My mom never talked to us.
To be honest, after some point, I decided not to talk to her either. Because even if she talks to us, she keeps criticizing us and victimizing herself. She always blames me for whatever happens in my life.
Jila, my sister, has epilepsy. Every single time she goes through a seizure, my mother starts blaming her for not taking her medication, not eating proper food, or not getting enough rest. She does not show any empathy.
I used to talk to my father, though. He would listen. He would advise me what to do in my life, with my husband, about his job, etc. My dad would not hesitate to support me in what I would decide. For example, he stood by my side when I decided to wear a hijab after my marriage. Ali, my husband, asked me to wear a full hijab, chador, if we got married. I accepted. It was not a big deal to me. I remember everyone was in shock when they saw me wearing a long black veil. They used to ask me how I could change so dramatically.
I used to wear lots of makeup at work, I used to polish my nails constantly or wear very colorful clothes. Now, suddenly, I changed into this conservative outfit.
My mother did not disagree either. She told me to do whatever my husband says and wear clothes in any way that he wants. My dad wanted me to do the same.
I think I became a happier person after my marriage. My husband takes me on trips. He likes me and I like him. Of course we have fights over many things. Like his joblessness. But, what can I do? Whatever I say to him can trigger a fight. A fight that I do not want my children to witness. Because I have seen enough of them in my own childhood.
I have started to compromise. That is very needed in a shared life.
Whenever it comes to a point that my husband and I are about to start a fight I remain silent or I change the topic. I do not say anything. My whole body starts to shake. I know that if we start a fight, the first thing he would tell me is go to my parents’ house. What can I do in such a situation? With such a mother at home?
All I do is take refuge in my mother-in-law. She has been kinder to me than my mom and my sisters. She always listens to me, talks to me. She tells me how we have to become more patient in life.
I do not mean that my husband is horrible. Last week, he surprised me with a birthday party. He had bought me a few good gifts. But you know what? I would like him to appreciate me and what I do in life. None of the gifts could make me happier than him quitting smoking at home where our little kids are.
Those days people wouldn’t like women to spend time out of home if they did not have a necessary thing to do. I used to go to our neighbors’ places to weave carpets until I learnt it well. Then I got my own loom to weave at home.
It wasn’t an easy job to convince carpet weavers to teach you how to read the design from the design map.
Our neighbor, Jamileh, had the carpet loom at her place. Others would go to her house to weave. She had five or six kids from newborn to about seven and was always overwhelmed by loads of chores. What I would do to convince her to teach me how to read the carpet design was to go there very early every morning much before others would come to weave. Then, I’d help her clean her house, give breakfast to the kids and clean the carpet loom. I loved carpet weaving so much that I would do anything to learn it.
It is how I managed to buy Jamileh’s attention. She started to count on me more than others and finally agreed to teach me design and pattern reading.
I remember the day she wanted to teach me. It could not happen in front of other weavers. She told me that I had to pretend I wanted to stay longer to help her with the kids when everyone else was about to leave. Because, if they knew she wanted to teach me, they would want to learn, too.
I was surprised that it only took half an hour. I got the whole pattern reading in only half an hour, and then I was no longer dependent on others to read the pattern for me to weave.
I should also say that it wasn’t just for being the apple polisher that I’d help Jamileh with her housework and cleaning the loom place. I liked to be in a neat, tidy place. And Jamileh was a nice person. She had a good heart. Sometimes when I wanted to go back home after work, she would tell me to ask my mother if I’d stay for lunch the day after because she was going to cook something special.
By special I don’t mean that it was a very fancy meal like what we say these days. It would be like a stew with some meat in it. Those years people were all thin and skinny. We didn’t have fat people. We wouldn’t eat much and everything was so natural and organic. In the spring and summer it was the season of melon and watermelon; we used to eat watermelon and bread in the morning. In winter it would become some beans and wheat, boiled with some herbs as a sort of soup. We would have a cup of that with bread.
Unlike dinner, lunch was a meal we would rarely have together. My dad, my brother and their two workers—at that time they were called “bondmen”—used to have yogurt and bread every day. Four grown-up men would have less than a kilogram of yogurt for lunch for farm-working days as long as 14 hours. At home, lunch was not much fancier. For almost all of summer we used to have vinegar diluted with some water and mixed with some mint, and if we were lucky, some grated cucumber.
But dinner was when we would have the most proper meal and we would sit around each other talking about our days. I remember that rice was a sort of luxurious food to have those days. We would mostly have some soup or stew with meat two or three times a week.
The taste of the stews my mother used to make is still fresh in my mouth. She did not need to tell me how to make them. I would stand next to her looking at her way of cooking and learning it. It was not a big deal. It was like I was just doing my responsibility at home. But, still once I made a terrible mistake for making the simplest thing: eggs.
It was winter that my mom went to Tehran to visit her parents who lived there at the time, because my uncle used to work there at the time. I was nine or ten years old and my twin sister and brother were about three years old. Mom took Mohammad with her on the trip and left Batoul with me at home.
We used to have hens at home and used their eggs or exchanged them with neighbors for what we needed. But my mother asked me to make sure I would make the eggs for ourselves so she was sure we would get enough food in her absence.
There was no gas at homes, neither gas pipes nor gas cylinders. Oil was rarely used. We’d use wood to make fire to bake bread and warm the house. But it would be very smoky and it was tough to have so much wood every day, so we had to mix the wood with cow dung to curb the smoke and slow down the burning. There were special big buckets that we had for mixing and putting this organic fuel in. To warm the room, we would put the bucket under ‘corsi,’ a low-height table made with thick sticks covered by a huge heavy quilt. In all houses it was the only warm spot in a cold winter, where you could sit around it on the floor and cover yourself with the nicely warmed quilt from toes to shoulders.
I remember that some days in the morning my mom would place the pot of food ingredients into the bucket under the corsi so it was cooked slowly for dinner.
So, when mom was away in Tehran, I followed her way of cooking and placed two eggs into the mix of wood and dung before I took my sister to the public bath for our weekly wash.
When we came back, a disgusting smell had dominated the whole house. The eggs had exploded inside the corsi. My sister was about to throw up. I quickly grabbed a piece of cloth and took the bucket out of the corsi and dug a hole in the garden and covered the whole mess there. Of course not the bucket itself. I washed the bucket so the smell went away. My friends later told me I was smart. I did that just in time so my dad would not notice the mess when he returned from the farm.
Even if my dad did not notice the mess and my mom was not around, I felt very guilty inside for not being able to make the eggs. Then, I decided to make it up. What I did was that instead of making two or three eggs every day for myself and my sister, I would make only one or some days none. What I did though was put some straw in a basket and save other eggs I had. Until the day my mother came back, the basket was beautifully full of eggs. She was happy seeing I had gathered them so neatly. I put the burden of guilt off my shoulders.
Things that I would hide from my mother were mostly on this scale. One other thing that I managed not to tell her was how I started to wash my hair with powder detergent. They were also a new thing when I was nine or ten. For washing the body and clothes, we only had homemade soaps which were of very low quality. They were so greasy. It did not matter how much I would wash my very thick hair, it was still dull, fuzzy and frayed making it tough to comb.
Once I was complaining to a neighbor about my thick hair saying I wish I’d lose some of it. She told me she’d heard that if we wash our hair with powder detergent, then it would cause hair loss. It was an amazing hint. But I knew that my mom would be mad at me if she realized I wanted to lose my hair, because having thick long hair was a big beauty criteria. So, I started to smuggle some powder to the public bathroom with me.
The difference between these detergents and the thick greasy soaps was that they would wash my hair to a shiny look. I would even hide it from my girlfriends in the public bathroom, because I was afraid they might mention it to my mom just randomly. But it didn’t remain a secret for long.
Since I started to wash my hair with the detergent, my friends’ mothers noticed that their daughters’ hair was not as shiny as mine when we were back from the hamam. In the beginning they kept criticizing their daughters that they would not wash their hair thoroughly enough and made me an example of a neat, clean girl who doesn’t just play around the hammam and would focus on washing herself and getting clean. After a few times, however , everybody realized that was not the case. My friends started to ask me what I was doing with my hair because no matter how thoroughly they washed their hair with soap it wasn’t like mine.
At the end I told them about my little secret, making them promise not to tell my mom. And, I have to add, the detergent never resulted in hair loss for me.
I loved the hammam ceremony a lot. It was a lot of fun for us, like the water fetching. We were all girls playing and sometimes singing in the hammam, telling jokes, talking about our days and eavesdropping on women who were talking about their own days, things that we normally wouldn’t hear. Sometimes we would hear them consulting each other about finding wives for their sons. They would say things like, “Have you seen Asghar’s daughter when she fetches water? She is so strong carrying two big jars of water and walking so swiftly.” It was also where women could see all of the girls that they had considered for their sons, to make sure they are healthy or have a good body.
It was the water fetching, washing clothes at the pond, our time in hammam and mosques and carpet weaving when we had fun with our friends, and our families would feel safe that we were by ourselves. But sometimes there were precautions even in these places. Not all girls were equally trustworthy to our parents.
For example, those days when I was about to learn carpet pattern reading, there was a girl in the workshop, her name was Maryam. She was a few years older than me. I remember that once she did not come to weave and then she did not come the day after, and we heard that she was lost and had not gone home. She was lost for three or four days and people started to talk about her a lot. Everyone would say something. Some people said she was kidnapped, some would say she was killed and there were whispers that she had eloped with a boy. It was a big shock in the neighborhood.
Finally, she was found and her father beat her really badly. He wouldn’t let her leave home anymore.
My mother wasn’t afraid of me doing anything like her because she trusted me and knew I was so careful. But still she told me several times never to think about doing something like what Maryam did. She told me: “Look how everyone mocks her dad now. Look how her family is disgraced and ashamed in the whole town. Promise you would never follow anything that she has probably told you.”
After a few weeks of her isolation, Maryam’s mother came to the carpet workshop and asked Jamileh’s husband for help and intervention. She said that her husband doesn’t allow her daughter to do anything. Jamileh’s husband was of those men who people would go to for reconciliation. And in this case, he could also help convince Mayram’s father to let her back to the carpet workshop as it was a safe place with no men around.
Maryam came back and resumed working there. But things were not the same as when she had left. Women would look at her differently now and she had become very sensitive, reacting to any single thing. The atmosphere had become thick and heavy at the workshop and, after a while, Jamileh asked her not to come anymore.
I do not know what Maryam did after that, but I know that she got married to a guy from Isfahan, not in Dolatabad, our own town. People said no one from town proposed to her. But, now, after years, we occasionally see each other and talk about our lives and our memories at the carpet workshop. Last time she told me about her son getting married and that she sang one of the songs we used to whisper at the carpet looms.
I loved those songs, I initially learnt them by listening to the radio that my brother had bought. It wasn’t a rare thing, but because it would play music, my father and almost all men in town did not allow us to listen to it. When I finally set up my own carpet loom at home, I would sometimes steal my brother’s radio when he and my dad were away at the farm and would listen to it with a low volume while weaving my carpet.
I used to keep the volume low so I could hear my dad’s bicycle when he’d enter the house and I could quickly turn it off.
One day, I remember I was singing along with “Aqasi,” whose music was very popular those days, when I suddenly noticed my dad entering the room. I got so scared that I couldn’t find the on/off button. I wanted to mute the radio but instead I turned the volume to the loudest. There was no more time, so I just left the room and tried to run away from him. The poor man had an inherent problem with his leg. He wouldn’t use a cane but limped heavily as he moved. He took the long broom that we used for the yard and chased me, shouting how dare I listen to the music in his house. At the same time he started to feel sinful because he himself was hearing it while chasing me. So, he left me and went back into the room to turn the radio off, but he didn’t know how. He came back to the yard desperately and told me he’d promise not to beat me but I had to turn the radio off, quickly. I went back to the room carefully and ready to escape again if he wanted to beat me. I knew he wouldn’t, but I wasn’t sure. I forgot all the fear the moment I saw what my dad had done to the radio. He had thrown lots of blankets and pillows and buried the radio underneath to suffocate the volume. I couldn’t stop laughing, but I had to as my dad came in. Seeing me laughing could make him even angrier.
It was the last time I listened to the radio for years. Not because I was afraid of being beaten, but because when my dad calmed down, he told me that listening to the music was haram and if I’d listen, then in the other world, flames of fire would go out of my ears because God doesn’t want us to listen to music. I stopped listening because at the end of the day I thought it was not worth the risk, neither with God, nor with my dad.
I was born in Qom (the most conservative city of the country). It was wartime (Iran and Iraq war). The first image I remember from my childhood is from when I was about two and we were sitting in the living room in front of the TV. I clearly remember a framed photo of Khomeini hanging on the wall on the top of the TV. In fact, the frame is the only clear thing I can recall from that moment, the rest are all vague and cloudy in my mind.
Next is what I remember from the day dad was coming back from the front. Maybe I was three. Baba came walking with a cane. I had missed him very much. I remember once getting stuck in the bathroom and would not leave, insisting that only Dad had to come and help me out.
It is sad that I do not have a single memory of my mother. Only that she would sleep at noon times and would force us to sleep, too. As I look back, I have no memories of my mother kissing or hugging me. Surely she had done that, but I do not remember anything.
I was four when we left Qom for Khorramabad. I loved to play with kids on the street but mom would not allow it. My brother, two years younger than me, and I would talk to children from behind the window.
Once I was about five, I went out around sunset time with a skirt, instead of wearing pants. Mom came and dragged me back home and hit me hard with the stick and piece of hose. She bruised me badly.
I loved being in the crowd. I would play clowns for the kids next door. I’d enjoy it deeply when I could make them laugh. I think we were supervised by strict and stupid adults. Despite their severe control over us about what to wear or how to behave, they didn’t seem to care much for us. Once we had a group of guests at home. While adults were having lunch in the living room, we children were in the bedroom. I remember one of the children pulled down my pants and his. I was choking with fear, but I was also too afraid to say anything to anyone. Or I remember the neighborhood kids touching me a few times when we were at the age of sexual curiosity. I still feel like throwing up when I remember that. Our parents seemed too busy that they could not care about these incidents; maybe because they had too many children that they could not oversee all of us.
I’d love to go to religious chanting ceremonies along with mom. To me it was a fun recreational thing to do as I would play with other girls and have sweets together. I remember once I wore a pair of long, black women’s socks to join mom in her religious meetings and my sister mocked me for wearing them because she found it to be very ugly. But I did it anyway.
Mom was pathologically obsessed about religious purity. If I would fall while playing and my leg would bleed, it was not the pain that would bother me but the thought that my mom would start many rounds of washing me so I would not bring the impurity of blood into our home.
Every time we went shopping with Mom, she would do lots of bargaining with the shopkeepers and almost always we would leave the shop without buying anything. Once there was a pair of shoes that I loved badly, but mom did not buy them and instead got me another pair that I never liked. I hated them. I still remember their shape.
I used to be terribly afraid of hell, as mom would describe the tortures there with detail. She would tell me how I could be hanged by my hair in hell if I showed it in public. I always had this question in mind: “Why should I be hanged?”
I don’t remember my mom giving me any feeling of love and affection.
It was my brother who took me with him to register me at school. First we went to a relatively good school; they had an entrance test on a very primitive level, with questions about names of colors. But I didn’t even know green and blue. So he registered me at another school.
On the first day, my mom and dad took me to school and told me to come back with the school bus, but I took the wrong bus. I did not know I could ask help from anyone from school. So I just started walking. It was a kind of exploring and discovering the city by myself. One of our relatives accidentally saw me in front of a window shop and asked what I was doing there. Then she took me home.
I loved going to school. I did not do kindergarten and I loved being with people in a group. I was a very careless child and always lost my books and stuff. I was great in math but terrible with dictation and spelling. Mom did not hit me or confront me in any way when she saw my report card, but I remember the way she looked at me which made me feel very ashamed of myself.
I failed in my dictation class and I had to go to school for a makeup summer course. Other students would laugh at us on the street pointing at us, calling us “lazy and dumpy” children. I later realized that many people have problems with writing. A problem that has something to do with a part of the brain.
I hated writing. It would hurt my hand. I’d become stressed. I always wished I had a typewriter machine that would write my homework. One day I told one of my classmates about it. She told me that she had a typewriter that would write all of her homework. I asked her if she could use it to write mine, too. But she said her machine would only write hers. It was from her that I learnt I could also bluff.
It was when I started telling lies, like we used to be very rich before my dad went bankrupt, or that we used to have sofa and armchairs at home but we’d sold them, while in reality we never had any until I finished college.
No one at home would ever ask me if I had homework to do or what I should do for school. I used to feel my heartbeats every single time my teacher wanted to check our homework. I still get stressed when I remember it. Once I was kicked out of school early because I hadn’t done my homework. When I got home no one asked why I was back so early. But I loved school anyway.
The first time I talked to a stranger boy was the day I sneaked out of the class and left school exactly when the teacher wanted to check the homework. I went back home. But this time I knew I should not get home before I was expected. So I wandered around the nearby park. Those days it was illegal to have a VHS player at home, but one of our neighbors had one and their children used to tell us the stories of movies they’d watched. I remember I told that stranger boy about one of the films of Jackie Chan, pretending that I had watched it myself. His jaw dropped when I told him the details of beheading someone with a guillotine.
I remember my older brother would tell stories to my little brother and me at night. I loved that. I wanted to be like my sister. She was my role model. She was the center of attention in the family; everyone admired her. When I learnt that my teacher had a son named Mehran (which sounded like an elegant name to me) I wished my sister would marry him.
One day my sister was recording my younger brother’s voice. I said, “Please record my voice too.” I wasn’t jealous of my brother at all, but when we were teenagers he was a real pain in the ass. He was very naughty and always got on my nerves. And everyone told me that you are older than him, you should behave better. One day I got really angry and said, “For God’s sake I am just two years older than him. Why am I the one who should be a good guy? Why does nobody say anything to him?”
In my daydreams I had a few handsome brothers. They had a Nissan Patrol and drove me around. They took me to playgrounds. They were very supportive. In those dreams, there was no such thing as a hijab. At weddings or religious ceremonies women and men were not separated. Women wore no hijab. My parents were not in my dreams. Don’t know why.
When I was around ten, one day on my way back home from school, I stuffed my chador in my bag. My mom saw me in the alley and gave me a lesson I never forgot. She beat me badly.
Later, when I was older and whenever I was out and my hair was not fully covered, if I saw a woman in a hijab I felt uneasy. I felt the weight of my mom’s hard look, as if that woman would judge me.
When I was at middle school one day my mom was on a trip and I cooked for the first time. Since then I started to do chores at home. Maybe as a way to be noticed. Nobody forced me to do that. But I liked being admired. I liked when others said, “Oh poor thing. You did that all on your own?”
I don’t remember being encouraged before that, maybe just for reciting the Quran, or little money that my dad gave me as a reward when I passed my final exams with good marks.
My pocket money was next to nothing. Mostly I took food from home to eat at school.
I liked some kind of cookie that cost more than the money I had. Sometimes I stole money from my dad’s pocket to buy my favorite cookie.
I was born in Dolatabad. I don’t know what year or what day. My parents did not get me a birth certificate or an ID. They just decided to give me the ID of my sister who had recently died. Her name was Roghayeh. This is why my name on my ID is Roghayeh but everyone calls me Khadijeh. Roghayeh had died after falling into the small pond we had at home. She might have been trying to wash something in that little pond. And drowned in the water with no one noticing.
Our house was big and old. It had a big yard with two rooms far from the pond. The yard was almost vacant. There was that pond and a garden of 40 sq meters in the middle. My father used to plant some vegetables and herbs there that we would use for cooking. Things like mint and radish. And there was a well, too. People used to have wells at their houses as there was no water pipe or tap water. We’d use the well water for washing and watering the garden. My dad had made that well. Then we would take water up using rope and a bucket. But for drinking water we had to go to the village spring. It was around a 10-15 minute walk.
We would take big jars and go to the spring that was called “Khoshi Spring” because it was in the Khoshi neighborhood. We had to go either very early in the morning or late at night when the water was clean. Because some people would use that water for washing clothes, too. Maybe those who did not have a well at home.
I started to fetch water when I was around five. It is one of my favorite chores to do, as I could leave home. And I could hang with other girls in the alley. We were five or six girls more or less the same age. The first year we would go on foot. But, later on, we sometimes would ride the donkey we had, to fill and carry the big water jars. My dad would not allow me to go with the girls. So, when he wasn’t home I would seize the chance to join them. He would allow me to go to the spring with my mother though. But still, my mom would send me with the girls when my dad wasn’t around, when he was away on the farm.
It was a fun walk or ride to the spring with the girls. We would play on the way. Sometimes we would stop to pick some herb named tragopogon which we couldn’t find in our own neighborhood. We would eat some and take the rest home to share with others. Or we would take lots of silverberries and eat on the way and throw them at each other.
Even if we would go early in the morning, still we could see women washing clothes in the spring. So we would keep going to reach upstream, that had the cleanest water. We wouldn’t boil the water. We would just drink that or make food with it right away.
One of my sisters was killed bringing water. I was very little. I can’t recall it myself. As my mom told me, I should have been around a year old when it happened. That day, my brother and two of my sisters had gone to Khoshi Spring to bring water. They had been around the place where women would wash their clothes. That’s where the remains of a wall of a very old building collapsed and fell over people around the spring. Shahrbanoo, one of my sisters, died right at the scene and my oldest sister, Fatemeh, was injured at her feet. In the beginning my parents were worried thinking my brother had also been killed because he had gone with my sisters to help them. That is how it used to work. It was not appropriate to let girls go out alone for whatever reason. It should be either with mothers, brothers, or a custodian.
But fortunately, that day, my brother Hossein had left his sisters on the way to go play with his friends and had not been around the spring when the wall had collapsed on his sisters. My mother used to tell us how happy they were when they realized he wasn’t injured.
(Right now, as I am writing this, both Fatemeh, who was injured at the wall, and my uncle, who had gone playing, are dead. My uncle died of cancer three years ago when I was still in the U.S. and my aunt just two days ago due to COVID. It is strange to write about them now…)
It is strange that I lost two sisters, Roghayeh and Shahrbanoo, for reasons related to water. I got my ID from the first one and have no memory of the second one.
I want to talk about my sister Fatemeh, but I will get back to it. First I want to tell you about our neighborhood custodian that I mentioned.
In our neighborhood that person was a woman named Robabeh. So, when I told you I used to go fetch water with my friends, we could never go by ourselves. It was either I would go with my mother, or if it was with friends, we had to coordinate it with Robabeh. We could go only if she wanted to bring water. Then we were allowed to join her in bringing water. She was such a stubborn woman. I do not know who had given her this position. But it was like everyone had agreed that she was responsible for the chastity of the girls in the neighborhood. Our mothers would agree and welcome that interference because they were so busy with so many kids they had and would appreciate an extra hand to help them control their girls outside of home.
Sometimes we sit with my friends from those days and talk about how we hate her now more than when we were kids. She was the one who persuaded our dads not to let us go to school.
Even in those years, there was a school that girls could go to. But Robabeh has told our already religious fathers that it is not appropriate for girls to go to school. I remember that my dad would tell us, “It is religiously forbidden that a woman puts pen on paper.”
Besides a formal school in the village, there was a woman who would teach the alphabet and reading and writing to girls at home. My mother took me there secretly, without my dad knowing. I was in the clouds. But when my dad realized, he got angry and threatened my mom not to do that again. Even if I tried to learn reading and writing years later, after the Islamic Revolution in what they called “the literacy jihad” (a program to teach reading and writing to adults), I could never learn it. By then I had already been so occupied with my husband, three or four kids and housework, that I did not have the time or focus to learn. It has always remained a lifelong dream for me.
I do not know why Robabeh would do that. She herself was a strong woman at the time. She had several kids, all grown up and already married. She used to work at the farm by herself. She was sort of independent. Still she was against the girls’ schooling.
It was not the only thing she was responsible for. We still talk about her as the “patrol of the neighborhood.” She was the one that people would refer to for asking advice on anything, from finding a wife for their son to getting information on what is a good piece of farm land to buy. I never knew who had given her that title or how she managed to get that power. But that was a kind of rule, that if Robabeh was against us going to school, then it was not a choice anymore.
She would help women in the neighborhood, too. For example, when my own mother gave birth to her twins, my sister Batul and my brother Mohammad, Robabeh would help her take care of them when she was busy baking bread or helping my dad with his farm work.
I learned carpet weaving when I was six at my friend’s house, Batul. Her father was one of the first people who started the carpet business in Dolatabad. Before that, women would do more canvas weaving. That was easy and cheap. But carpets were more complex and they would pay more. Besides, I loved to hang out with girls in the neighborhood because I did not have a sister at home and my mother was always busy. And my older sister was already married when I was two or three. So, I embraced learning carpet because I could spend time with my friends at the carpet loom.
I remember the first time I got paid for my work. After two months of weaving, I had mastered all of the skills, from different ties to reading patterns, scissoring and refining the ties. I remember I got 20 tomans for the first two months. When I got home I gave the money to my mother.
“Do you want a pair of earrings?” my mother asked. I got so happy and agreed. She took me to the jewelry shop and I chose a pair of earrings which had become fashionable at the time. All my friends had them. They were called “Ashrafi model.” I remember they cost 18 tomans. Considering the size of the earrings as I remember, they would surely cost as much as a professional employee’s monthly wage these days.
My mother never hesitated to let me spend the money I had made for myself. She did not ask me to spend the money at home for the daily expenses. My father did not say anything about how I had spent the money for myself.
I never had gold earrings before then, or any earrings I can recall, except for a pair that are actually the first memory I have from my childhood. I remember nothing from my life before that moment.
I should have been two or three years old. I remember that I was sitting on my sister’s fiancé’s lap. His name was Abbas Ali. He was putting on me a pair of small earrings with a dark blue gem that had a woman’s face engraved on them. All I recall is that I was very shy but very excited that as soon as he put that in my ear I ran to my mother to show my earrings. I think my mother told me they were his souvenir he had brought me from his pilgrimage to Mashhad (holy city in the northeast of Iran, where the 8th Imam of Shia Muslim is buried).
My sister, Fatemeh, who had survived the wall collapse, might have been 16 when she got married to Abbas Ali. They were already engaged when the wall fell on my sister. Abbas Ali had told my mother that many people had asked him to divorce Fatemeh as she was “broken” after she had broken her leg in that incident. My mother always remained thankful to Abbas Ali because he did not divorce my sister. It could mean that she had become a divorcee at her father’s home forever.
I can’t recall Fatemeh and Abbas Ali’s wedding. I should have been very little, maybe three or four years old. And my sister should have gotten married at around 19; that was too old for girls to get married at the time.
My sister had three or four miscarriages before her first child, Morteza, was born; I was around seven or eight years old. Knowing all techniques needed to weave Isfahan carpets by then, I had become a professional carpet weaver and I stopped going to my friend Batul’s place for weaving. Instead, my mother sent me to my sister’s so I could teach her how to weave and it could keep her busy during the day. I would go from around eight in the morning to four or five in the evening. One or two years after that, I got my own carpet loom at home.
But one of my best memories from those years is of when my first nephew was born. As a tradition in the village and despite all restrictions of women moving around or spending time out of home, when a woman would give birth to her child, it was the responsibility of the grandmother—from mother’s side—to take care of the newborn the first ten days.
Especially in my sister’s case, as she had those miscarriages, my mother stayed with her for that time. When my mother was there, I was responsible for the housework and taking care of my dad and my brothers when they would come back home from the farm. But one of those ten days, when my father was away at the farm, I sneaked out of the house and went to my sister’s to visit her and the newborn.
I clearly remember how excited I was when I got to see Morteza. It meant a lot to everyone that my sister finally gave birth and the baby was alive and he was a boy and they had many visitors. Those days, people would cater visitors to the newborn boys with special delights made of almond with a sweet wrap. I remember they smelled like rose water. Abbas Ali gave me one and later when he realized I liked them, he gave me two more.
It was the first time I’d seen bananas in my life. I had never seen them before. I remember my mother asked Abbas Ali what they were, and he responded they are the fruits people would say are good for my sister as she was weak after giving birth. To me they looked like strange tree branches.
Abbas Ali wanted to give me one of them, but my mother did not let him, saying I did not know what they are and how they taste, so better not to waste them on me and save them for Fatemeh. Actually that was when he gave me more delight.
I was there for an hour or two and my mother asked me to leave and go back home so I’d be there when my father and brother would come home. It could make my dad angry if he had realized I had left home without his permission. But the problem was that he would not give me the permission anyway.
He was tough on us about anything outdoors, but he would help us with housework. He was not the kind of man to sit waiting for me to serve him when mom was not around. Even if he was tired after farming, he would make tea himself or help with the dishes.
My girlfriends from the alley and I would always dream of going out of home. The only times we were allowed to go out aside from water fetching or carpet weaving was three nights in Ramadan, the Qadr Nights. And what we would do was go to the nearby mosque. It was of the very few chances we could see girls from other neighborhoods as that mosque was where many would like to perform their special Ramadan ceremony.
(One of the memories I have from that mosque is about a speech a clergyman was giving. He was talking about the difference between a Muslim and a true believer. He said that the Pharaoh was a true believer in God. Because he himself knew that he was not the God, even if he would tell people he was and would ask people to worship him or do sacrifices for him. The clergyman was saying it is not enough to simply say that God is one and Muhammad is the prophet, but what matters most is that we find the truth in our hearts. I think I was around 11 or 12 at the time I heard this speech.)
We would leave Dolatabad just twice a year. Once with my family to visit my oldest uncle every new year who used to live in Isfahan (about 15 minute drive to the north of Dolatabad). And once a year there was a one-day pilgrimage to a holy shrine in Narmi (a small village close to Dolatabad, about a 30-40 minute walk).
I would die for the day that we would go to Isfahan. The only chance I could get to see beautiful streets and shops. I remember my dad would tell us, “You are allowed to watch the shops as you are following me.” Now I think about it and laugh that we were so thankful of him allowing us to do window-shopping and making us feel like he was doing us a favor.
And the other time we would leave Dolatabad was when Robabeh would take the girls of the alley to the holy shrine. We loved that. It was such an amazing hike that even the constant naggings of Robabeh could not kill the joy of it. She would tell us to not laugh out loud even if no one was around on the road except for us. We would lower our voices for a few minutes and would resume our own jokes and playful walks right after.
I remember there was a river on the way that we would pass over and rest a bit near the bridge that crossed it. It was beautiful scenery. These days, when my sons Mahdi or Hossein drive me to the shrine, I remember our laughs passing the bridge. The river has gone dry. Robabeh is gone. Most of our naughty girls band is now aged and sick. But the memory of the joyful laughs of girls wrapped in the veil has prevailed.
I told my mom that I was writing or trying to write something, and I wanted to talk to her. “It’s a kind of interview, about you, about me, about us.”
“Okay. Feel free. Call me whenever you have time.”
The next day she called and said that she had already written her memories and would send them to me. She asked me if I can find a way to publish them, or maybe I can write a screenplay based on them. “Or it can be a series! There are a lot.”
When I receive the mail, my hands start to shake. It is a heavy package, five notebooks, each one 100 pages, blackened by her sloppy handwriting, front and back of every single page. But it is not the weight of notebooks; it is the weight of her stories that shakes my hands.
I start to read:
At dawn, my mother woke me up. She poured some boiling water in a pot and said, “Take your sister to the yard. Wash your hands and then come back for breakfast.” Last night she had dyed our hands with Henna. My baby sister was three years old. I was five. When we were out in the yard, before going to pee, I asked my sister to wait for me. But she said that she had some secret to share with mom and didn’t want me to know it, so she went back inside. It was a two story house. We lived upstairs; downstairs was a byre where we kept our cows. When I was in the water closet, which was quite far from the main building, I heard a deafening voice of our neighbor, an old woman, screaming, “My God! My God!” I came out and saw that the stair was blocked by a heap of rubbles.
“What happened?” I asked the old woman.
“Nothing, nothing,” she said as she asked another neighbor. “Take her out of here!”
People were gathering around the ruins which only five minutes ago was my home.
“I want to go to my dad! I want to see my sister! I want my mom!”
“For God’s sake, someone takes this poor child out!”
My father’s cousin and her husband adopted me. They had no children. They treated me with a lot of love and kindness. But people started talking. They started spreading nasty rumors: her foster dad will finally marry her! I was five and he was 45. He was one of the nicest people God has ever created. After a year they adopted another child and my father’s cousin’s behavior changed. She worked from 7 mornings to 13. I became the babysitter of the new child. In the afternoons I wasn’t allowed to go out to play with the children of the neighborhood. She started to beat me whenever I went out.
There are five pages in the first notebook about this woman. About how angry she was and how she used to shout at my mom, how she beat her. This woman passed away 10 years ago at the age of 75. When I was young she was always very kind to us. I remember when my mom was hospitalized for some surgery; she came and stayed with us (we were five children). I want to call my mom and ask her why? Why after so many years she still talks ill of that poor woman who now probably is nothing more than a bunch of bones in her grave? I want to tell my mom that maybe that woman didn’t know better too. But I don’t. Because I know what she has been through, I know that very well, maybe too well.
So maybe I should tell her, “Do you forgive me for not forgiving you?”
*Mahsa Afaridah is the pen name of an author living in Tehran whose confidentiality we want to ensure given the current political situation in Iran.