Smile and nod
Believe in your choices
By Sheila Shirazi
July 6, 2001
The problem with a society that trumpets unfettered free speech is that
the people who enjoy this privilege (or "right", according to
the U.S. Constitution) feel a certain obligation to exercise it as often
and as vigorously as possible. Another right that we have is one that is
woefully underused: the right to remain silent.
I had the pleasure of invoking that right at a party I attended with
my parents recently. The guests of honor are distant relatives who relocated
to the opposite coast and were paying a rare visit. They have a daughter
a few years older than I, whom I always envied for having Iranian parents
who seemed way cooler (read: less restrictive) than my own. Anyway, I hadn't
seen them in years.
Believe me when I tell you that the woman was still in the door frame
when, in practically one movement, she hugged me, gasped at my transformation
from girl to woman, and exclaimed, "Mashallah, kam-kam dokhtar aroos
meesheh!" I thought, "Oy. Here we go...," smiled weakly,
Needless to say, there was nowhere to hide. Eventually she cornered me.
She led me to a sofa and sat me down. I braced myself for the usual Husband
Lecture. The look in her eyes was a mixture of kindly nun and fanatical
cult leader. (Now I know why.) She asked me if I believe in God. (What??)
The look in my eyes must have been naked terror. "Umm...," I stammered,
though what I meant was, "Not really... well... uh... it's complicated."
I guess "Umm" was good enough for her, because she proceeded
with, "You have to ask God for what you want." (I immediately
asked God to drop a piano on my head.) "If you ask God to help you
find him [him? Who??], He will help you, ok?"
I nodded. And smiled. I nodded and smiled a lot during our five-minute
"conversation". The only words I recall saying were "Umm"
and "Uh-huh". I did my best to appear as though I were giving
serious thought to her suggestions, all the while thinking a) how grossly
inappropriate it was for her to counsel me on marriage and religion, two
of the most personal issues in anyone's life, at a party and b) how ridiculous
she would feel if I were to share my true feelings about either subject.
After this bizarre, surreal encounter, I sidled up to my great-aunt,
who has watched me cultivate my beliefs over the years, and whispered that
I had just discovered (!) that if I would only pray to God, he would lead
me to my husband. She burst out laughing. "Who said that to you?!"
My great-aunt knows that, right now, my desire to be Godless is surpassed
only by my desire to be Husbandless. In fact, most of my generally-immediate
family are aware of this, and they accept it (probably because they know
I'm young and assume I'll change my mind). Is it nice that they understand,
and don't pester me about it? Yes. Would I feel differently about it if
they didn't? Not likely. Do they know all the details about why I choose
to live this way? Absolutely not.
The personal lifestyle choices I make are not up for discussion. Perhaps
they would be if I were looking for them to be validated by someone else...
but I'm not. Perhaps they would be if I were looking to impose them on someone
else... but I'm not. As such, I don't feel obligated to defend them to anyone,
especially not to someone who operates in a context so dramatically different
What that "conversation" at the party comes down to is a difference
in values. She made some inaccurate assumptions about mine, and though I
felt an indignant lump grow in my throat, and the volcanic pressure to unleash
my beliefs build in my chest, I just smiled and nodded. I reminded myself
that her expectations about religion and marriage come from the sum of her
experiences, as do mine.
For Iranians, especially ones who still live there, and especially for
ones who are in the twilight of their lives, life revolves around the family
unit. This is an essential value. To live otherwise is unfathomable. And,
frankly, as far as unshakeable beliefs go, it's hardly a bad one to have.
Mrs. Shirazi ["Quiet
weekends"], your in-laws want grandchildren. The only answer they
want to hear from you is, "We'll get right on it. In fact, we're going
upstairs right now!" Defending your beliefs isn't going to change that.
Your beliefs are totally wacky to them. Your beliefs are in a different
language, and they are untranslatable.
Fortunately, (I think) you live in a country in which the definition
of family is constantly expanding to include new alternatives. It's not
fun to be persecuted for your beliefs, and plenty of people are, but you
live in a country where a plurality of beliefs is increasingly the norm.
Your in-laws don't. The best you can do is believe in your choices, and
surround yourself with like-minded people as much as possible.
And who knows, if the nay-sayers around you see how much you are enjoying
your sexy, unfettered, relaxed, spontaneous life, perhaps they will find
cause to question their own beliefs. In the meantime, I bet a trip to Paris
will make you feel a lot better.