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One Iranian woman
You do not have to have read de Beauvoir to be a feminist. You just have to have common sense

Audio: Tajlil az Kobra Khanom

March 1, 2002
The Iranian

International Women's Day is approaching and I find myself thinking that maybe I should write an essay about being an Iranian woman or about women in Iran. How does one start a piece that is so much about oneself and so much about a whole half of the population of a nation, not to mention the world? How does one begin to discuss something that is at once personal and collective, private and public? How do I begin to talk about a subject I have pondered since I was old enough to think?

Then I thought to myself maybe I should write about an Iranian woman in my life who acted as a role model and as an inspiration. Maybe I should just write about one Iranian woman. Not your typical successful professional abroad or in Iran but an ordinary woman with extraordinary qualities whose memory gives me hope and brings a smile to my face.

From my early years two women had a great influence on me. My mother and my naneh, or nanny, Kobra Khanom were literally the first Iranian women in my life. My mother I can write a book about and I will leave to perhaps another occasion when she herself wishes. But Kobra Khanom, or how I remember her, I want to share with you on this occasion. Because she represents a kind of Iranian woman who is not much mentioned or studied in a feminist context.

They were as different from each other as possible, my mother and Kobra Khanom. My mother was a kot daamani (skirt suited) Westernized woman who worked for Saazemaan Zanaan Women's Organization and read Erica Jong. Kobra Khanom, on the other hand, was a baa hejaab (veiled), traditional woman. She came from what my mother called, a relatively well-off family. But an unfortunate turn of events had made her seek employ in our household. It was her first job ever.

She was supporting her own children and her deceased sister's as well and needed the money. A family friend of ours and close relation of hers had introduced her to my mother. Even when she stopped working for us Kobra Khanom remained great friends with my mother and visited us regularly. Her daughter, a fine physician, now lives here in the U.S. Her sister's daughter, whom she also raised, is a chemical engineer in the U.K.

I remember how my mother admired Kobra Khanom for taking her life in her own hands and doing such a great job of raising her children. Without any formal education, Kobra Khanom was a very wise woman. My mother always asked her advice and listened to her stories and had long conversation with her over tea. She knew a lot about Persian herbal medicine and always had a cure for every ailment from heart palpitations to just a heavy heart. She had a husky voice and loved me unconditionally. When she came to visit she would always bring me khoroos neshaan chewing gum that she kept in her long black purse the kind that has a big clasp on top of it.

When I was a teenager and confided in her, she often would shed a few tears with me in the good old Shiite tradition of sharing tears with loved ones. She was always cheerful despite the fact that she had been through so much in life. She smoked a great number of Oshnoo cigarettes that came in the flat white box with the crown on it. I simply adored her. I can still close my eyes and smell her rosewater mixed with tobacco scent and feel her warmth.

Kobra Khanom was definitely a feminist in her own right. She raised her daughter and niece to enter the work force and be independent. Having tasted the difficulties of life and having had to support a household by herself Kobra Khanom, like single mothers the world over, knew the value of a woman's financial independence instinctively.

You see, you do not have to have read Wolstoncraft, Wolfe, or de Beauvoir to be a feminist. You just have to have common sense. To some women, even men, it comes naturally. As does, let's say, the sense of fair play. Because that is what feminism is essentially about: fair play. The belief that all people, regardless of gender, should get equal pay for equal work does not take a lot of theoretical training to grasp and swallow. It is much easier to understand than the notion of a Velayate Faghih or of a Constitutional monarch for example. The idea that a woman should be an equal partner in a marriage is not that progressive. It is just common sense. You do not need to be literate even to believe it.

Amazon Honor SystemKobra Khanom knew and every one around her knew that, of course, she could be as full a witness in any court as any man. No man or woman doubted her good character and judgment. The religious precepts and laws that existed and still exist did not necessarily reflect the mentality of the people in this case. As it happens often in the history of women's subjugation ordinary individual women make the reality less bleak than the laws would indicate. There is a commonsense pragmatism amongst the traditional and even the uneducated and rural sectors of the population that is refreshing -- that we Westernized Iranians underestimate.

I firmly believe that if any opposition movement wants to find the greatest common denominator in Iran they should look to the question of women. I believe that a referendum on hejab rather than the preferred type of government is a surer way to judge the real secularism that exists amongst ordinary folk in Iran. I think that the question of hejab can be the most unifying rallying point for change in Iran. Khatami was elected more for the promise of social openness and liberation that he personified than anything else. If seventy plus percent of the votes does not indicate that there is a momentum for change on the question of hejab I do not know what will.

Kobra Khanom was a devout Muslim. She always wore a chaador, (black veil) she seldom missed her prayer or her fasts. She was what we call in Iran a namaaz khoon, one who does not miss the saying of their daily prayers. But she hated the theocratic regime that came to power shortly after the revolution. She knew instinctively that this regime was inherently hostile to women. Kobra Khanom thought of these akhoonds (Shiite priests) as hypocrites. She had an image of the akhoonds as crafty and sly that has existed in the Iranian imagination for many centuries.

Kobra Khanom was a chaadori feminist, who had no formal education, and who hated the clerical regime. She is not your typical idea of a feminist icon, but the memory of who she was gives me hope for Iranian feminism. (By feminism I mean quiet simply the belief in the right of women to equal opportunity, equal pay, equal treatment as full citizens.) She gives me hope because she points to the possibility of finding a common ground on the foundations of common sense that all Iranian women, religious, traditional or liberal, happily share.

You see, Kobra Khanom was a woman in hejab who hated the fact that I had to be forced to be in one too. I believe that the majority of my devout sisters share the same heritage of womanly common sense that you can find the world over.

You may think I am being naïve or idealistic but I tell you my optimism comes form the fact that I once knew a devout chaadori, named Kobra Khanom, who was illiterate but who hated to see my right to go out without the hejab be taken away. Her memory gives me hope. Today I commemorate all the Kobra Khanoms out there.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Setareh Sabety

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