My wonderful 22-year-old niece, full of life and hope, asks me if I knew that Valentine’s Day does not actually have its origins in St. Valentine’s birthday, but that it is an ancient, 3000 year old Iranian celebration of women and love, called Espandarmaz, taking place on the 29th day of the month of Bahman, also called Esfandgan. On this day, she says, women and love were celebrated by men, where women did no house chores and men took care of the women in their lives. To that, I say, dream on my child! Even if true, just as the governing style of Cyrus The Great, The Persian Empire, and all the glamour of it disappeared, so has any national inkling among most Iranian men, that women are sacred and special!
Three years ago, at a gathering in Tehran, I attempted to introduce three of my friends to each other. I said to the group that I thought the lives of at least three of us have had so much turmoil in the hands of Iranian men, that we could write a good book, a collection of our tragic stories. I was joking around, saying, what do you know? Maybe Hollywood would come calling to turn our stories into a movie!
There is certainly enough betrayal, abuse, and hurt in our stories, which would make it a fascinating, albeit painful, read! Imagine child abduction, libelous acts, stolen property, family courts in which all three of one of the women’s children were swiftly taken from her, and a fascinating episode of a vindictive, mentally-ill husband (a physician!) bribing authorities to get his wife lashed in Isfahan, on the preposterous accusation that she “talked to a strange man without his permission,” complete with four “fair” witnesses to corroborate the claim!
At this point, the fourth woman said, don’t waste your time, as the story of my life has already been written, made into a movie, and has even won an Oscar, though the name is a bit off! We asked which movie that was and she said: “American Beauty,” whereupon she went on to say how she had found her husband and her teenage daughter’s friend together in her bed. She held that if only it would have been called “Iranian Beauty,” and had been cast a little differently, it would have been perfect!
The truth is that growing up as girls and young women in the “White Revolution” era of Iran in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, we were somehow taught that we were growing up to be very special women. We were told that we could be anything and do anything. We had free education and sufficient social tolerance to wear mini-skirts, and enough welfare to think that we could go anywhere in the world, but that we would choose to return to the best part of the world, Iran. Somehow, in our naiveté each of us thought that in our own rights we were “Miss Iran,” learning and growing, and would later be pursued by the most gorgeous and eligible Iranian men who would come and marry us and give us the world! That was the simple and shallow way we were socially prepared for life.
Well, let’s take stock of what really happened! We grew up and went to college and learned some skills, and then the Revolution happened. If not all, many many of us ended up working for a living, paying for ourselves, our children, and on many occasions, for that husband (yes, the very knight on the white horse, that one!). As if life wasn’t complicated enough, we have had to take care of aging parents; and on many occasions (well, after we gave up on the so-called knight on the white horse) we have had to raise our children alone. Wait, the list isn’t complete: with our leftover energy, we have even had to be the generation who was literate and worldly enough to understand and care about literature, politics, the environment, and the future of Iran.
You don’t need to get your knickers in a twist my dears! This is not the ravings of a man-hating ultra feminist! I actually really like and respect good Iranian men and enjoy their company! And I know that not all Iranian men are like that. I also know of many sufficiently happy Iranian couples who are raising their families and sticking together, and I admire them for that. I will put them aside. I will also put aside Iranian men living outside of Iran, in countries with modern laws that protect women’s rights as partners in life with men.
Where I challenge that myth of “ancient national respect for women,” is how Iranian men have almost collectively behaved under the Islamic Republic of Iran, where they have been given so many rights and privileges through the constitution. You would expect educated men of the Espandarmaz tradition to side with their wives, sisters, and mothers, to take action against the unjust ways in which the Iranian laws see and treat women. No chance of that! Through apathy, Iranian men have embraced the mandatory Islamic cover for women, hejab; very few of them have ever taken steps to protest the unfair inheritance, travel, marriage, and custody laws against the basic human rights of Iranian women; and many of them have shown that they would use and abuse the right to temporary marriage as often as they could.
I ask you, if love and respect for women had such ancient roots in the Iranian culture, would it have disappeared overnight with the arrival of an Islamic state? Let me give you an example of what I mean. Since the majority of Iranian women don’t really believe in hejab, a protest that does have roots in our ancient traditions, the state of their appearance is in no way comparable to that of other Moslem women in the world who do believe in observing that attire, and the Islamic Republic of Iran is up in arms now for the 27th year running, trying to make them wear it and to wear it properly–failing miserably!
I think Iranian men really enjoy the current laws of Iran; that’s why so few of them have ever protested those laws. My honest friend Massoud who lives in the US and is very open-minded, once said to me that he thought the problem was that the Iranian laws were just too tempting for men not to cheat on disclosure and sharing of their assets with their wives! How many university professors, doctors, lawyers, and professionals would you like me to show you who in recent decades have treated their wives cruelly, committing adultery, bigamy, abuse, and outright thievery of their community property in broad daylight?
The true measure of a man’s love and respect for a woman is not how big and punctually or romantically that box of chocolates or those flowers and balloons or even diamond rings arrive on Valentine’s Day. The measure, my dears, is how consistently, fairly, and lovingly he treats her even if he is allowed to do otherwise. Happy Valentine’s Day!