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Smile and nod
Believe in your choices

By Sheila Shirazi
July 6, 2001
The Iranian

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, and escaped.

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 from mine.

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.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment to the writer Sheila Shirazi


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