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Esk ruler

"Ruler" of Ab-Ask village (1996)

Go figure

August 1997
The Iranian

From "Gozaareshi az dehkadeh-ye zanaan" ("A report from Women's Village") by Parivash Berenji and Parisa Tashakori published in the June 1996 issue of "Daricheh" magazine in Tehran. The interview is with the female "ruler" of Ab-Ask village, about 90 kilometers east of Tehran. For centuries, women have taken over the village one spring day out of the year. On this day, all men take to the mountains to gather snow and ice to revive the village well. Meanwhile, the women take off their scarves in public -- which normally they cannot do when men are around -- and take over all civic responsibilities -- and watch out for any men who may sneak into the village. Click here for the Persian text.

This year's ruler has a military uniform on. She says she is 50-years old. "Last year my niece was the ruler and the year before that it was my mother. So far [as I can remember] our family has inherited this position [every year]," she says.

Q: Will you let us take your picture?
Ruler: No. I have to get permission from my husband first. He has gone to gather snow.

Q: What happens if a man enters the village?
Ruler: First of all, he shouldn't. He'll be punished.

Q: How?
Ruler: He can't pass through all the [women] soldiers, who are guarding different parts of the village. But if he does, he'll be arrested. They'll bring him here and I'll decide what to do to him. I might order him to dance or throw him into the stable.

Q: If your own husband wants to come into the village...?
Ruler: It makes no difference. Whether he's my husband or not, the village law says no man is allowed in.

Q: Does that mean no man can ever get into the village?
Ruler (laughs): Who told you that? In this village women rule for only one day. And that's from dawn to dusk when the men return from filling the well with snow. On this day no man should enter the village.

Q: Who started this tradition?
Ruler: God knows. But it has always been this way. That's what my grandmother says too. If you want to know the history, you have to ask those who know.

Q: Why do they call you "Hakem" (Ruler)? Why are you wearing a military uniform?
Ruler: Because the women have chosen me to be the village ruler today. The military uniform is a sign of security. That means everyone should feel safe when they see me. I will pick a minister to hand down my orders and several soldiers will implement them.

Q: What do you do as the ruler?
Ruler: The girls come to me and tell me their problems. I try to help them. Sometimes I solve disputes between the youth. If a man enters the village, I will decide how he will be punished. And I issue special commands for the happiness of the women. Like today's marriage ceremony.

Q: Has a man ever been arrested by the soldiers?
Ruler: Yes. A few times.

Q: What did you do to them?
Ruler: Once a man from Tehran came and stayed with one his friends in the village. All the men had to leave the village the next day. The Tehrani man told his friend: "I will stay here and prove that no woman can arrest me." His friend insisted [that he should leave], but the Tehrani man refused.

At nine in the morning all the men had left the village. Then I got a report that a man had been seen in one of the village homes. Soldiers went there and asked the man to come along. He refused. The women were told to put on their scarves [because there was a man in the village].

Some women went and asked the stranger to go to the village square. He refused. Then the women threw stones at him. The man was so scared that he begged them to stop. But it was too late. He had broken the law and if he was not punished, it would have encouraged the other men to take advantage.

The Tehrani man was slapped around and taken to the ruler, who at the time was my mother. When it was proven beyond a doubt that he had stayed in the village on purpose, he was ordered to dance. The Tehrani man refused. But after he was hit with sticks and stones, he understood that he must comply.

He danced. And did he dance! Sweat was pouring down his face. His face had turned red. He could not believe that the women would really beat him up. You cannot image his face. When he got really tired, he was thrown into the stable. He stayed there until the sun went down, without any food. When the men returned in the evening, he was delivered to his friend.

Of course, no one wants these incidents to occur. But any human being should learn to respect the law. Besides, everyone here is a woman. If a strange man comes into the village, he would not only be breaking the civilian law, but also the religious law [that prohibits men from looking at uncovered women, unless the woman is a direct relative], and he should be punished for that too.

Q: What about the other men who tried to get in?
Ruler: Once a village man wanted to show that he was really brave and tried to get into the village when all the men had left.

Q: And then?
Ruler: Nothing. He was arrested and beaten up. And when he was trying to escape the village, he fell down and broke his head and arm.

Q: Would you like to be the ruler during the whole year?
Ruler: No. The beauty of this day is that it is only one day. We are waiting for our children to come back. There are families whose girls have fiances and they have sent suits to the homes [of their husbands-to-be].

Q: When will the men come back?
Ruler: About three in the afternoon. They will pour the snow into the well, eat lunch and head back.

Q: After what age should males leave the village?
Ruler: Boys five and up have to get out.

Click here for the Persian text.

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