Among the incidental virtues of tyrannies is the way in which the small stuff of life simply fall away in their shadow, to intensify the value of the big—love, art, pleasure, relationships. Oppression, like magic mushrooms, has been heightening the senses of urban Iranians for years. Inside the homes, in the safety of “drawing rooms,” the clock is always set to that Austenian hour, when art is as sacred as religion and life is largely defined in the symbiotic relationship with it, each informing the other. Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, for instance, was the rage in the days following the 1979 revolution, a piece which perfectly mirrored the national turbulence. Now it seems that Iran’s last three decades have ended by the very same notes they had begun with, just like Orff’s masterpiece.
It was in March 1979, when Iranian women took to the streets for a historic demonstration. Days after the victory of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the Islamic Dress Code, the hijab, to be reinstituted in government offices. The news drew thousands of women to the streets on International Women’s Day to protest the decision. At the time, it was unfathomable to disobey the glorified leader who had returned from exile less than a month earlier and delivered the nation from 2,500 years of monarchy. Yet, the women fathomed it, organized, and staged a dazzling protest.
Iranians love poetry and the metaphors in them. But on March 8, 1979, those demonstrating women created a metaphor far more apt and enduring than our poets ever had. In their protest, everything that was already wrong, or would be, was manifested. One didn’t only need legs to walk beside those women. Backbone was much more essential. Even the most progressive intellectuals were too intoxicated by the revolution’s victory to stomach any criticism of the new order. If anything, the women were subject to the wrath of those who should have been their most natural allies—secular and leftist activists. Still, they dared say it like it was: “We haven’t made a revolution, to go back in time,” was one of the day’s slogans. And they dared call it by its real name, as did the American feminist, Kate Millett, who was in Tehran for the occasion and told stunned reporters: “Ayatollah Khomeini is a male chauvinist!”
Despite all the blows the demonstrators suffered from the thugs who attacked them that day, the protest did subsequently force the quintessentially intractable leader to retract his order; albeit in the end, the retraction proved to have only been a delay and the hijab eventually did become mandatory.
Thirty years since, the world marvels at what it finds in the new generation of Iranian demonstrators. Women have been on the forefronts of the post-2009 election protests—the phenomenon that has come to be known as the Green Movement. The most iconic image of the last few months is that of the dying young woman, Neda Agha-Soltan. Everything about those few seconds when Neda falls to her knees, then lays on her back, arms to either side as if crucified on the asphalt beneath, seems nearly venerable and utterly halting. But there’s also a metaphor, no less great than its predecessor, in the icon. As Neda’s gaze freezes into the distance, as if she is seeing the promised land, her scarf slips off to reveal her dark hair, moments before narrow streams of blood tarnish her pristine face. In her image, Iran’s democracy movement comes full circle, ending the 30-year oratorio on the notes of the same plight.