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“I felt like I was the most powerful woman in Iran”

Azam Jangravi was arrested for publicly defying Iran’s compulsory hijab rules. Then she fled for a new life in Canada.

By: /
17 February, 2021
Azam Jangravi.

I was the only daughter in a family with four sons. My father loved and spoiled me because of this. When I was a child, he lay beside me every night until I fell asleep. Although he was traditional and religious, he allowed me to wear whatever I wanted. When my older, conservative brothers complained, my father told me to pay no attention and told them to mind their own business. I was free and happy. I played tennis. I got accepted to study computer programing at one of the best universities in Tehran.

But my mother made the really big decisions. My father might not have agreed, but he didn’t have a say in the matter. It was my mother who decided I needed to get married. I was 22 years old and loved a boy at university. This scared her. She wanted me to marry someone else.  

In Iran, boys propose to girls in their homes. Two visited on the same day. One was my cousin, Ehsan. He loved me and came to ask for my hand because he knew another suitor would propose the same day. But Ehsan was like a brother and friend to me. I could not imagine marrying him or even kissing him. My mother thought he was a good option.

The second boy, Saeed, arrived that evening. He worked in Tehran’s big bazaar and was successful at his job. Saeed’s family were close to my family, and I had known him since I was young. I hated him. He had a beard and was very religious. His voice was loud. I don’t think he had ever read a book. It was a though he came from another planet. We had nothing in common.

My mother and I fought and fought. I said I would not get married. She insisted I must. One night, after an argument, my mother fell ill and was taken to the hospital. When I learned she had had a heart attack, I blamed myself. I cried and prayed to God to save my mother. I promised I would marry whomever she chose, and when she came out of the hospital, I agreed to marry Saeed.

Saeed’s family, who were very happy, quickly performed all the traditional ceremonies so that we could get married as soon as possible. We began fighting right away. I had never worn the hijab at home before, but I had to start the moment I joined Saeed’s family. I was not allowed to laugh out loud or voice my opinion. Saeed made all the decisions. Worst of all, he didn’t allow me to continue my university studies. Because my tennis coach was a man, I had to quit playing tennis, too. I am usually cheerful and outgoing but became silent. I stopped smiling.

* * *

Saeed came home one night at almost three o’clock in the morning and wanted sex. I refused. He said he could do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted and raped me. From that night on, I was afraid of him. If I complained, Saeed shouted and beat me until I shook.

Saeed grew rich. After my daughter, Viana, was born, he had relationships with many other women. I did not sleep with him anymore and he had nothing to do with me. But I couldn’t stay silent and acquiescent. I wanted to be a good role model for my daughter. What would she learn from me? It bothered me that Viana might become like I was, that she would grow up in a house where a man could beat a woman and do whatever he wanted. I packed my clothes and, with my daughter, went home to my family.

The author and her daughter in Iran.

My father said he had been waiting for me for a long time and welcomed me with a  warm hug. He hugged Viana. Then I collapsed into his arms again and cried for a long time.

When I tried to divorce Saeed, I learned that, as a woman in Iran, I had no rights at all. My father hired several lawyers but it didn’t matter. In the end, it was Saeed who had to divorce me.

I was alone and isolated during my marriage. Now, slowly, I started to re-enter the community. My father volunteered at a charity that helped the homeless and elderly. To make myself feel better, I joined him. I went back to university to study robotics and artificial intelligence. But my concerns had changed. What mattered most to me now were women’s rights. The problems faced by women trying to leave bad or abusive marriages bothered me. I was lucky because my father helped me. But many women had no support from their families or the government and had to return to their husbands. 

My own divorce proceedings dragged on. Every day that I went to court, I was reminded of how few rights I had because I was a woman. I could not even own a passport without my husband’s permission. Finally, after more than four years, it was over. Our separation was complete.

Around this time, in December 2017, strikes and anti-government demonstrations were taking place all over Iran. Iranians were sick of corruption, repression and economic mismanagement. Iranian women had their own reasons to protest. One, named Vida Movahed, climbed atop an electricity platform on Enghelab Street in Tehran, as protesters flowed around her. She took off her hijab and held it on a stick in front of her like a flag. She was arrested later that day but had already become a voice for Iranian women demanding the most obvious right of any human being: to wear what they want.

In those days, I was working at a women’s institute. The staff and I talked about Movahed’s bravery all the time. After a few weeks, another girl went to the same platform on Enghelab Street and defiantly removed her hijab. It seemed as though Movahed’s example might spark a movement.

The following week, a colleague and I went to a women’s shelter where I met a crying 13-year-old girl named Mehrnoosh with hands covered in scars. She told me her grandfather, who was also her legal guardian, regularly raped her and cut her hands with knives. The authorities gave her little support.

Mehrnoosh’s grandfather would not permit her to study, but she told me she wanted to learn to read and write. I promised her I would help. I went to Enghelab Street to buy Mehrnoosh a book so I could teach her to read. I had been crying all morning thinking about her. I had also been thinking about what Vida Movahed had done, about her bravery. I wanted to do the same thing, but I was frightened. That morning, I felt a little less afraid.

“I climbed on the platform and held aloft a white headscarf. I didn’t say a word.”

A peddler was selling books next to the electrical platform. I bought one for Mehrnoosh.  I walked around the platform several times because I was still scared. I thought about Viana and what she would do if I got arrested. I told myself again that Viana should not grow up in a country like this, and that gave me strength. I climbed on the platform and held aloft a white headscarf. I didn’t say a word. I felt like I was the most powerful woman in Iran, silently shouting for her rights.

Azam Jangravi protesting in Tehran against mandatory hijab laws. She was arrested as a result.

The feeling didn’t last. Police dragged me down and took me into custody. I was eventually tried and sentenced to three years in prison. I lost custody of Viana and was told to hand her over to Saeed within ten days. Before that could happen, I took my daughter and fled Iran for Turkey, crossing the border illegally with the help of a smuggler.

In Turkey, women’s rights activists introduced me — by email — to Saeed Rahnema, an emeritus professor at York University. Professor Rahnema helped me get conditional acceptance to study engineering at York. Ali Ehsassi, a Canadian member of Parliament, advocated on my behalf to both United Nations and Canadian immigration officials. Canada accepted Viana and me as refugees. We are trying to build a new life here. Viana’s will be different than mine.

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