Signed with an X
I step into an alley in Nezamabad – my old neighbourhood in south Tehran, now full of working-class families and new migrants. I’m a tad hesitant, with a bitter, buried fear of something I haven’t yet done. It was in this neighbourhood that I was forbidden from riding my bicycle, aged 12. I look at the house in which I was born. A religious flag hangs from the frame of the door – the area has become more religious than it was 25 years ago. But there are still more old houses than newly built apartments, houses that retain the memory of the games of _haft sang_* we children used to play. I don’t have the nerve to ring the doorbells of the homes I once knew. I walk from one end of my old neighbourhood to the other. Though I am apprehensive I try to rid myself of the fear of The Other that is nurtured in all of us. Other people are not unlike me; they are happy or sad with the same old everyday problems. Our lives are consumed with fear. Fear of falling behind. Fear of a conservative government that wants to imprison us in our houses or flats or in cells. Fear of unhygienic food. Fear of ‘others’ who may want to cheat us. Fear of sanctions, fear of war... A fearful society relentlessly accrues new fears. We hurry towards darkness without ever having lived. I push aside all my vague fears. What crime am I about to commit that I feel so scared? Why should I be scared when I’m not doing anything wrong? When my government defends its ‘inalienable rights’,** why shouldn’t I defend my own inalienable right? But there is also the fear of the unknown, going from home to home down a less travelled path... Behind these doors are women like me, who cook, wash, clean and nurture until night time when the entire household comes home. The same shared gender with comparable pains; is this not so?
The first doorbell
It’s morning and, as we’ve learned in the campaign workshops, mornings are the best time to catch women on their own for a chat. I ring the doorbell. It’s a small, old house with a squat iron door. A girl of about five or six opens the door. She looks at me with surprise. I smile. ‘Is your mum in, my flower?’ ‘What do you want with my mum?’ ‘I’ve come to speak to your mum about you.’ She doesn’t say anything. Her eyes show that she hasn’t registered fully what I’ve said. She runs into the house and I can still hear her. A woman wearing a _chador_ comes to the door. The small flowers on her chador are pretty. She looks apprehensive. Her face is puffy and it seems that just like me, she’s not had enough sleep last night. I calm down a bit after seeing her face. I am happy to be able to see it. I think that had it not been for the womanly bravery of Tahereh a century and a half ago that enabled her to discard her _nighab_‡, I would have had to talk to my fellow citizen without being able to see her face. Even talking to someone ‘face to face’ would have been meaningless then... ‘Yes madam, what is your business here?’ ‘Salaam, I’m sorry if I’ve come at a bad time. The truth is that I am a student and I’ve come to... You see, I am working with my friends for women’s rights... I mean our rights.’ ‘What are you telling me this for?’ ‘We are trying to change the laws that are against women. To do this, we have to tell the authorities that these laws impose on women thousands of difficulties. For instance, we have a polygamy law – men can have more than one wife and women cannot object to this. Don’t you yourself think that maybe one day your husband may go and marry another woman?’
A fearful society relentlessly accrues new fears. We hurry towards darkness without ever having lived
‘What can I say? What has all this got to do with me? What can I do? My food is on the stove and the children will be coming from school soon...’ ‘Well, I have left my food half-made in my house to come here – what will happen if we don’t cook it for 10 minutes?’ She is silent, staring me in the eyes. ‘Look at your daughter – you gave up your youth and life to raise her, but if she falls into the hands of an unjust husband, then her life will be ruined. Have you not seen the fate of other girls?’ ‘You have to be careful who your daughter marries,’ she ventures. ‘Azam, our neighbour, has let her daughter marry a guy who beats her day and night. I told her in the beginning that she should be careful. She didn’t listen. Well that’s her fault. It is not the law’s fault.’ ‘But if your daughter in three or four years’ time, as a childish prank, took something from a shop, God forbid, they’d put her in prison just like an adult. What would you say to that?’ ‘Who says she would go to prison?’ ‘It is the law that a nine-year-old girl can be tried as an adult. I beg of you, what does a nine-year-old understand?’ ‘Well what can we do? It’s hard enough coping with the lives of the kids. These things don’t apply to us.’ ‘But madam, the law applies to everyone...’ ‘What’s the point of you coming here to tell me this stuff?’ ‘Don’t we all live in this city? Well then, we have to talk to each other about things that destroy our lives.’ ‘But I don’t know you – you say you’re a student.’ ‘Yes, you see I don’t know you either. But I have come together with other women, whom I didn’t know either, and with each other’s help we can gather signatures so the authorities listen to us and change these laws.’ I take out the legal pamphlet from my bag and suggest she reads it when she finishes cooking. ‘We’ve left a page at the end of the leaflet for signatures. Sign it if you want, so that once we’ve gathered one million signatures we can take it to the Parliament so that perhaps the laws can be changed.’ She takes the leaflet. I say goodbye to her and apologize to her for taking up her time. She smiles and closes the door. I take a deep breath. I think that wasn’t too bad for a first time. I don’t definitely have to get a signature. Raising awareness of the laws and equal human rights for women is a key aim of this campaign.
Silence – and suffering
After numerous rebuffs in a newly built apartment block, I go to another house. It is simpler than the first one. The woman says ‘Salaam’ before I do. I can smell fried onions. She is carrying a baby and has loosely thrown her chador over her head. I start talking. She doesn’t say anything. I continue. She says nothing. I still carry on. She still says nothing. In the end, beaten and worn out, I tell her: ‘I hope your food doesn’t burn. I think you were frying onions?’ She shakes her head but I don’t quite understand her. She puts her baby down. I try to give her the leaflet and tell her that if she agrees with it, she can sign it. I again speak to her about the unjust laws that ignore the rights of us women and the suffering that we incur. I have my speech pretty much down pat now. But she is still silent. She neither asks me to leave nor does she show any reaction. I stand there holding the pamphlet in my hand. There are no words to encourage me to go on and I say goodbye. She only says: ‘God bless you’. She has an Azeri accent. I smile and walk away but she comes after me. With her head bowed she says: ‘My man has a lot of problems. He beats me. Can you do something for me?’ What can I say? This time it is me who is silent. She says: ‘I know you can’t... No-one can... Only God...’ She flashes her bruised arm: ‘There is more... I wish I would die... Only for the children.’ She takes the paper from me and says again: ‘I am illiterate. What shall I do, can you write for me?’ I say: ‘Of course I’ll write for you.’ I write her name, but her age doesn’t match the creases on her face. I ask: ‘Do you want to put an ‘X’ here?’ She puts an X where the signature is supposed to go and laughs. Her whole face laughs; she looks kind and friendly and again says ‘God bless you’ as she returns home. I go to the end of the alley. My exit from that alley takes more than an hour with many more discussions, a lot of silences and cold shoulders and a lot of smiles. By then hunger and weakness have come over me – I haven’t had breakfast. Back home I sit and look at that signature that is just an X.
*_Haft sang_ means ‘seven stones’. In this popular street game one team tries to hit the other with a ball and stop them piling up flat stones.
** ‘Nuclear energy is our inalienable right’ is a current slogan of the Ahmadinejad Government.
‡ Iranian women’s rights activist Tahereh Qurratalain (1814-1854) removed her veil to much uproar.