By Askh Azad
Just before the June 2009 Iranian presidential elections, I happened to be in Tehran. Supporters of the opposition Green Movement, a coalition of progressives and young people, were campaigning to replace hard-line incumbent Ahmadinejad with their own candidate, Mir-Hussein Mousavi. They were out in full force, and the regime’s security forces were, in turn, missing no opportunity to intimidate them. Methods of intimidation included arresting and punishing women who wore too much makeup in public or did not fully observe hijab, the modest Islamic covering. Not surprisingly, most of these women supported the opposition. The crackdown was carried out by the Morality Police, a branch of the security forces.
One afternoon I decided to do some food shopping at the famous Super Jordan food market, located on Africa Boulevard near our house. Africa Boulevard was the new name of this street, the name it was given after the Islamic Revolution. Most people still referred to it by its pre-Revolutionary name, Jordan Boulevard. That name referred to Dr. Samuel Jordan, an American missionary who had made significant contributions to Iran’s’ educational system. Jordan Boulevard is located in relatively affluent northern Tehran, and those neighborhoods were an opposition stronghold. The boulevard itself was a well-known gathering spot for young men and women, who often cruised up and down the boulevard in pairs in the evenings, in their fancy cars, all dolled up and looking to exchange phone numbers, or socialize from the security of their cars, or more if they could get away with it.
That day, as I approached the store, I noticed some commotion about a block away. The Morality Police had set up makeshift apprehension stations along both sides of the boulevard. An officer was standing in the middle of the street, between the north and south bound lanes, pulling over cars carrying passengers whom he deemed to be wearing unacceptable attire or who looked unacceptable to him for whatever reason. Additional male and female officers were on the sidewalks, stopping pedestrians walking up or down Africa/Jordan Boulevard.
As I strolled closer, I saw that a female security officer, fully clad in black chador and black gloves, had stopped a thirty-something year old woman just a few steps from the entrance to the store and was questioning her. The only part of the female officer’s body that was visible was the triangle of her face and chin. Everything else was covered in black. The woman, whom the officer had stopped, was wearing some makeup and lipstick but it did not look excessive. She had her head scarf a little further back on her head and was showing some hair, but that was what most women who lived in that area did. She wore a dark knee-length Islamic manteaux and thick dark stockings.
I moved close enough to hear what they were saying.
“How can you step outside your house looking like this?” the female officer demanded.
“What is wrong with my appearance?” the woman protested.
The two of them started arguing. The argument lasted maybe two minutes. Then the female officer grabbed the young woman’s arm and said, “Lets go.”
By this time a male officer had approached the woman from behind. Together, the male and female Morality Police officers conducted the woman to a van with tinted windows parked on the north corner of the boulevard.
Tears had started rolling down the woman’s face.
“I have a child at home,” she cried. “Please let me go!”
She repeated her plea a few times, but it had no impact on the officers. They put her into the van.
I stood there, frozen in my steps, unable to hear anything but the blood throbbing in my ears. I felt shocked and sad but something else as well. I felt ashamed. I thought I should do something or say something. But instead, I just stood there.
Later I tried to absolve myself. “Everything transpired so quickly,” I told myself. “I did not have enough time.”
But my conscience would not let me off the hook. “Enough time?” it said. “You didn’t have enough time?”
Perhaps I should have walked up to the officers in a peaceful manner and simply asked, “What law has this women violated, and how can you apply such a law? After all making a judgment about someone’s appearance in public is very subjective. Besides, this lady is not like the young girls who dress provocatively on purpose and cruise up and down Jordan Boulevard at night.”
I should have done this as a matter of conscience. But I didn’t. The Islamic government had successfully instilled a fear in me, which held me back.
And in truth, I was at that time overwhelmed by cares and obligations. My father was sick, and it was up to me to take care of him. That was my sole purpose for being in Iran. Speaking up on behalf of that woman might have gotten me arrested. If I had been arrested, my father would have been left to die.
Besides, there were dozens of other men and women on the street, young and old. Any of them could have said or done something. They all walked on by and went about their business without blinking. They did not even look shocked or sad. It was as if they had blinders on.
To the woman whom I watched get dragged away that day: I apologize.
Ashk Azad was born and raised in Iran.