I am a current events junkie. Maybe it's my background in PR that generates my insatiable appetite for news. Or maybe it's something more. Something happening half a world away has been able to move me since I was a child. I can remember seeing video of starving children in Ethiopia when I was a child and being moved to tears. Since then, countless other stories have touched me and inspired me. One such story, just a year old, is the story of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman who died before the eyes of the world during the protests in the wake of the Iranian election last year. One of the reasons her story resonates (besides the horror of her last moments), is that she is a woman like so many of us, with dreams and ambitions, who was moved by injustice.
This story also holds something very personal for me. WH is from Iran, and some of his family still lives there. His cousins in Iran are my age, young women in their 20s and 30s, much like Neda. I first "met" the cousins on Facebook before we ever met in person. As Americans, we often hear about the oppression of women in Iran. But what we don't hear about is the amazing and indomitable spirit of these women. (WH also asked me to note that it's not just the women who face crackdowns by the police and military in Iran, but also many young men. Students, both men and women, opposing the government are in danger all over Iran.) We often forget that Iran is a country that, prior to the revolution in 1979, was very Westernized. His parents photos from that time show chic fashions, young people drinking and dancing and having a good time. In many ways, it's very different from Iran today. And his cousins are too young to remember Iran before the revolution.
I've spent our last two vacations in Europe with the Iranian cousins (as well as other family from all over the world). We meet in Europe because it's nearly impossible for them to get visas to the U.S. The first thing that struck me was that the photos the shared via Facebook looked like they could have been taken in Paris or London or Washington, D.C., because at parties, in their own homes, they don't have to cover up. The pictures that we see of Iranian women in the streets of Tehran don't reflect the personalities underneath.
Last year we met in Germany for the first time. Within minutes, we were gossiping like old friends. Later that night, we got further acquainted over cocktails with the family as I practiced a few Farsi phrases on them. I learned that they care about family, music, travel, art, fashion, and all of the other things that many American women do. One cousin is more up to date on Western pop music than either WH or I are. It's intoxicating for her. She speaks perfect English, goes to university, can drink you under the table, and when her favorite song comes on, she cannot sit still. Another cousin is the social butterfly. She has lots of friends and knows where the best parties in Tehran are every night of the week. She goes to work and she goes to parties and she travels when she can. A third cousin is more sensitive. She's a writer who is hoping to go to Italy to study next year. They are members of a tight knit family of parents and children, aunts and uncles, sisters and cousins who mean everything to each other.
The point is that some things are universal. As WH would say, "We are more alike than we are different--we're all human, after all." Spending time with our Iranian cousins, it's easy to forget what they will go home to -- because they don't let it change the way that they live. They don't let the fact that they are required by the government to cover up keep them from painting their nails or wearing eye makeup or having their hair perfectly done. They manage small acts of rebellion by letting their hair peek out from under their scarves or by wearing lipstick and Chanel sunglasses. Underneath the drab covering that they wear in the streets are designer jeans and chic, colorful tops, just like you'd see on any Western woman -- but what's more than that, underneath the covering are truly incredible women.
The human spirit is amazing . . . you can learn to live with anything, if you have to. But our Iranian cousins don't just "live with it," they thrive. They are thoughtful, intelligent, enthusiastic, fearless, worldly, and aware. And from half a world away, these women that I see only once a year, inspire me. Don't call them victims, they are heroes.