My escape to Iran

At 15, I tried to teach my mother a lesson by returning to our home country. What happened was a nightmare instead

Topics: Real Families, Life stories, Iran, Divorce, Feminism, Islam, Editor's Picks,

My escape to IranThree Iranian girls wearing traditional chadors at a mosque in northern Tehran. (Credit: AP/Enric Marti)

At 15, I was convinced that the only chance I had at independence was on a one-way flight to Iran. I was in 10th grade and dreaming of boys and getting into Stanford when a fight broke out between my parents. It was over our green cards. My dad wanted them. He was afraid my mom might take us and leave in the middle of the night. I was sure my mother would never do that, but he wanted the cards anyway. He said he paid for them, so he owned them — her, specifically — and she was to hand them over.

It wasn’t the worst fight they had or the most violent. But it was the most blatantly degrading one. It became clear to me that even now, five years after we had left Iran and moved to America, my parents’ relationship was less like a marriage and more like a form of servitude. Something in me shifted.

Three days after the fight, I walked into our living room and told my father I was leaving to live with my grandmother in Tehran. My eyes must have said I meant it, because he didn’t argue with me. Better to let me go with his approval than to have me run away. I hoped my mother heard me. I had just modeled how to deal with a bully as an empowered woman. You don’t make excuses or put yourself or your children in compromising situations. You get up and you leave, and I wanted her to see that.

My mother and I have always had a difficult relationship. I blamed her more than my father for the troubled marriage I had to help keep together. I believed she was weak and dependent, and I dreamed of a mother who was self-sufficient both emotionally and financially. She blamed me right back. She longed for the husband she didn’t have, understanding and empathic. Instead, she saw me as selfish and stubborn. Neither of us held back our opinions about the other one.

“How can you do this to us? You are so cruel, just like your father, leaving me and your brother like this. You only think of yourself!” she cried as she put my clothes into the black and white Samsonite we had packed together five years before in Tehran. That was a rare moment of hope. Things will be different in America. But now, look at us. “You think only of yourself,” she kept saying as she stuffed my belongings into the suitcase, and I wanted to tell her it was true. I was thinking of myself. I had spent years keeping a doomed family together, and I wanted to taste life for myself now.

“Just go,” she said at the gate at LAX, and I knew she was swallowing her tears. My little brother was holding onto her leg. His tears poured out. “Just go,” she said again, and I let her put her anger around my neck along with the sign that read “Minor Traveling Alone.” I wrestled with my own anger on that 16-hour flight — and for the rest of my life.

Tehran was not how I remembered it as a child. Even though I was born after the revolution and never knew an Iran that wasn’t Islamic, the blissful obliviousness of childhood kept me from truly knowing my surroundings. Now, as a teenager, the same city that used to give me joy as I skipped around its streets with my mother only a few steps behind me had become a foreign and dangerous place. Just leaving the house, I felt defenseless. Strange men would follow and grope me, as they did all women, on a regular basis. Cab drivers who piled their car with up to six passengers would somehow make sure to seat the young girls beside them. Several ran their dirty hands up my thick black overcoat every time they went to change gears before I finally learned to speak up and insist on a space in the back. Even on buses, where men and women were separate, I didn’t feel safe. The women in the black chadors (some of them carried weapons) would shame you if your scarf wasn’t perfectly placed. On a couple of occasions, I swear I felt a woman grope me from behind.

All I wanted was for my mother to protect me, but I never told her that. Instead, my anger would build every time I got followed home by a random man who wanted nothing but to stroke a part of my body when no one was looking. My heart dropped when a member of the Islamic Committee who could easily arrest me if my scarf was even a little askew walked past. I have to endure this, I told myself, because my mother can’t create a safe home for us anywhere. I saw the fact that I was now stuck in this place as her fault, too. It hadn’t occurred to any of us that once I entered Iran as an unmarried girl, I would not be able to leave the country without my father’s permission. I had been too excited to think of it, my grandmother was clueless, and my mother was probably too furious with my betrayal to care.  When she would call to ask how I was doing, I would say fine. Everything is fine. I hated that I needed her.

When I heard that my mother finally left my father, I was shocked. My grandmother gave me the news in the stairwell along with the tray that carried my dinner. “She took your brother and left. They are in Toronto now, with your Aunt Maryam.” I burst into tears. I didn’t know how else to express everything I was feeling. My tears fell into my ghorme sabzi stew, the scent of the fried parsley and cilantro overwhelming my nostrils as I struggled to take in breaths. My grandmother looked at me, confused.  She didn’t have the words either. “Don’t cry into your food,” she said. “It’ll get cold.” I turned around and walked down the stairs, using one hand to balance the tray and the other to wipe off my tears. My father was right: My mother was strong enough to leave. And maybe my mother was right about me. I was cruel like my dad. How else could I have left them? How else could I have let things get this far?

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For the next five months, my grandmother and I worked the court system in Iran to get the permission I needed to leave the country. I took many buses and taxis to get to federal buildings where women in a special “female only” security room groped me before letting me pass the metal detectors. I talked to many men who didn’t look me straight in the eyes, because you were not to look a single woman in the eyes in Iran — though I didn’t do much talking. They mostly told me I should just wait for my father to come back and claim me. I didn’t have the guts to tell them, he probably never will.

The day of my final ruling I was to meet with the supreme judge of the courts. He was an older imam, in a black ammame and brown ghaba robe. His beard was dark for a man his age and surprisingly well groomed. He reminded me of a dark Santa Claus who used Just for Men.

The fat dark Santa Claus Imam looked me up and down like all the other imams, but then he looked straight into my eyes, which startled me.

“Why did you come to Iran?” he asked.

I took a step toward the big mahogany table between us and straightened my hijab. “Why did you come to Iran?” he asked again. His tone was gentle, and I realized he was not being sarcastic like the other ones. He actually wanted to know.

“Because,” I whispered at first, but my voice grew louder as I continued. “Because I wasn’t strong enough to stand what my father was doing to my mother anymore,” I said.

He lowered the brown spectacles on his nose and looked up at me again.

“And why do you want to go to Canada?”

“Because,” I said, my voice still forceful, “I want to go home. I miss my mother, and I want to go home to her.” My voice was as calm and sure as when I spoke to my father almost a year ago, so I was surprised when the single tear fought its way out from the corner of my eye. It rolled down my cheek and I wondered if it would make a big splash or leave a mark when it hit the mahogany. It landed quietly.

The Santa Claus imam pushed a box of tissues with the word “Kleenex” misspelled in Farsi as kelinez toward me. “It’s OK, my daughter,” he said. “It’s OK.” And then he picked up the big metal stamp to his right and stamped my passport with exit permission. The words read: Mature Enough.

I pulled out a Kleenex and wiped my face and then the table. I realized this was the most open and intimate exchange I had ever had with anyone about my mother and me. And I wondered if I could concentrate on that realization starting now and for the 16-hour flight to Toronto. I wondered if I could finally tell her how strong I think she is now and how much I wish she loved me. But for a long time, I didn’t.

It took years for my mother and me to find some common ground. She did finally get her divorce. She went back to school. She went back to teaching. And even though we will always be two very different people and our relationship is still, in many ways, a work in progress, I am proud of her. She is stronger than I used to give her credit for. Sometimes I wonder if most of the strength I see in me actually comes from her.  She has also come to understand that I am different. That I will not tolerate much of what she does but that that doesn’t mean I don’t feel or that I don’t need her support and love. I do. In leaving my mother and then returning to her, I think I taught her she is worth more than she thinks. I know she has taught me to have more patience, empathy and understanding. It’s crazy how far we have to travel sometimes, just to make it back to ourselves.

Bibinaz P. was born in Tehran where she lived until she moved to Los Angeles at 10. She now lives and writes in LA. 

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