As a woman from Iran who carried shame about her country of birth for four decades, watching the widespread protests turn into a feminist revolution in Iran has raised feelings I thought were deeply buried. The protests, sparked by the death of Jîna Amini, also known as Mahsa, an Iranian Kurdish woman who was reportedly beaten by the "morality police" for improperly wearing her hijab, have transformed into a nationwide revolution led by women and school-aged girls. Some in the Iranian diaspora, including my family, have stayed silent. Not because they don't support the people fighting and dying every day, but because they are numb as a result of the decades of suffering the regime has caused.
My mother always says I was American before I knew what America was. She tells the story of when I was seven and stormed into our living room where my relatives were having a meeting to divide my grandfather's substantial estate and declared, "Why is everyone saying my mom and my aunts get less than my uncle? Why should they get less than the one man? It's not fair!"
Horrified by my outburst, my mom apologized to everyone, then grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the room.
Once it became clear my homeland would be controlled by a new theocratic authoritarian regime, my secular family decided not to go back.
She tells this story with frustration and a hint of pride. "You were a difficult child," she insists, "not listening to anybody, always too opinionated and ready to fight."
A year after my outburst, in 1979, we fled Iran because of the protests, strikes and demonstrations throughout the country and the resulting violent government crackdowns. Once it became clear my homeland would be controlled by a new theocratic authoritarian regime, my secular family decided not to go back. We moved from country to country trying to find a new home before settling in Vancouver two years later.
My home life in Canada was strained by conflict. My parents struggled to figure out their place in this new world. My mother with her broken English tried to make a home for me and my two brothers. My father, his business and home both taken by the new government, had to find a career in order to support his family.
There was another problem. My mother was angry about my weight gain during this time. In Iran, every example around her showed that a woman's power was her beauty and being thin was the key to achieving it. The most beautiful women found the best husbands. She was a striking woman who'd married a successful businessman. So, the formula worked.
Mom and my community made it clear that an ideal Iranian woman should be slender, modest, and measured. Instead, I was big, opinionated, bold, and ready to tell them what I thought was wrong with their way of life. But when my parents sent me away to boarding school in California, these qualities proved to be strengths. I was praised for expressing myself and fighting for my ideas. I embraced everything Americana, from baseball – I played shortstop on our forever-losing softball team — to apple pie — baked it, ate it, loved it. My friends often told me I was more American than anyone they knew. Before long, I was excelling in school and getting affirmation from my teachers.
One summer, in my early teens, while visiting my grandparents, my imposing grandfather with a round belly and stern face hired a doctor to figure out why I was so fat, maybe a size 10. In my grandparent's dark antique-cramped living room, I sat across from a wrinkly-faced doctor, his spectacles sliding down his pronounced nose. "Tell me about your periods, girl?" he said. I looked down at the elaborate pattern on the Persian carpet, disconnecting.
Not getting a response, the doctor and my grandfather, with his deep gruff voice, took turns asking why I couldn't lose weight. Was it because I was lazy? Undisciplined? The meeting ended when my heaving sobs made it impossible for the interrogation to continue.
Because I didn't have the body my family thought I needed to attract a suitable husband, to survive I told myself my worth was my intelligence, my will, my ideas. Whenever they shamed me or made me feel inadequate, I reminded myself I had these secret weapons no one could take away.
I believed I was working towards a virtuous goal, to be everything American and nothing Iranian.
After high school, I moved across the country for college and law school in Washington, D.C. I stood as an equal to my male friends in learning, debating, and leading. My views about this country became more refined but my adoration didn't wane.
Most importantly, my adopted homeland allowed me the opportunity to have a legal career. That translated into financial independence, an understanding of my rights, and the thing I wanted most — not to have to depend on anyone, especially a man.
When I was 29 — in the spring of 2001 — I stood in front of a silver-haired judge, next to men and women from all over the world wearing suits, saris, headscarves and dresses. With my hand over my heart, I recited the pledge of allegiance in unison with my fellow immigrants. My kind mild-mannered boyfriend from Kansas looked on as I got the one thing I wanted most, to be an American. Two years later, I married him and took his last name, becoming Rebecca Morrison. With the release of my ethnic maiden name, Khamneipur, I took another step towards assimilation and shedding my past.
I believed I was working towards a virtuous goal, to be everything American and nothing Iranian. I was ashamed of what I thought were the cornerstones of my culture and country of birth — misogyny, inequality, control. Iranian men in my community set the rules, handled the money and diminished women, including me. I was independent with a successful career, but continuously reminded that my worth was measured by my body, its purpose to get a man for marriage.
My ideas of the greatness of my new home and the horridness of my old one were simplistic and limited. As an Iranian exile, my view of the Persian culture that went back thousands of years was shaped by several dozen people. And my understanding of the values in the U.S. was propped up by my self-selected bubbles in big coastal cities where I saw the fairytale cliché that echoed my idealistic views.
Weeks after 9/11, I heard stories from family and in media reports of acts of hate against Middle Eastern immigrants. Nervous about being targeted, on a pre-planned road trip through several Midwestern states, at every gas station I bought an American hat, flag or red-white-and-blue T-shirt along with my Pringles and Kit Kats. My beat-up black Honda Accord looked like a diplomatic car with little flags in every corner.
My ideas of the greatness of my new home and the horridness of my old one were simplistic and limited.
On my first night of the trip, self-conscious, I walked into an Indiana Holiday Inn looking around for clues of hate. Afraid of being identified as one of them, I used what I thought was a small-town accent to talk to the young woman at the counter.
"How y'all doin? Lovely night we're havin! I'm checkin' in for the night!" I said way too loud. A young couple sitting in the lounge looked up when they heard me. I smiled at them and raised my hand to wave as if to say I'm a good one, don't worry. They gave me an awkward half-smile and went back to what they were talking about. I turned to the receptionist and grabbed my room key.
This clownish behavior was my misguided attempt at patriotism. In the months that followed, my guarded behavior continued as I saw cruelty towards others because of how they looked or where they came from.
While the attacks on innocent people were heartbreaking and enraging, my behavior during that time was also disappointing. Desperate and terrified of losing the story of my adopted home, which I had nurtured for decades, I demeaned myself, betraying who I was in order to belong. These experiences pushed me to grow up and see the U.S. for what it is: a flawed and imperfect country.
* * *
A few years later when I became a mother, my ideas about the two disparate parts of myself fundamentally shifted. Seeing my own mother through different eyes, I understood that she did what she believed was best for her daughter. I opened up to her about my pain. She shared her regrets. We found a way to accept and love each other.
This opened the door for me to look at my culture through a different lens.
I tried to come to terms with its shortcomings and develop a deeper understanding and connection with my Persian heritage. This helped me let go of the anger and shame about how I'd been treated as a young woman, and the misogyny I'd seen. I made Nowruz, a pre-Islamic Zoroastrian tradition where Iranians gather with family and friends to celebrate the first day of spring, a part of our family traditions. I taught my children the beautiful writings of Rumi, the Persian scholar and theologian and one of the world's most-read poets. Also, on the Fourth of July, I made sure my children celebrated our country's independence with an appreciation for the opportunities it had given me as an immigrant.
Today, I celebrate my Iranian and American identities without fear or shame. These countries, no matter their governments, are made up of the same people, women and men yearning for freedom, equality and prosperity. I watch as the astoundingly brave people of Iran fight for their most basic human rights. And mourn from afar as they are slaughtered, beaten or jailed.
"Nothing will change, the government will kill and jail them, until they stop," my mother told me on our daily call a few days ago. She said my relatives in Iran are scared and heartbroken about the killing of Iran's youth but they don't think anything will change. I hope they are wrong.
I remember scattered scenes of the day we left Iran. Driving down Pahlavi Street, the main road stretching through downtown Tehran, I watched the city fly by with the majestic snow-topped Alborz mountains in the distance. The wind carried a hint of the freshly roasted chestnuts and charcoal-cooked corn on the cob street vendors were selling. I couldn't have imagined on that day, 43 years ago, I would not see Iran again. After four decades, even with the enormous obstacles in their way, I have hope for the first time about the possibility of Iran's women having a free society with gender equality — the very thing I came here to find, and what every human being deserves.
My mother was right — I was meant to be American. But I'm also of Iran, my place of birth and where my ancestors, heritage and history are grounded. I will not diminish my pride, admiration and support of these countries in order to be accepted by the other. That's what makes America great — the fact that I don't have to. As immigrants, we have the right and privilege to celebrate and take pride in our heritage and still be fully Americans.
personal essays about immigrant families