A smart makeover for Iran’s women Iranian activist preaches self-help
In her eyes, they are all daughters and sisters. The waifish 18-year-old, already married and a mother, but with a hunger to learn. The pair of shy high school students, nervous at first, but soon browsing eagerly through the bookshelves. The matronly homemaker, unsure and uneducated, but discovering the world beyond the slums of southern Tehran by reading Feodor Dostoevski and Jean-Paul Sartre.
For the women in her neighborhood, Nazanin Gohari has become a savior of minds.
A few years back, the part-time hairdresser-turned-community activist transformed her shabby apartment into a library for women, collecting secondhand books to fill the makeshift shelves in her living room.
First she stocked them with trashy novels, poetry and how-to and self-help titles. But the demand for cookbooks and sewing patterns eventually gave way to requests for college-preparation books and literature. The girls leafing through illustrated children’s books bloomed into strong-willed women eager to pursue higher education.
Gohari remembers one girl, a 17-year-old named Sedigheh, who came to her crying, distraught that her parents couldn’t afford the study materials for college entrance exams. Scoring high would place the bright teenager on the fast track to a potentially glorious future, maybe even including medical school. Not taking the test would mean a life more ordinary, perhaps married to a man twice her age, tending to babies and home.
For Gohari, helping the teen became a mission, one of many. She scoured the city for the study books, relatively cheap by Western standards but a fortune for Iran’s poor.
“She was ashamed because she couldn’t afford the books,” Gohari said.
The older woman put her hand out to the girl. “I said, ‘Study here.’ ” And then Gohari handed her the books.
A plump, bespectacled woman now in her late 50s, Gohari delights in the women in her impoverished district, recounting the details of their triumphs and ordeals. She sprinkles her sentences with folksy praises of God as she speaks excitedly about her adventures as a grass-roots activist, filling a social and even political vacuum created by Iran’s rapid transition from a largely rural nation where people tended to neighbors’ needs to today’s impersonal urban society where most fend for themselves.
Obscured from public view, Iran’s women have quietly navigated restrictions of politics, religion and tradition over the last three decades to bolster their status and advance into positions of power.
Although the conservative clerics who took over the country after the 1979 ouster of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi hoped to ossify women’s traditional roles, they set in place dynamics that liberated them. As the clerics launched literacy drives and built hundreds of colleges around the country, Iran’s literacy rate rose from less than 50% in the 1970s to as high as 85% today.
Instead of creating a powerful new Islamic generation, they pushed the country into the modern age, raising the ambitions and savvy of young Iranians, half of them women, who began to question society’s rules and strictures.
“It’s one of the ironies of the revolution that women’s sense of self has become much stronger,” said Pardis Mahdavi, an Iranian American anthropologist who teaches at Pomona College and wrote the 2008 book “Passionate Uprisings,” about the evolution of sex and gender in Iran. “The revolution has given birth to a stronger women’s movement.”
Gohari, a mother of two and the wife of a civil servant, began embracing community activism in the early 1990s, shortly after the Iran-Iraq war and the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Wartime restrictions loosened and the revolutionary leader’s charismatic spell was broken. The country began to focus on practical matters such as rebuilding a ravaged infrastructure and promoting better health. A social worker dispatched to Gohari’s neighborhood, the ancient district of Rey, charmed her into attending a breast cancer awareness workshop.
She didn’t want to go at first. But from the beginning of the initial session, on breast self-examinations, it was a revelation. One of her best friends had died of breast cancer. “It was eye-opening,” she said. “Those 10 minutes changed my life.”
The reluctant student became a cheerleader for women’s health, encouraging her neighbors, many of them poor recent arrivals from the countryside, to come to workshops on prenatal care, child development, breast cancer awareness, nutrition, sex education and mental health.
“I would offer women discounts on hairdos if they would come to the courses,” Gohari said.
She began organizing the women to demand better municipal services, better-lighted streets clear of drug addicts and criminals, and parks where mothers could take their children without fear of being accosted by panhandlers or stumbling over used needles.
Gohari was elected head of a women’s council that she and her neighbors created. They began demanding meetings with municipal leaders.
One top official for the Ministry of Electricity resisted. His excuse: He didn’t like dealing with women.
“I told him, ‘I promise I’ll come alone,’ ” she recalled. “ ‘If you perform your duties, I won’t bother you anymore. If you don’t, I’ll bring busloads of women pouring into your office.’ ”
The meeting was on. Within a few weeks, the streetlights were fixed.
Gohari, fearful of incurring the wrath of authorities, always tries to play things carefully, never invoking political rhetoric or overstepping lines in a country where Iranian American student Esha Momeni was recently detained after interviewing women’s rights activists.
Self-help became her mantra. She urges her friends and neighbors to figure out the system for themselves and work it, and, above all, to be discreet.
Gohari accepts no help from outside the country, or even outside the city.
“She knows very well until what point she can be active and useful without bringing the hostility of the traditional society,” said Masserat Amir-Ebrahimi, a Tehran social scientist.
Gohari’s eyes glisten when she discusses her successes. One of them, Nahid Shirzad, 18, walks in. She was married at 14 and dropped out of high school when she gave birth to a son about two years ago. But she’s developed a voracious appetite for books.
Anton “Chekhov keeps me company at home,” Shirzad said as she scoured the shelves for new titles. “I’ve read just about every book in here. Some of them I’ve read twice.”
Thanks to Gohari’s help, Sedigheh, the promising student who couldn’t afford college study guides, was accepted at Tehran’s Payame Noor University, among the 60% of college students in Iran who are women. In 2007, she finished her studies in psychology and was hired as a social worker.
“When I see this girl,” Gohari said, “I get strength.”
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