My relationship with my cultural identity has always been a complicated one. As many children of immigrants can relate, I often felt disconnected from my parents’ country of origin in an attempt to assimilate to American life.
I was born in Manhattan, New York, and have always defined myself as a New Yorker first and an Iranian-American second. From a young age, I have watched from the periphery as Iran has experienced political turmoil, sanctions, and threats of aggression and force from the United States and other countries. I always felt like an outsider looking in, never fully grasping the plight of Iranians living in Iran but struggling to understand the region’s complicated history.
After the recent death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody for allegedly improperly wearing her head scarf, women have led demonstrations across the country; images of women cutting their hair, burning head scarves, and throwing their defiance in the face of the “morality police” have taken over social media. These women are being lauded for their bravery and relentless resistance that has been ongoing for almost 2 weeks now. This fight has become more than a condemnation of the dress code; the hijab is a symbol of the oppressive laws that govern women under the Islamic Republic since its establishment in 1979.
My parents were both raised in Tehran and left during the Islamic revolution. Their plight of leaving their country, families, and everything they had ever known behind is a shared experience by most of the 1.5 million Iranians who also left Iran and now inhabit the United States. I visited Iran twice-once as a child, an experience I cannot remember well, and a second time the summer before I started college. As a newly minted high school graduate and staunch feminist about to embark on my undergraduate experience, I had some anxiety about visiting Iran, but also a lot of curiosity. What I am ashamed to admit now was that I also harbored preconceived notions about the women of Iran, mainly that they were submissive because after decades of oppression, what else could one expect?
Strolling through the streets of Tehran, I was enamored with the fashion-forward women testing the boundaries of their confinement and expressing their individuality through their fashion styles. While the Islamic Republic requires women to wear loose fitting clothing and cover their hair with head scarves, the women in Tehran were bold, confident and fearless in their dress. Their hair, voluminous and freshly highlighted, was flowing out of their fashionable, vibrant headscarves, which were lightly resting on their heads about halfway down their scalp (technically, all their hair should be covered).
Women wore capris, exposing their ankles, and their feet were donned with designer sandals and open-toed heels. They were unafraid when pushing these limits and gracefully displayed their beauty, keeping me in a state of enthrallment. I remember a specific trip to the local women’s pool club where modelesque women walked around in their bathing suits and a full face of tattooed makeup, conversing about everything from recent plastic surgeries they had to current events. My many conversations with some of these women made it clear that they were extremely educated and knowledgeable about politics, science, and world events (more than 60 percent of university graduates in Iran are women). They took pleasure in their appearances and staying on top of fashion trends but knew that their intellect and education harness their true power beyond their physical attributes.
As I sit here and prepare for another day of seeing patients, flipping through social media, and watching reels and images of the woman I found so inspiring decades ago putting their lives at risk for freedom, I reflect on their bravery. Despite massive oppression, they rise. They not only rise, but they also excel, they supersede, they vanquish. This gives me hope that the patriarchy that keeps women oppressed all over the world will continue to be met with unbridled resistance.
This week, a few of my patients who know my background have asked how I’m doing, have offered support, and communicated their understanding of the situation. I am grateful to have these relationships with my patients. I am thankful for their initiatives to educate themselves on these issues and bring awareness to them in their own personal lives. Similarly, when abortion rights were stripped from the women in Texas, where I now live, many of my patients came in and had conversations with me about how concerned they were for the futures of their daughters and women everywhere who would lose access to a lifesaving medical procedure and to personal choice. A few of them even asked me with trepidation in their voices if I was going to move back to New York and abandon them. One said, “We should stay and fight.” While I have the option to leave Texas, most people in Iran are unable to leave. However, they shouldn’t have to leave. None of us should have to leave anywhere. Women should not have to fight for their right to life in Iran, in the U.S., or in any other part of the world.
As doctors, we are emotionally invested in the lives of our patients, but we are all carrying our own personal struggles with us every day, which sometimes makes it difficult to be fully present with our patients. When patients simply ask how we are doing, it makes a big difference. I have always believed that treating patients is not just about treating an illness or a problem but about taking a holistic approach, understanding their cultural context, values, aspirations, and fears, and then advocating for them. As I treat my patients and have these conversations with them, I think about who is going to advocate for the women of my motherland.
Who will honor their struggle? Who will acknowledge their bravery and their sacrifice? How will they be portrayed in our history books? When will they finally be set free to accomplish all the things they are destined to accomplish? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but over the last week, I am continually reminded of the women I met decades ago who changed my perspective on what true bravery is. They are not submissive; they are resilient. They are a force to be reckoned with. They are the women I have emulated my whole life. They are woven from the same indestructible fabric my parents are from. As my heart breaks for Iran, I feel closer to my cultural identity than I ever have before. Many women in the United States, like women in Iran, are trying to achieve the same outcome-the right to bodily autonomy and freedom of choice. I hope the women of Iran know that my patients are rooting for them thousands of miles away in Texas.
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