March 8, 1979: Anti-Veiling Protest in Iran


A travel down the memory lane! I was fourteen years old at the time of this protest, which I attended with my mother, Azar, and a group of her friends. Despite Ayatollah Khomeini’s promise that he will be a religious leader, two weeks after his arrival in Tehran on February 1, 1979, he began preaching Shariat, mandating all women to wear the veil. Over 100,000 men and women took to the streets of Tehran to protest against veiling on March 8, 1979–International Women’s Day. Initially, the Ayatollah backed off, but sadly within a year veiling became mandatory.

Below, I share an excerpt from my memoir–The Sky Detective: How I fled Iran and Became a NASA Scientist–recalling the events of March 8, 1979. This excerpt is from the “Revolution Madness” chapter:

During the next week, Mamman and her chic friends, dressed in high fashion European clothes and dark sunglasses, become regular participants at street rallies, protesting against mandatory veiling. According to her, they have to wear ridiculously large dark sunglasses to disguise their faces from the enemy—the regime insiders—individuals who are dressed in civilian clothes to secretly photograph people. It seems as if a turban has replaced a crown, but nothing fundamental has changed in Iran. Before, people were scared of SAVAK, the shah’s secret police. Now, just a month after the revolution, the same people are again afraid of yet an unnamed secret police of some kind.

One day, Mamman is late coming home from one of her frequent outings with her girlfriends. Worried thoughts grow in my head as I watch Afshan play with her Barbies. She has setup her two-story pink Barbie house at the corner of the kitchen and is pushing Ken’s camper truck to approach and park in front of the house. Today, he’s a lucky man, for I can see five well-dressed Barbies around the dining table waiting to have dinner with him. Last September, right after we returned from England, I gladly donated my Barbie collection to Afshan, basking in her love for weeks afterward. For Afshan’s sake, I hope the ayatollah doesn’t declare war on Barbie and Ken.

For the zillionth time, Afshan looks up and asks, “Where is Mamman, Azadeh? Don’t you think it’s getting too dark out there? Are you sure she’s okay?”

Before I have a chance to respond, we hear Mamman’s car grinding and growling outside. Afshan runs out as I sigh and stare up at the clock and then at the large, empty bag of potato chips in front of me next to a bottle of consumed Coca-Cola.

Minutes later, Mamman walks into the kitchen and puts her notepad down. “I’m sorry to be late, Azadeh. I went to a craft store after the rally to pick up some materials.”

“To pick up what?” I ask, staring at her. “We were so worried about you.”

Mamman tries to stroke my hair, but I recoil and look down, only to see the words on her notepad, written neatly in oversized letters in her handwriting: We Have Two Choices—Freedom or Death—Nothing More, Nothing Less.

The realization that I may soon lose my mother at a rally cuts through me like a knife. My eyes well up with tears, thinking I’d rather have my mother alive and veiled rather than defiant and dead.

“Azadeh, would you like to help me make a banner with these words?” Mamman asks as she tucks my hair behind my ear.

I wipe my nose on my sleeve and nod. Mamman unrolls a white piece of fabric on the kitchen floor and asks me to arrange large red letters on its surface, each printed individually on waxed paper.

“Wow, Mamman, you are so brave,” I say as she irons the seventh word, Death, onto the banner while I stretch the fabric around it. “Are you really willing to die if they force us to veil?” I ask, wondering why she chose the word death instead of defiance or something like it, for death sounds too final, too scary to think about.

She sighs. “No, not really, but only because I have you, Jahan, and Afshan to worry about. I want to be around to see you all grow up. Hopefully, the ayatollah will back down.”

“But I don’t want to wear the veil, either. Can I go with you to a rally next time, just once, please?”

“No. It’s too dangerous. In the last rally, the police shot bullets up into the air to scare us,” she says, shaking her head. “I even saw a few unshaven, Islamic-looking men walking around with knives and batons.”

“Are they waiting for the ayatollah’s orders to attack?” I ask, shivering inside at the thought of Mamman standing near men who bear weapons of death.

“I think so. If he gives the orders, I won’t go anymore. You have my word.”

“Well, then, it’s safe for now. You said it yourself. That means I can go? Right?” I ask in a pleading voice.

“Okay, I’ll think about it. It’s time to go to bed,” she says, folding the banner.
We clean up the mess in the kitchen and go to bed.

The next morning, I peek through the window and watch Mamman step into a friend’s car, a black cherry Mercedes-Benz. The gold hood emblem sparkles in the sunlight as the car backs out of our driveway. Six women in disguise are on their way to have their voices heard. I’ll do just about anything to be a passenger in that car.

A week later, I’m getting ready for bed when I hear Mamman’s voice calling my name. In the kitchen, I find her sitting alone next to a large glass of steaming hot tea.

“Come here and sit down, Azadeh.” She pats the chair next to hers. “You know, tomorrow is a very special day, and I’m thinking of taking you with me to a big rally.”

“Is it special ’cause I’m going with you?” I ask, playing with my ponytail.

“No, silly. Don’t flatter yourself. Tomorrow is March 8: International Women’s Day.”

I didn’t even know such a day existed, but that is indeed a very special day. I’m a woman, or will be one soon, and based on what Mamman has been telling me, my personal freedom is at stake.

That night in my dream, I see myself standing in a large crowd of unveiled women, our fists up punching the air, shouting, “We have two choices—freedom or death—nothing more, nothing less!”

The next day, Mamman and I arrive at the rally early in the morning, our faces masked by large, dark sunglasses. Mamman meets a group of friends and begins to chatter as I unroll our banner, the same one that we made together a week earlier.

After a few minutes of examining the crowd, I ask, “Mamman, why are some women wearing chadors? Aren’t we here to protest against veiling?”

“No, we are here to protest against mandatory veiling. Most women in chadors here are like Grandma—they like to cover up but don’t want it enforced upon others like you and me. Look at that banner.” She points to two women wearing headscarves and holding up a banner a few rows behind us. It says: We are in hijab, our daughters are not. Let us be who God made us to be.

“That’s exactly right,” I say. “Let God, not the ayatollah, judge if we are sinners or not.”
“Well said, Azadeh.” Mamman and a couple of her friends applaud, making me feel proud inside.

“Azadeh, pay attention when I’m talking to you,” Mamman says firmly.

“What? Did I do something wrong?” I ask, looking around.

“I just told you not to tuck your hair behind your ears. Let it loose.”

“Why?” I ask, feeling disoriented, like a small child lost in a crowd.

“Don’t ask why. Just listen, and do what I tell you.”

I release my hair to fall over part of my face.

“That woman, over there,” Mamman points to someone in a navy-blue cloak and matching headscarf, “is taking our picture. Be aware of your surroundings.”

“Sorry, Mamman; I didn’t see her. I’ll be more careful,” I say, worrying about the picture in her camera.

A large crowd has now gathered in and around Sepah-Salar Square—a large square housing several government buildings—awaiting the speaker to take the podium in front of the parliament. From where we are, I can see a group of men and women struggling on the stage to assemble the communication apparatus for the program.

After fifteen minutes, a gentleman holding a loudspeaker comes down from the podium and says, “Many wires to our speaker system have been cut, and we are unable to continue with our scheduled program.”

The nearby crowd roars, “Death to censorship! Death to censorship!”

Moments later, groups of people begin to chant among themselves, delivering the gentleman’s message from the podium to the ends of the crowd. Within a few minutes, everyone is shouting, “Death to censorship! Death to censorship!”

Banners rise, and marching begins. “Women’s freedom is neither Eastern nor Western, but universal!”

The people in the crowd move out of the square and into Shahabad Street, shouting slogans with their fists raised and banners waving in the air. After passing several streets, we turn onto Hassanabad Street, where many nurses in white uniforms and caps appear on patios of Sina Hospital.

In solidarity, the nurses raise their fists and yell out slogans.

In return, the crowd shouts, “Salute to the nurse! Salute to the nurse!”

The nurses bow as tears stream from my eyes, Mamman’s eyes, and the eyes of most women and men striding along.

“I hope the government won’t arrest them,” one of Mamman’s friends says as we pass Sina Hospital.

I turn back to look at the nurses one last time through large, dark sunglasses, wishing that I could smash the sunglasses under my feet and tuck every strand of loose hair behind my ears to claim my identity. I’m just a coward, that’s who I am, always afraid of what may happen to me next if I do this or that. They’re so brave to take a strong stand by exposing their identities like that. God, please keep them safe.

In the middle of that night, I wake up to the glare of chandelier lights. Baba is sitting on my bed, tapping on my shoulder. “Wake up, Azadeh. Stop screaming.”

“I had a nightmare,” I say, rubbing my eyes.

“About what?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Drink some water and go back to sleep.”

“I’ll try, Baba.”

Baba kisses my forehead and turns off the light.

I bury my face under the sheet and recall my dream—tall, unshaven men beating petite nurses with batons and stabbing them with knives. I didn’t tell Baba anything, since I’m not sure if he still believes in this revolution.

Six days after the large International Women’s Day protest, the ayatollah backs off and appears on TV.

“Veiling is not obligatory but highly recommended …”

As I listen to him, I feel like a bird set free from a cage. He has no right to enforce his religious beliefs on half the population. I’m grateful to Mamman and women like her for standing up to him. Otherwise, veiling would have become the law of our land.



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