Opinion: Your rights could be taken away quickly. I know because it happened to me

My grandmothers had escaped the Russian Revolution of 1917 and fled to Iran in search of freedom. And to some extent, they had found it. My father had become a successful ballroom dance instructor in Tehran and taught Muslim couples the cha-cha and tango. My mother was a hairdresser and styled the hair of Muslim women in fashion. And I had grown up wearing bikinis on the shores of the Caspian Sea, while partying with my Muslim friends.

The revolutionary leaders promised to expand social freedoms, grant policies, and build a democracy. They used our complaints against Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, to gain our trust and gain power. But as soon as they took office, the few personal freedoms we had enjoyed disappeared and strict Islamic law was enacted.

In less than a year, women’s rights to self-expression were eliminated: dance, singing, tenure the hands of our boyfriends in public and wearing bikinis it all became largely forbidden activities. Some priests from my Roman Catholic Church, all foreigners who had lived in Iran for years, were deported and several of the properties that belonged to the church were confiscated.

The irony was that some of my Christian relatives had trusted Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic revolutionary leader, and celebrated when the Shah was forced into exile. Now they, like me, were paying the price.

While Iran’s transition from a nation of limited social rights to one of virtually none may seem like a distant reality to those living under democracy, the truth is that it is not.

If Western democracies are not on guard, their citizens may fall victim to the same kinds of leaders who now control Iran’s political infrastructure. The revolutionary leaders were populists who promised to return power to the people after decades of monarchical rule, and for many disenfranchised voters in democracies who feel their elected officials have ignored their struggles, the populist message can have quite a strong appeal. , even if it’s just a ploy.

But the risk is not only in losing civil or democratic rights, but in being punished for defying authority figures who have stripped citizens of those rights.

After 1979, our accomplished teachers were replaced by fanatical young academics, many of whom were members of the newly formed Iranian Revolutionary Guard. They spent class time spreading government propaganda and trying to persuade us that the fanatical rules of the regime, such as forcing all women and girls over 9 to wear the hijab, it was for our own good. They argued that we had to dress modestly so as not to attract unwanted attention from men.

At the time, I told our director that I was a Christian, so the new Islamic rules of modesty should not apply to me. She replied, “You believe in the wrong religion.” He was politically naive, but he was also aggrieved, having experienced firsthand why freedom of religion mattered. I attended protest rallies to express my frustration with the new religious laws limiting or attacking the rights of Iranian women.

Speaking against the regime, in whatever shape or form, was now considered an act of war against God, the penalty of which could be death. And, in January 1982, the Revolutionary Guard arrested me for doing just that. With only 16, I had been accused from being an anti-revolutionary and sent to the famous Evin prison. They tortured me physically and emotionally and then forced me to marry one of my interrogators, who was murdered 15 months after the marriage.
The fiercest fight of the 21st century: saving democracy

Six months after his death, and two years, two months, and 12 days after my initial arrest, I was released. My captors had decided that there was no reason to hold me any longer, perhaps because they had managed to destroy my spirit and suppress my desire to protest. Many of my friends and cellmates had been executed while I was in prison and I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, although I did not know it at the time. I was just 19 years old when they released me.

Although it took me several years, and a move to Canada, before I shared the details of my tragic story, I decided to do so because a democracy is only as good as its citizens. Now, living in the West, I have come to realize that even the strongest democracies are not immune from demagogues posing as populists. Those of us who have experienced what loss of basic rights looks and feels like have an obligation to speak up. Because once the demagogues, or aspirants, have taken over, it will be too late.

In fact, democracy is like water trapped in the palm of our hands. If we don’t concentrate on holding it, the water will drip between our fingers and we will be left with nothing but a burning thirst.

Although Iran was not a democracy before the revolution, any hope for a peaceful transition to a post-revolution has almost faded today. The Islamic Republic of Iran disguises itself as democracy, holding elections for its parliament and president. However, its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who replaced Ayatollah Khomeini after his death, and his Council of Guardians decide who is or is not fit to stand for election.
And it certainly does not have a prosperous free Press or civil society. Anyone who criticizes the regime and its officials can be arrested and even sentenced to death.

The line that separates democracy from tyranny is not as thick as Westerners might choose to believe. In Iran, we believed that our goodwill, our selfless efforts, and our desire for better governance could not be manipulated or destroyed. Many of us even died during the revolution for the Islamic Republic to exist. But we were wrong and we have been paying the price for almost half a century.


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