My Ammeh – My Unlikely Feminist Hero

Today marks my paternal aunt’s chellom, the 40th day after her passing. This day in Persian culture has enormous significance. People generally conclude a long period of mourning by holding a wake to honour the memory of a deceased loved one. I had never known my Ammeh’s accurate age until after her passing. Through some arithmetical gymnastics my father and I were able to deduce that she must have been no older than 15 when she was married off and probably in the range of 15 to 16 when she gave birth to her first child. Her eldest daughter, my cousin, and my father’s niece, childhood friend, and playmate is only a year younger than my father and only 15 years younger than her mother, my aunt.

 

At a time, when people in my generation and those who are younger capture every memorable and non-memorable moment on their smart phones, from weekends away to weekends out on the town, from dinner parties at home to dinners in posh restaurants, to every stylish outfit in between, I found it very unsettling that her life is almost undocumented. There are no letters, no journal entries, and very few pictures.  The fact that my aunt and millions of women like her in many parts of the world leave very little behind to mark their time on this earth, their lives, dreams, and aspirations makes them the epitome of mortal.

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So, I started to dig a bit. I talked to my father. I talked to my cousin, her youngest daughter, whom I love very much, to find out a bit more. At face value, my aunt’s life is that of an ordinary house-wife and mother in a dusty provincial town. Yet what’s remarkable is that she contributed six highly skilled daughters to the work-force. Among all the names that I draw inspiration from in the struggle for equality, I never realized, until after her passing that my aunt’s contribution to female equality has not been insignificant. Even though she herself was denied access to higher education unlike her six brothers, she gave to the world, a young army of working women, several teachers, a doctor, and a social worker, several of whom were socially and politically active during the 1979 revolution.  Her greatest legacy is the six women that she leaves behind. Each one university educated, and each one earning her way through life.

 

My Ammeh, like my father and the rest of their family, is fascinating in that she was down-to-earth and practical. I don’t recall ever hearing grand goals,  inspirational speeches, or fist-to-the-sky proclamations. Yet her pragmatic and utilitarian approach to life, a formula of hard work, commitment to family, and obsession with education paved the way to equity for the females in her inner circle. Despite not ever having expressed grand visions on female equality she’s the embodiment of “deeds not words”.  And although it makes me sad that we know so little from her life, she leaves behind the ultimate gift of proof, a further validation that empowering girls to have access to education and employment opportunities is the most effective form of achieving equality. This, to me, is worthier than any individualistic pursuit of self-documentation and a good lesson to uphold for the next generation.

Happy International Women’s Day 2016

Today, March 8th, marks International Women’s Day. Amid the frenzy of getting prepared to go back to Canada for the next five weeks where my newborn daughter will get to know her maternal family, I could not possibly overlook this day which I have always tried to celebrate or at least acknowledge in some small way from the time I was old and wise enough to appreciate its significance.

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Of course there have been celebrations, events, protests, and dedications all over the world. The most easily accessible one is probably Google’s Doodle which is dedicated to the global independent initiative “Planet 50-50 by 2030”. In an uplifting video, women across 12 cities including Jane Goodall and Malala Yousafzai complete the sentence “one day I will”.

Here in the UK too, this past Sunday, the charity event “Walk in Her Shoes” attracted a number high profile women’s rights advocates including Helen Pankhurst the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, Annie Lennox, Bianca Jagger, and Sophie Walker the founder of Women’s Equality Party. During her address to the crowd, Sophie Walker who is also her party’s London mayoral candidate, reiterated the six objectives of WEP, which I covered in a previous post.

But the one dedication, which I found the most heart-warming is by Iranian-American comedian Kambiz Hosseini who inspired by Jon Stewart of the Daily show, has created a satirical news show in Persian called Poletik. In an Instagram post, under a picture of Nasrin Sotoudeh, a highly respected human rights lawyer, Kambiz has captioned humorously (and I’m butchering the phrase a bit in translation): “To the Iranian man and the non-Iranian man…today is International Women’s Day…be a man”. This is a pun that intends to say, “be a good man or be a human”. The post made me smile primarily because any picture of Sotoudeh always makes me smile but also because the mock scolding tone of the caption was very endearing.

Seeing Sotoudeh’s face makes me smile because what she has achieved as a woman, nay as a human being, inspires me beyond words. I am not referring to her noble work as a human rights lawyer but the fact that she is making an impact in her chosen profession with the backing of a loving family. Sotoudeh has come to represent the modern Iranian woman who has achieved gender equality in her personal life and professional aspirations in a patriarchal country. A widely published picture of a hand-cuffed Sotoudeh embracing her husband Reza Khandan after her politically-motivated arrest by the Iranian regime in 2011, has come to symbolise their loving yet equal partnership among Iranians both in Iran and on the diaspora. Her husband certainly deserves half the credit for the respect he has exemplified for Sotoudeh’s work. Throughout her political imprisonment between 2011 and 2013, he continuously defended her work during interviews while being the primary care provider of their two children. A scenario that is not so commonplace in Iran. To be fair it is not very commonplace anywhere in the world.

I wanted to write a post no matter how short to wish all my readers, men and women a happy women’s day because when we finally achieve gender equality throughout the world it will be both men and women who shall equally reap the benefits. But I also wanted to dedicate this to my own little girl. This is her first IWD. She’s only five months old now but I hope she grows up in a world that continues to progress on the path of gender equality and evolves to not impose gender-specific limitations on her and her peers. I hope she will grow up to have equal pay and a fair shot at leadership roles in whatever profession she chooses. But most earnestly, I wish for her to grow up in world that becomes ever more free of violence against and objectification of women. Be it street catcalling, workplace harassment, or cyber-bulling, I hope we succeed in cleansing the world of attitudes that strip our girls of their dignity.