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Looking Back at the Land of No

Roya Hakakian, interviewed by Willa Glickman

In her March 8, 2021 article “Unveiling Iran,” Roya Hakakian describes the growing resistance to Iran’s hijab mandate, which requires all women to be veiled while in public. In the past few years, women have taken to climbing onto utility boxes on the street and removing their veils, waving them as flags of protest. Though one such activist received a twenty-four-year prison sentence, the movement continues. The regime has resorted to installing sloped caps on utility boxes, so they can’t be stood upon.

Photograph by Masih Alinejad

Roya Hakakian

Hakakian grew up in a Jewish family living in a middle-class neighborhood in Tehran, which she called “highly eclectic” in an email to me. “The neighbors to our left were Baha’is, and the ones across were Zoroastrians, to our right was a family of Armenian Christians, and my best friend on the street was a Shiite Muslim girl.” She remembers a relatively idyllic childhood before the 1979 Revolution, but within weeks of victory, a leading Jewish philanthropist was executed, deeply unnerving the Jewish community. “There were other limitations that were quickly put in place against non-Shiites, which is to say that Jews were not singularly targeted, but because Shiite Muslims were to receive preferential treatment, Jews and other religious minorities slowly became second-class citizens once again.”

In her first year of high school, the hijab became mandatory—by her last year, she realized that the new dress code, and the new regime, were there to stay. “Anger got hold of me and didn’t let go,” she told me. When she came to the US as a refugee seeking political asylum in 1985, at age nineteen, she found that for the first few years, “I had arrived physically, but not psychologically. On the subway, I would reach up to fix my scarf only to realize there was nothing on my head. The memory of the surveillance state was so powerful that I always peered to see who was walking behind me, and worried about carrying books in my handbag. It took months for me to ease up and get comfortable with the daily freedoms that most native-born Americans do not even recognize as the small miracles of their lives.”

Partially as a result of this experience, Hakakian finds it frustrating that Western feminists have not shown more solidarity with the fight against the hijab mandate. While Afghan, Turkish, and Saudi women have posted videos of themselves driving or walking unveiled, using the same hashtag as Iranian women, “the support of Western feminists, especially Western female leaders, is by and large nonexistent,” she said. She is particularly angered when foreign leaders visit Iran and put on the hijab, posing with Iranian dignitaries. “Nothing can cause a greater disappointment to the local women than seeing fellow women who have the power to say no simply abide by unjust laws that Iran’s leadership imposes on them.”

In the US, the more urgent debate may seem to be focused on ensuring women have the freedom to wear the hijab without facing discrimination or violence, but Hakakian argues that there is, and indeed must be, room for both fights. “The veil can only be a genuine expression of a woman’s preference under democratic circumstances,” she told me.

In her article, Hakakian notes a general lessening of anti-American sentiment in Iran. I asked her how the US assassination of the general Qassem Soleimani had affected public opinion. She pointed out that weeks before Soleimani was killed, there were the most widespread demonstrations against the regime that had ever taken place, in which thousands were arrested and hundreds killed, including many children. “While some portion of the Iranian population was surely grieved to see Soleimani killed, many others felt avenged to see that the brutal regime that had murdered so many be confronted,” she says. “It has become clear to people, after forty-three years of no relations with the US, that their situation has gotten more dire with every passing year. With or without the harsh economic sanctions, women were experiencing the same discriminations as they do now. Freedom of speech was as nonexistent, regardless. It has become clear that the cause of the national crisis is not without Iran, but within.” 

Hakakian’s first book, Journey from the Land of No, is a memoir of her childhood and adolescence, as she observed “the historical cataclysm that befell Iran.” She says she wrote that book “at the cusp of forgetting. I had a feeling that the details were about to be lost to me and I had to gather what I could there and then.” She did this with the same thoroughness that she brings to her journalistic work, frustrating her editor with a request for more time so that she could interview her relatives. “She could not understand why I needed to interview anyone to write my own memoir. But I needed to feel that I was treating the subject as fairly as I could.”

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Her latest book, A Beginner’s Guide to America, which is a combination of reporting, memoir, and fiction about the immigrant experience, will be published this month. She felt that the mixed genre suited the subject: “A refugee’s life is a patchwork of countries, languages, and tragedies. It seemed right that the refugee’s prose be the same.”

The book came about as a result of observations and conversations with fellow immigrants ever since Hakakian arrived in the US, “as if I have been living here but also taking notes like a technician in a laboratory,” she said. It was also inspired by the political moment. “For the past four years, America seemed to have a great deal to say about its immigrants. I felt that it was time I, as one immigrant, said a thing or two about America, too.”

To celebrate its publication, she had a virtual book release event with her local congregation, and despite disliking Zoom, she said that she was surprisingly moved when the attendees recited the Jewish prayer of thanks for new experiences, the Shehekheyanu. “It was something my father, who died between the publication of my last book and this one, would have done. It really made my night.”

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