I didn’t expect that meeting Meha was going to keep me up at night, but it did. In my dreams, those days, I was always on a boat in the middle of a dark ocean, when a bigger boat, full of male guards, stopped mine to arrest me and take me back to my family, who had paid for my abduction. I woke up screaming in my bed, night after night.
It wasn’t Meha’s fault, of course. I was just the social-work intern who had been paired with her in 2002, and her story happened to remind me of mine. Meha was a smart, energetic Hindu teen who had grown up in India with her grandparents and had come to Queens, at age sixteen, to join her parents. Not only did Meha have to learn a new language and culture, but she also had to get to know her biological parents, by whom she understandably felt abandoned. Within months of her arrival in the U.S., Meha’s parents arranged for her to be married to a much older man, despite her expressed desire to go to college.
Meha was in love with a Muslim boy named Mohamed. The two wanted to get married, and when Meha’s parents discovered this, they kicked her out of the house. A few days later, they came to our school to bring her home, she refused, and they ended up beating her in public, right outside our doors. That was the first time I worked with Child Protective Services.
From that day on, Meha didn’t want anything to do with her family, so we found her a temporary home staying with her best friend’s parents.
Meha came to me a lot in those days. “I want to convert to Islam,” she would say. “I want to cover my hair and marry Mohamed as soon as I graduate.”
“Is this about love or revenge?” I asked. “You always wanted to go to college, and you have the grades to go to a good one.”
“Maybe both,” she said. “Mohamed is good to me and his family loves me. I feel at home with them and my parents have no choice but to leave me alone.”
I talked about Meha with my supervisor. “I’m struggling,” I told my supervisor. “How can I help someone walk into a trap I just barely escaped from? Being a woman is hard enough. Why would Meha want to make it even harder by wearing a veil?”
“Is this really about her veil?” my supervisor asked me.
I thought for a moment. “No, it’s about freedom,” I said. “What if she’s running from one prison into another?”
“Like you did?” my supervisor asked me.
She was right.
As a teen, I would have done anything to leave Iran, including marrying anyone who lived on the other side of the world. That was how badly I wanted to leave my family and the Islamic Republic.
During my last summer in Tehran, I got myself involved in underground political activism. It was the late eighties, I was eighteen, and at that time, many of the social conflicts in Iran revolved around controlling how women dressed and acted. In those days, female officers belonging to the Komiteh, or morals police, would patrol the streets looking for girls wearing lipstick. Even the women were against women, it seemed. One day, I was walking down Tagrish Street in North Tehran with a girlfriend named Neda. It was a blisteringly hot summer day, and Neda was telling me about the work she was doing for a women’s organization that was secretly distributing feminist pamphlets in schools. The organization’s program was pretty modest: to encourage women not to get married too young and to form bonds with other female intellectuals.
As Neda was telling me about her work, a white Paykan car, with two men in the front and two women in the back, pulled up to the curb. The two women, both in black chadors, got out and began to walk toward us. They had rifles slung around their shoulders. Neda began to shake. “Atash, I’m carrying a lot of pamphlets right now in my backpack,” she whispered to me. “I’m going to put my bag on the ground now. You have to pick it up and take it to Ekbatan for me.”
The two women with guns surrounded us and began to yell at Neda, “Shame on you!” The thought of spending the rest of my life in prison flashed across my mind. “We didn’t do anything,” I said.
“Your lips!” one of the women shrieked. “How did they get so red? From eating pomegranate? That’s lipstick she’s wearing!” She pointed at Neda. I realized the women had no idea about the pamphlets.
“I’m not wearing lipstick,” I protested. I wasn’t. All of a sudden a hand went up and smacked me in the face. “Shut up!” the police woman screamed. She went over to Neda, pulled out a large wad of cotton, and shoved it at her. “Clean your lips!” the other police woman shouted. Both cops pointed their guns at Neda. Neda began to scrub her lips furiously with the wad of cotton, and the two women turned around and left. I was shocked to see them leave so abruptly, but when I looked over at Neda, I saw there was blood all over her face.
“Neda,” I screamed, “You’re bleeding all over.” She looked down at the wad of cotton the women had given her. “They put broken glass in it,” Neda said. Tears ran down her face, making clean streaks through the blood.
“Atash,” she said. “I still need your help. Will you be able to help me?”
“Of course, Neda,” I said. “Just ask.”
“I need you to take this backpack and deliver it to Ekbatan. There are lots of nice women there whom you should know.” She took a pen from her purse and wrote down the address as blood dripped down from her lips onto the paper. I could see that the flesh was torn badly.
“Neda, you need to go to a hospital.” I said.
“Here is some money,” she said. “Take a taxi.” She thrust a few tomans into my hand and turned to leave.
“There’s a good plastic surgeon in my family,” she said. “Atash, make sure you deliver the backpack.”
Neda was right: the women I met at Ekbatan inspired me. They were optimistic, curious, and hopeful. I immediately volunteered to help them carry their pamphlets from place to place that summer. They liked how I looked. “You have such an innocent face, Atash,” one of them told me.
The first dozen times I did deliveries for them went smoothly. Then one day they asked me to go to a high-rise apartment complex in the middle of Tehran. I had to enter through a central courtyard, which was covered with beautiful trees and flowers, and give a codename to the guard there. He let me in with no problems. As I rode in the elevator to the twelfth floor, my stomach was doing somersaults. All my life, this feeling had been a sign that something bad is about to happen.
Inside the apartment, there was a smell of tea in the air. There were about twenty women sitting on couches or standing around a coffee table piled high with nuts and sweets. They were passionately discussing the topic of divorce. When I walked in, a few of them got up to greet me, but the rest didn’t pause their conversation.
“Please stay for tea, Atash,” one of the women said. But I didn’t feel like staying. I felt sure something bad was about to happen. I drank my tea quickly and listened to a little of their conversation to be polite, but I quickly ducked out, leaving the backpack with them in a corner of the room.
As soon as I got outside, I saw a few pickup trucks parked in the street, the kind the Komiteh always drove. Two men climbed out of the truck and called me over.
“Where’s your backpack?”
“I don’t have a backpack,” I said.
“No, you had a backpack,” he insisted. “What did you do with it? Where did you drop it?” He stared at me. “You’re in a lot of trouble,” he said. “Tell me what you’re doing here.”
My heart dropped when he said that, because I realized I hadn’t prepared an alibi. What was I doing here? Then an excuse came to me. My brother knew a girl named Atusa who lived in that same complex and was a hairdresser. I told the Komiteh I was trying to find her apartment.
“What’s her last name?” one of the officers asked me.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “She cuts hair. That’s all I know. I wanted to get a perm.”
They didn’t believe me. They took me down to the station, where I stayed overnight in a damp cell with only one chair. All night long, I heard the voice of another woman in a nearby cell screaming in pain. I never managed to make out why she was there or what they were doing to her, but my imagination kept me in perpetual fear till morning.
The next day, I was interviewed by a senior Komiteh member, a tall, skinny man with greasy hair and a big beard. He looked as though he hadn’t taken a shower in a long time. I realized right away that he didn’t care about my story; he was only interested in how much money he could get from my family in return for letting me go. He threatened me with fifty-six lashes in the hopes that I’d convince my father to bring lots of cash to the station. But I was scared to call my father. What if he refused to bail me out? The fear of being rejected by him kept me from calling. Then it came to me: a boy I had once had a summer flirtation with in Ramsar had a father who worked in the government. I told the Komiteh official his name.
“This man is practically part of my family,” I said. “Call him and say Atash is here. Let me talk to him and I’ll tell him what you’ve done to me.”
I hadn’t actually expected the ploy to work, but I was desperate. The official looked scared. He had clearly heard of my friend’s father. “I see,” he said. “There’s really no need to talk about this any more, then.” And he let me go.
When I first heard Meha express her desire to take the veil, I was horrified. But as I went through my own memories of being that age, I saw that we were both fueled by the same need: to choose our own destinies, whatever those may be. Meha’s conversion to Islam after 9/11 introduced many difficulties into her life, but it also gave her the family of her dreams. The veil for her was a form of protection and a choice. I could see that now. Who was I to tell her she couldn’t choose?
The last time I saw Meha, she was still a teenager, bounding into my office with a huge smile on her face to tell me that she was getting married and moving to a “real house” in Westchester. Her smile was so contagious that I couldn’t help laughing with her as she described the sort of traditional wedding I’d never want for myself.
“Atash,” she told me. “I’m going to be okay.”
“I know you are,” I said.
And after that, my nightmares stopped.