It’s the first question I ask my friend as she meets me at Food Court, the new hot spot located inside the Jam-e-Jam shopping complex and, as the name says, a food court in Tehran. It’s the first of its kind that popped up in the mid-2000s. Food Court became a place for young people to gather, go on dates, and flirt with a glimmer of the life that could be if only things were different.
Kesi gir dad? It’s a question I didn’t even think twice about asking, even at the young age of 15. It is perhaps the most common question asked in Tehran. A question so mundane, so run of the mill that at times you almost forget what it is you are asking. You almost forget that this question is the main throughline of our daily existence for almost all of us.
It roughly translates to did anyone harass you? But it’s less so asking whether or not you got bothered or stopped by the morality police. Rather, it’s a point of reflection—were you able to gain a modicum of your freedom without facing some sort of penalty? Did you get away with pushing boundaries, and if you did, could I next time do the same? It is a constant gut check to see whether social policies have tightened or loosened. It’s a question that really asks, is it safe in a country so chaotic and ever-changing?
Since the start of the current protests I’ve thought a lot about this question—how it dominates day-to-day life, how used to it we all get, how normal it becomes to find ways to work around a government that has a boot on your throat at all times.
I’ve thought a lot about the particular weight of this on us women. We use that question to figure out how we should dress, what areas to avoid. As young female teenagers you’d devise a plan to stay under the radar if you needed to pass by the morality police, or in Persian the gasht-e-ershad, pulling up your headscarf, buttoning up your coat. If you were going to downtown Tehran, a more conservative area of the city, maybe you’d dress more modestly knowing they’d be more likely to bother you. Tehran is a city of chaos and dichotomies and this extends to how the morality police operate. If you are uptown, in what are considered liberal affluent areas, rules are lax; downtown, in what is considered old Tehran where the grand bazaar is, where people are more conservative, rules tighten up, and the morality police enforce them with a heavy hand. But as with anything in Tehran, there are no steadfast rules or adages to live by; it can all change at any moment.
The answer to this question is as loaded as the question itself.
Khob, gir bedan.
“Well, let them,” my friend responds as she lets her hijab fall to her shoulders. She’s in no rush to pull the silk fabric back up, a clear sign of defiance given Food Court is a hot spot for the morality police to come and bother you. One of their only skills is always knowing when you are having too good a time.
This answer is often delivered in a nonchalant way and yet it holds decades of pent-up frustration. But most importantly it belies a “give them hell” attitude that Iranian women carry with them day to day. It is an attitude that I see not just in my friends, young people who feel penned in and itching to be let free. This attitude stretches up to older generations of women, like my mother, my grandmother and even my great-grandmother. Women who have never sat back refusing to let themselves be relegated to the sidelines of society. We push to just over the line and then perhaps pull back, but not without a fight and certainly not without a man calling us por-ruh, the Persian word for forward, presumptuous. But that’s the thing with Iranian women, we are por-ruh. We take up space, we speak out all the time, always sharing our opinions, often unsolicited as any child of an Iranian mother will tell you. We are unafraid to make ourselves known; we don’t make ourselves small for anyone, let alone a government.
Over the course of the last four months I keep hearing my fellow journalists say with a degree of surprise how this is the first revolution led by women, the first protests led by Iranian women. As proud as I am, to me that doesn’t ring true. The Iranian women I’ve seen, through my thirty years of life, have always been protesting, dragging the country forward by any means necessary, pushing back at every turn. It is women who over the last forty years and more have gotten us to this point. The women, the por-ruh women with their over-the-top makeup, consisting of bright eye shadows, overlined lips, and eyelashes that extend out at least a foot.
It is the women with tight hijab overcoats, which resemble a dress that would be worn to a nightclub over a pair of jeans, sky-high heels and Jersey Shore-style hair, lovingly called “coquoli” or rooster style. It is the women who have pushed to the top of their fields. It is the women who have faced some of the most horrific crimes and kept living their lives. Women like my cousin Niloufar Bayani, fighting for the betterment of her country and environment while she languishes in Evin Prison. Or my grandmother, reaching the apex of her own career and still spending her life mentoring, fostering women in a male-dominated field. It is my grandmother’s mentee, a chador-clad woman who spent time in Evin for her political beliefs, writing love letters to her husband every day. It is my friend living in a small village in the North of Iran by the Caspian, speaking out on social media, and pushing the boundaries of her life. It is my mother going to court refusing to wear a chador and giving the guard a hard time.
Iran’s modern history is filled with stories of women at the forefront of a quiet revolution. In western media we like big stories, stories of people laying their life on the line for their beliefs. We like stories of revolution, violence and imminent change; we like the stories of women tearing off their scarves in the street. We tend to be most interested if we can see the ending; we may even prefer it if the ending is not happy–it gives us more space for analysis. “What went wrong, two years later.”
The story of Iranian women has not been one that is media friendly. We rarely cover the women and girls who push forward in their everyday lives, those who wish to keep their faith but have freedom, we rarely cover the women in Iran who are achieving great heights despite it all or those who live ordinary lives dating, going to dinner, having fun, protesting in the most banal way. As an Iranian woman, it is unsurprising that the change that is upon us has come from women. It is after all, the por-ruh Iranian women who have spent forty years willing to play a dangerous game with a brutal regime, willing to say khob, gir bedan as they let their head scarves fall.
Leila Gharagozlou (she/her) is an Iranian-American journalist and producer based in Dubai. Born in Boston, Leila has spent most of her life living between Iran and the U.S., a lifestyle that early on sparked interest and curiosity in wanting to understand the world around her.
She has worked in the journalism industry for nearly a decade at some of the biggest global news organizations. She has covered a range of topics from financial news and commodities to geo-politics. However, most of her work and analysis has been focused on covering Iran and its people. Her aim has always been to give voice to those inside the country and to bring foreign readers and viewers a more nuanced and more human understanding of one of the world’s most contentious places.