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September 11, 2020 10:52 am

A Jewish Childhood Disturbed in Iran

avatar by Jacqueline Saper

Opinion

The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini speaks from a balcony of the Alavi school in Tehran, Iran, during the Islamic Revolution, in February 1979. Photo: Reuters / Stringer / File.

From Miniskirt to Hijab: A Girl in Revolutionary Iran by Jacqueline Saper (Potomac Press of the University of Nebraska Press, October 2019)

Jacqueline Saper’s comfortable childhood and adolescence in Iran ended in 1978, as the country convulsed with civil unrest and social clashes. In 1979, came a revolution. The shah was ousted, and Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile. Iran was now an Islamic theocracy. This excerpt is from Chapter 25 of her memoir:

Welcome to First Grade

My daughter, Leora, turned six in September 1986. Two days later, she started first grade at an all-girls elementary school. She was the eldest of my two children. My son, Daniel, was two at the time.

Leora’s first day of school in the Islamic Republic of Iran was a new and uncharted experience for our family. Today was also the first day of her life when she wore the hijab. Leora’s school uniform consisted of navy-blue pants and a manteau, a long, shapeless, gray buttoned-down overcoat that came down to her knees. A large, navy headcover known as the maghnaeh, covered every strand of her hair. The cloth extended from the top of her head to the middle of her chest.

As her mother, I had to help my daughter get dressed for school. I felt deeply upset. “Why do they subject such young children to wearing the hijab in a building where all students and personnel are female? The walls are tall. No one can peek inside. But more so, why the hijab for my Jewish child?”

Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, a lot had changed. By then, gender segregation was the norm. Males and females had to be separated — in the schools, on the beaches, in buses, and at hair salons.

Despite her somber uniform, Leora was excited and held her new backpack tightly to her chest. As I watched her, I told myself, “Let her be happy and feel some joy in her little world.” But I was upset. I had experienced wearing the mandatory hijab for the past few years, and I did not want the same for my daughter.

In the school courtyard, Leora and I saw long lines of young girls, and all dressed exactly alike. Only their facial features and hands were visible. On the far end, the principal stood on a raised platform and spoke earnestly into a loudspeaker. I squeezed Leora’s little hand and gave her a reassuring look. Parents, who were mostly the mothers, were invited to join their children for the first hour of school.

I stood beside Leora in line, and we followed her new classmates and their parents to the classroom. The room looked colorless and felt cheerless. It had no joy. The parents and their children sat on iron school benches. A faded and yellowed curtain covered the window. The only thing in mint condition was a framed picture above the chalkboard of the supreme leader. His piercing eyes and omnipotent presence could be felt at all times.

The teacher, dressed in a manteau and a black maghnaeh, stood in front of the class, and said, “Welcome to first grade.” Then, for the next ten minutes, a fifth-grader recited some passages from the Qur’an in Arabic. Although Iranians speak Persian (Farsi), the holy scriptures are in Arabic.

My attention shifted to my child. Leora was just like any other kid in the school, but she was also different. For the first time since her birth, I regretted my decision to give her a foreign official name, unlike her brother, Daniel, having a Persian official name (Navid). With my name as Jacqueline, I, too, had a foreign name and understood the dilemmas Leora would face. When I was growing up, my name was a source of admiration and represented my connection to the West. Now, the same reason was a cause for condemnation. In public, I had retained my alias name, Jaleh, and used the alias name of Nilofar for Leora. But now, in school, she had to use her official name. With or without a Persian name, Leora was part of a religious minority.

How long would it take before her teacher and classmates started treating her differently? It was possible that some children would refer to her as a Johud [a derogatory word for a Jewish person] and would refrain from befriending her.

My attention turned to Leora, who quietly sat beside me. I looked into her wide eyes, and thought, “At least she has no idea that education used to be different.” During the reign of the Shah, I wore cute dresses with white socks and shiny shoes. Our maid would comb and style my hair in braids or a ponytail, or keep the sides in place with colorful barrettes. My teachers wore pencil skirts, chiffon shirts, and high-heeled shoes. Their hair was styled after Queen Farah’s beehive, which was fashionable at the time. They were kind and smiled. We learned morality stories with underlying principles of righteousness, love, and mutual respect. We recited beautiful poems by Persian poets from books with colorful pictures.

One day, Leora told us that the teacher had drawn some bottles on the chalkboard and asked the girls if anyone had them in their houses. Apparently, the state officials, through the teachers, were using children to investigate which parents had any banned alcoholic beverages.

Leora had a habit of using the front of her maghnaeh as a handy, makeshift tissue to wipe her nose; therefore, the front panel of her head and chest covering was always dirty. The back of her neck became sore from the heat rash that had developed under her maghnaeh.

An essential part of her education was safety. The children had to make trenches in the schoolyard so that they could hide in them when the Iraqi warplanes appeared from above. I never understood how much security a hole in the ground would provide. The thought of not being with my child during an air raid was too painful even to imagine.

Leora began to kiss the posters of the Ayatollahs that were displayed everywhere we went. She had learned to wave her fists in the air and chant “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” She had no idea where these places were, but Leora knew that she and her classmates had to wish for their destruction. During recess, Leora and her friends would play a game where they formed a funeral procession and carried an object over their heads, pretending it was a martyr being taken to the cemetery.

Two weeks into the school year, I made an appointment to meet with the principal. She was a short woman with a prominent face and round spectacles that pinched the middle of her nose. I explained our status as religious minorities and requested that my daughter be excused from the mandated religious studies. Leora would instead fulfill this requirement by attending a religious, Jewish program at a private, weekend school for an hour-and-a-half on Friday mornings. The principal’s reception was cold. She did not even bother to raise her head as she signed the release form.

Jacqueline Saper is an expert on Iranian subject matter. She can be reached at JacquelineSaper.com.

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