My grandmothers escaped the Russian Revolution of 1917 and fled to Iran in search of freedom. And to a certain extent, they had found it. My father had become a successful ballroom dance teacher in Tehran and taught Cha-Cha and Tango to Muslim couples. My mother was a hairdresser and did fashionable Muslim women’s hair. And I grew up wearing bikinis on the shores of the Caspian Sea while partying with my Muslim friends.
The revolutionary leaders promised to expand social freedoms, grant political freedoms and build democracy. They used our complaints against Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, to gain our trust and gain power. But as soon as they took office, the few personal freedoms we had enjoyed disappeared and strict Islamic law was introduced.
The irony was that some of my Christian relatives had trusted and celebrated Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic revolutionary leader, when the Shah was forced into exile. Now, like me, they paid the price.
While Iran’s transition from a nation with limited social rights to a nation with virtually none may seem like a distant reality to those living in democracy, the truth is that it is not.
If Western democracies are not on guard, their citizens can fall victim to the same leaders who now control Iran’s political infrastructure. The revolutionary leaders were populists who pledged to return power to the people after decades of monarchical rule, and for many disenfranchised voters in democracies who feel that their elected officials have ignored their struggles, the populist message can be quite a drag have – even if it is just a trick.
But the risk is not only to lose civil or democratic rights, but also to be punished for challenging those in authority who have deprived citizens of these rights.
At that time I told our headmaster that I was a Christian, so the new Islamic rules of humility should not apply to me. She replied, “You believe in the wrong religion.” I was politically naive, but also offended because I had learned firsthand why religious freedom is important. I took part in protests to express my frustration at the new religious laws that limit or attack the rights of Iranian women.
I was released six months after his death – and two years, two months, and twelve days after my first arrest. My kidnappers had decided that there was no need to hold me longer, perhaps because they had managed to destroy my spirit and suppress my protests. Many of my friends and cellmates had been executed while I was in detention, and I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder – not that I knew it then. I was just 19 years old when I was released.
Although it took me several years – and a move to Canada – before I told the details of my tragic story, I decided to do so because a democracy is only as good as its people. Now that I live in the West, I have become very aware that even the strongest democracies are not immune to demagogues acting as populists. Those of us who have seen what the loss of fundamental rights looks and feels like have an obligation to speak up. Because once the demagogues – or the emerging ones – have taken control, it will be too late.
Indeed, democracy is like water trapped in our hands. If we don’t focus on holding it, the water will drip through our fingers and we will just have a burning thirst.
The line between democracy and tyranny is not as thick as Westerners might think. In Iran, we believed that our goodwill, selfless efforts, and desire for better governance could not possibly be manipulated and destroyed. Many of us even died during the revolution to create the Islamic Republic. But we were wrong, and we’ve been paying the price for almost half a century.