Leva Zand, founder and CEO of the non-profit organization ARTogether, shares her memories of life as a religious minority under Islamic law and explains why the protests of the past three weeks have offered a glimmer of hope.
The Islamic Revolution of 1979 changed everything.
My Bahá’i ancestors lived happily for generations in a small village in northern Iran with their Muslim neighbors and friends. But shortly after the 1979 revolution, which was kidnapped by Muslim extremists, they were evicted from their ancestral homes and what was left was burned down. My parents, who lived apart in a small town, had to drop everything to help their now homeless parents. My father, who was an electrician, lost his job because companies that worked with the government after the revolution were encouraged to sack anyone who wasn’t a Shia Muslim. This was a generational trauma passed down in my family (and many other families) – a trauma that happened before I was born.
I had to start wearing a hijab at the age of seven. Bahá’is do not wear hijab, but in order to attend school (public or private) girls are required to wear hijab as early as the first grade or as young as seven years of age. It follows that everything we did at home was outwardly illegal. As a child you learn that you have to hide in order to survive.
I remember when I was five or six years old when I heard that my mother’s cousin had suddenly disappeared. She was 40 years old and had four children. She was wearing a chādor at the time, so no one suspected that she might have been taken into custody by the vice squad. But after 24 hours she finally called home to say that the police arrested her because they somehow saw her socks under the chādor and claimed it wasn’t thick enough. In response, family discourse focused on women being more careful: they need to cover themselves more; You must be more careful; You shouldn’t give them an excuse to arrest you. Head down, go to school, come back. In 2003 we finally left Iran. A year later, in 2004, we came to the United States, where we settled in Sacramento as part of a refugee resettlement program.
“A month ago it was impossible even to think of hope. Now we are hearing from women in Iran that they can no longer become the way things were.”
This means that our perception of hijab for Iranian women is very different than someone living in London or New York where most people have a choice. So when women in Iran burn their scarves or take them off when they cut or shave their hair, they are not protesting Islam. They are protesting against the Islamic regime, which forces them to wear hijabs – and prosecutes them if they don’t.
What we are seeing in Iran is one of the largest women-led movements in the world – and it’s taking place in the Middle East. It’s frustrating for me – and for Iranian women fighting for their right to bodily autonomy – that progressives and liberals remain silent for fear of siding with the West or being labeled Islamophobic. I haven’t seen a lot of social justice movements or organizations in the west like Planned Parenthood, Women’s March and Black Lives Matter, which is disappointing. In times like these, solidarity counts. Dictatorships take away your ability to hope. They take away your ability to even imagine that change might be possible.
A month ago it was impossible even to think of hope. Now we are hearing from women in Iran that they cannot carry on as they used to. I may still not be hopeful, but the prospect of hope feels a little closer. However, the fear of an Islamic dictatorship is so internalized in me that I don’t give myself much cause for optimism. We were hopeful when Mohammad Khatami became president – but they killed people. We had hope for the Green Revolution – but it killed people. And we were hopeful in 2019 when the labor movement came – but it killed more people.
“To bring about change – long-lasting, meaningful change – in Iran, what we need above all is unity.”
I can’t go back to Iran, even though every cell in my body wants to be there. I feel so helpless here, and yet this is my home now. Because of this, I decided to work with my local community in the US. As a former refugee, I knew I wanted to work with my refugee community and provide support where it was needed. There are relocation agencies in the Bay Area that help with the logistics of new arrivals, helping them access social services, open bank accounts, and enroll in schools. But I realized that there is no organized effort to build communities and bring people together. This is especially important as I remember the isolation and hardship my family experienced when we first arrived.
Art was the solution for me because it can connect people and allows people to enjoy themselves. This is how ARTgether was born. Before becoming a non-profit organization, it was a series of workshops aimed at bringing people from different backgrounds together for an hour of fun each month. But some groups quickly began asking for more programs, so I formalized the organization with $2,000 paid for materials and teachers. Together with volunteers and interns, I worked for almost four years without pay until we received funding for the further development of ARTgether. Our work is based on the knowledge that the struggles of refugees do not end when they arrive at their destination. For many, it’s just the beginning. When you are forced to leave your country, what you miss most is your people. It’s not the city or your house or the things you left behind. It’s your community you long for.
I can’t think of anything more important than art, which is so often the glue of any social movement. In recent weeks we have seen Shervin Hajipour’s “Baraye” become the resistance anthem of protesters in Iran. Every time I hear this song I start crying no matter where I am. Singing allows us to tap into the collective; it brings people together. And to bring about change—lasting, meaningful change—in Iran, what we need most of all is unity.