Words by Leva Zand
(as told to Daphne Chouliaraki Milner)
Leva Zand, founder and executive director of the nonprofit, ARTogether, shares her memories of life as a religious minority under Islamic law, and explains why the last three weeks of protests have offered a glimmer of hope.
The Islamic Revolution of 1979 changed everything.
My Bahá’i ancestors had lived happily in a small village in northern Iran with their Muslim neighbors and friends for generations. But, soon after the revolution of 1979 which was hijacked by Muslim extremists, they were kicked out of their ancestral homes and what was left was burned down. My parents, who were living separately in a small town, had to drop everything to help their now homeless parents. My dad, who was an electrician, proceeded to lose his job because companies working with the government after the Revolution were encouraged to kick out anyone who wasn’t Shia Muslim. This has been a generational trauma that is 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 don’t wear hijabs, but in order to go to school (public or private) girls must wear hijab as early as first grade or seven years old. The implication of that is that everything we were doing at home was illegal on the outside. You learn, as a child, that you need to hide to survive.
I remember I was five or six when I heard that my mom’s cousin had suddenly disappeared. She was 40 years old and had four kids. At the time, she was wearing chādor, so no one suspected that she could have been taken into custody by morality police. But after 24 hours, she finally called home to say that the police had arrested her because somehow they saw her socks under the chādor, claiming it wasn’t thick enough. In response, the discourse in the family was focused on women being more careful: You need to cover yourself more; You need to be more careful; You shouldn’t give them an excuse to arrest you. Put your head down, walk to a school, come back. We finally left Iran in 2003. A year later, in 2004, we came to the U.S. where we resettled in Sacramento through a refugee resettlement program.
“One month ago, it was impossible to even think about hope. Now, we are hearing from women in Iran that they can’t go back to how things were.”
This is to say that, for Iranian women, our realization of hijab is very different from someone who lives in London or New York where people for the most part have a choice. So, when women in Iran are burning their scarves or taking them off, when they are cutting or shaving off their hair, they are not protesting Islam. They are protesting the Islamic regime that is forcing them to wear hijabs—and that prosecutes them if they don’t.
What we’re seeing in Iran is one of the biggest women-led movements in the world—and it’s happening in the Middle East. It is frustrating to me—and to Iranian women fighting for their right over bodily autonomy—that progressives and liberals are staying silent because they are afraid of siding with the West or being labelled Islamophobic. I haven’t seen much from 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 matters. Dictatorships take away your ability to hope. They strip away your ability to even imagine that change might be possible.
One month ago, it was impossible to even think about hope. Now, we are hearing from women in Iran that they can’t go back to how things were. I may still not be hopeful, but the prospect of hope feels a little bit closer. Having said that, the fear of Islamic dictatorship is so internalized in me that I don’t allow myself much cause for optimism. We were hopeful when Mohammad Khatami became president—but they killed people. We were hopeful in the Green Revolution—but they killed people. And we were hopeful in 2019 when the labor movement happened—but they killed more people.
“In order to bring about change—long-lasting, meaningful change—in Iran, we need unity above all else.”
I cannot go back to Iran even though every cell of my body wants to be there. I feel so helpless here, and yet this is my home now. It is why I have chosen to work with my local community in the U.S. Being a former refugee, I knew I wanted to work with my refugee community and provide support where it is missing. There are resettlement agencies in the Bay area that are helping with the logistics of new arrivals, helping them get access to social services, open bank accounts, and sign up to schools. But I realized that there aren’t any organized efforts to do community-building and bring people together. This is especially important as I remember the isolation and the hardship that my family experienced when we first arrived.
Art was the solution to me because it can unite people and it allows people to enjoy themselves. That is how ARTogether was born. Before it became a nonprofit organization, it was a series of workshops that aimed to bring people together from different backgrounds for an hour of fun every month. But some groups quickly started asking for more programs, and so I formalized the organization with $2,000, which I used to pay for supplies and bring in teachers. I, alongside volunteers and interns, worked for free for almost four years until we got funding to further develop ARTogether. Our work is rooted in the knowledge that the struggles facing refugees do not end when they arrive at their destination. For many, it’s only the beginning. When you are forced to leave your country, what you miss the most is your people. It’s not the city or your house or the things that you left behind. It’s your community that 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 how “Baraye” by Shervin Hajipour has become the anthem of resistance for the protestors in Iran. Every time I hear that song, I start crying—no matter where I am. Chanting allows us to tap into the collective; it brings people together. And in order to bring about change—long-lasting, meaningful change—in Iran, we need unity above all else.