I would not have survived my time in Iran without the knowledge that there is a world where women like me exist. Much of what I describe here, I've read or heard many times before. It's nothing new, but I have understood it in Iran on an emotional level like never before. Iran has made me a masculinity hater. I can spend hours talking about how dreadful men are and merely hint that I do know great ones as well (but most of them not here). I met exactly one trustworthy Iranian. A single one. Everyone else thought sooner or later I would have to sleep with them, that they had a right to my body. Even writing this makes me angry, and the hatred rises in hot waves up my neck.
WHY AM I WRITING ABOUT IT?
Because I can't not do it. I have talked to many men or couples and compared our experiences. The woman always understands me and tells me about one or the other out-of-place hand, the look she didn't dare to mention out of fear or shame or the conviction that she had imagined it. The men were without exception surprised. For them, Iran is like paradise on earth. They get everything they can dream of, forbidden or not. The Iranian women are keen on them because (at best) they allow them to flee to the western world and the Iranian men are impressed because the foreigners seem to be rich. It's the ugly face of Iran, which presents itself to men with the mask of 1001 Nights and stares me naked in the face. It's a perspective that women don't share with men, and since I am convinced that it's primarily a male problem, I try to make my experiences tangible.
The honking on the road gets more frequent the further south I travel. However, in Iran not only taxi drivers honk. Most of the time men honk because they,
a) want to say hello, a polite gesture,
b) want to make money on me or
c) want to show me that they would fuck me.
Every time I reflexively raise my head and look into the grinning eyes of a man doing acrobatics with their tongue, I want to throw up. So I stop looking in order not to expose myself. As a consequence, I project every honk onto me. Every noise is the reminder that they see me and that I don't belong here. Incidentally, that's something - experts around the world agree - that works the same way everywhere. If you are interested in this aspect, I recommend this article about harassment of women who run in New York.
I GET SCARED WHEN
... cars start to move slowly alongside me, when they speed up as I speed up, etc. It's an old game, known to women all over the world. In such moments, it doesn't matter what I say. As a woman in Iran, my word counts nothing. On the street, however, it's not just the honking that demands my attention, but also the men in retail stores. The frequent boredom in their everyday life makes them a chatty bunch. That is a situation I desperately try to avoid. From experience, I know that 99% of these conversations end in having to explain why I don't want to sleep with them. If I'm lucky, I'll get out of their hands before that point, if I'm not, their hands are already stuck to my bottom, my chest, or between my legs. Since I have not made this mistake since my first week here, the men have no choice but to insult me verbally. At home, we call it catcalling, pussy grabbing, lockerroom talk. Here, it's what the woman deserves when she walks on the street alone. There is no visible distinction between coloured and white women. Of course, the situation is different, because the image of the white woman is significantly influenced by American films and "rape porn". It is assumed that they want to have sex always and at any time. A highly problematic mixture of cultural differences. Every woman here has to deal with an absurdly high frequency of abuse.
THIS IS THE BACKGROUND
... against which I ultimately yield. In addition to these everyday occurrences, I can recount a traumatic event in every city I visited in Iran. Whether it's the man, who pulled me into his shop in Tehran or the boys who throw stones at me in Kashan. In Yazd's old town men lean out of a passing car in the midday heat reaching for my breasts. In Isfahan, men follow me by car or on foot. In Yerevan and Tehran, random men masturbate next to me in dormitories. Wherever I was, I had to expect mobile screens with "rape porn" shoved in my face, and the casual offers of men irrespective of the context in which I was introduced to them. It all wore me down.
What bothers me the most is that the streets in Iran are not unsafe. They are made dangerous because it's socially desired that women do not participate in public life. The invisible prison of women is artificial and is maintained by men. Because when I walk past a group of men, I can be sure that one of five thinks he has the right to attack me. Even if the men standing around him find it repugnant and condemn his behaviour, they don't do anything about it. They are silent, and through that silence, the threat expressed by one man multiplies fivefold. In contrast to that weakness, Iranian women are the strongest, most educated and beautiful people I have seen on my journey. They live alone (in cities also on their own), or with men. They are everything, but not weak. Each finds her compromise to live in this country and under this regime. Some live fulfilled and relaxed. Others tremble with rage and hatred under their hijabs. The spectrum is huge.
PEOPLE AT HOME
... often ask: "Bella, honestly, have you been... raped?" As if that was the measure of all things. We distinguish between sexual harassment and rape in the belief that there is a difference. We hardly notice that we distinguish between physical and psychological violence but ignore that both are acts of violence. They exist on a spectrum, but both actions fundamentally change another person's perception of life.
Since it's crucial for women to protect themselves from such attacks and we have been told from an early age to escape this form of violence, the fight begins when someone calls us names or walks behind us in the dark. Our bodies react immediately. Our heart beats faster. The keychain moves into our hands. We search for escape routes. Panic swells in our stomach. The noise in our ears grows louder. This level of heightened attention mixed with a good dose of fear is not sustainable. So we try to adapt and look for our mistakes and offences that justify the behaviour of men. My experiences have shown me that nothing I do, changes anything about the actions of others. It's not about me. Nobody truly cares. It's about maintaining their dominance. They don't want their wifes to feel safe on the street. That's what it's all about. After all, it's hard (and ultimately impossible) work to prove the superiority of the male sex on a daily basis.
We believe that the situation in Iran is particularly dangerous because it's the Islamic Republic and we feel secure in our liberal and secular Europe. There are women in Iran who feel safe, just as there are women in Europe, who feel threatened. The beautiful word privilege plays a central role. I can cross my hometown relatively fearless at night, can other women do that as well? How many moments of anxiety does a coloured woman experience going through a city in East Germany at night compared to me? I was lucky that the Weinstein scandal was set off during my stay in Iran. I would not have endured it that long without the knowledge and constant confirmation that there are men everywhere who are assholes, that the problem is more significant than what this culture is showing me. Unfortunately, most of the discussion goes by just these men. They are not even allowed to give a compliment anymore! A statement that is proving that they are missing the point. It's simple. Men are welcome to make compliments as long as they expect nothing in return. Nothing. Not even a smile.
In spite of everything, let's return to the subject at hand: Iran. It's important to keep in mind that Iran is a beautiful country, with a lot of people yearning for contacts to the outside world. When travelling as a man or a couple, adventuring through Iran is easy. The infrastructure is excellent: you can fly, take a bus, a train or drive on your own. You can explore the country however you want. The spectrum is huge: just because I experience the patriarchy so clearly as something reprehensible doesn't mean that it's obvious. It's important to address these mechanisms, to draw attention to the glances and to show the men around us why the rules are different for women. Every day, I see examples that refresh my anger, and the parallels to my homeland are becoming more evident. On the whole, my time in Iran was exhausting. I'm glad that I was there, but I'm just as happy to leave.