Between the ages of seven and thirteen, I lived in an illegal kindergarten in Tehran, Iran. I know what you’re thinking. No, it wasn’t a child labor facility. Quite the contrary, my mother ran a high-end English learning center that offered a variety of classes, services, and care unlike any other in Tehran. What made it illegal was that everything was taught in English. The Iranian regime allows a few hours of English classes per day but forbids teaching classes like math, ballet, or music in English except in schools affiliated with foreign embassies. My mother’s subversive, entrepreneurial solution was to turn our family home into an undercover school. She made a profit by defying the regime.
It has been almost three months since the British-American writer and faculty member of NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, Salman Rushdie was stabbed on stage during a literary event in New York by Hadi Matar at the Chautauqua Institution. On October 14th, 2022, I virtually joined an event, An Evening for Salman Rushdie, organized by PEN International at the British Library to celebrate his strength and dedication as a writer and a champion of free expression. In a way, it was also an evening of reflection. As horrifying as the assault on Rushdie was, it was 33 years in the making. Upon the Satanic Verses publication, protests broke out in India, the novel was banned, and footage of book burnings was widely broadcast around the world. Above all, a fatwa was issued against Rushdie by the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini which sent him into hiding.
Much of the Middle East is facing a crisis of indecision on Iran. Despite extensive reporting on Iran’s expansionist ambitions, the Islamic Republic has been making bold demands with the expectation of both Western and Arab acquiescence. Iranian proxy footholds have long eroded the sovereignties of sectarian states. Regional tensions have further deepened due to Tehran’s insistence that a renewed nuclear agreement must preclude the ability of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to investigate undisclosed uranium enrichment facilities.
Iran’s compulsory hijab rule has always been about so much more than appearances and religious loyalty. It’s about allowing women the ability to experience so many of the joys in life that other women around the world take for granted – playing a sport comfortably outside on a warm day, feeling the wind in your hair, expressing yourself through your favorite outfit, taking off a layer when the weather finally thaws in early Spring, lying on the beach and feeling the sun bake into your skin. The women in Iran born after the 1979 revolution have never been able to experience those things in their entire lives, at least not while in their home countries. It’s the form of oppression that is experienced every day, multiple times a day, and that eats away at one’s humanity. It’s what women in Iran are now willing to risk their lives fighting against.
The war in Ukraine, when viewed side by side with recent wars around the world from Yemen to Syria to Ethiopia, indicates disturbing global trends. There is far too little protection for civilians, and the detrimental impact is heightened for already vulnerable groups. Civilians displaced by war sit in limbo for years, and those lucky enough to escape their war-torn countries are relegated to overcrowded and under-resourced camps. The Council on Foreign Relations reports shrinking opportunities for refugee resettlement, a result of the international community’s inability and/or unwillingness to support them or resolve the conflict that caused their displacement in the first place. Refugees in camps can face intense discrimination and fall victim to starvation, illness, and human trafficking. And the perpetrators of all this global violence and suffering tend to be met with impunity. This is the grim status quo.
As Russia continues its war against Ukraine, the similarities between Ukraine and Syria are striking. Specifically, Russia’s weaponization of civilians and refugees is a primary tactic that continues to be utilized to achieve geopolitical goals.
As the United States draws down its presence in the Middle East, many in the international community are wondering what actor might step in to fill the supposed power vacuum that will be left in place of the region’s main security broker.