Daughter of mine, hear me out. I was born in Tehran, Iran and although I hated school, I knew that for as long as I stayed in school, I would be safe from harm’s way.
Somehow, I knew that school was the answer to my future. But the time I was 15 years old, I was at the risk of having to drop out. My grades were very poor. I was forced to do the one thing, the one thing that was unforgivable in my family, and that was to lie. See, I was desperate to leave Iran. I wanted the same opportunity as my two older brothers who left before me to come to the United States and continue their education.
So I lied to my parents about my academic grades and forced them to send me away. You see, my grandmother Zulekha, my father’s mother, was married off at the age of 12. Twelve. She was so young that she fell asleep at her own wedding party and she had to be picked up, carried away, and tucked into bed as the party continued without her. She gave birth to my father at the age of 15.
She had no education and had to learn how to dial on a rotary telephone so as not to be totally isolated when they left the Jewish ghetto. And yet she was a strong woman and found her independence in her own way. She cared a lot about education and she worked really hard to help strangers in the community. My mother’s mother, grandmother Heshmat, was also married off at the age of 12. She gave birth to her first child, a son, at the age of 13.
Thirteen! Daughter, you haven’t seen this photograph. Here she is with seven out of her eight children, with six out of her seven children, and she’s only 30 years old. She looks like she could be 65. By the time she was 35 years old, she was pregnant with her eighth child. I cannot even imagine the desperation she must have felt.
A desperation that caused her to do something that was unforgivable, very difficult, at the time. She died of an infection caused by a back alley abortion at the age of 35. Then there was my own sister. My sister only eight years older than me. She was engaged at the age of 14 and married when she was 16.
Here she is just days before her engagement party, her beautiful long hair cut off and teased to make her look older. No, no, no. Do not tell me that’s how it was done. Don’t tell me it was the culture of the country. Don’t tell me it was the norm.
Don’t tell me that everybody did it, and we didn’t know any better. Do not tell me that I came to this country when I was 15. I finished high school. I was the first girl in my extended family to get my bachelor’s degree and the second to get my master’s.
I know I was fortunate to be afforded this opportunity but it’s not the case for many women out there around the world. There are so many who do not have a bright future and are not afforded an opportunity for a career, for an education. It wasn’t any different in my husband’s family. There was Sarah, beautiful, kind, sweet Sarah. She must have been somewhere around 10 or 12.
She was sitting on the floor in her mother’s kitchen, playing with her doll. Her mother picks her up, took her by the hand, took her out a distance away to another house, gave her a peck on the cheek, and told her, “From now on, this will be your home. From now on, you will cook and clean and do as the man tells you.” Then her mother left, so she did as her mother told her. She wasn’t sure what was happening.
She was confused. But when a few days went by, and her mother didn’t come back for her, she took matters into her own hand. She ran out the door towards the general direction of her house and when she found her home, she was ecstatic. She was so happy. She hugged her mother; she loved her mother dearly.
She was so desperately attached to her mother. Her mother, on the other hand, was very upset. She reprimanded her terribly, took her back to the other house, and told her she better not do that again! She needs to stay there and be with the man they called her husband. She was so confused! Was she being punished for something she had done, something horrible? She thought she was a good little girl. So began Sarah’s life saga.
Miscarriage after miscarriage. You see her little body could not handle bearing life. Eventually, she had three beautiful little daughters, one of whom passed away at the age of nine or ten from an illness. She was an amazing, giving woman. She was full of love; she raised her daughters; she raised her grandkids.
She helped raise her great-grandchildren, and was working on raising her great-great-great grandkids when she passed away at the age of 96. But for all of those years, for all of her life, she felt guilty for not having more kids. Worst of all, for not having any sons to carry the family name, to take over the family inheritance. She was shamed. But she was a beautiful person, and my hero.
So, I ask you this question: how is it that today there have been in the last 50 years more women and girls murdered around the world than all of the men in all of the wars and conflicts in all of the 20th century? How is that possible? My first answer was to become an artist. I screamed, I yelled, I cried when I didn’t even know why I was crying, why I was screaming. I poured myself into my art. I expressed myself with my self portraits, with my drawings, and I expressed myself sewing my soft sculptures that I call dolls. Tell me something: did you know that Denver, along with New York City, is a hub for human trafficking? Denver? I don’t get it.