From prosperity to persecution: ‘Fleeing the Hijab’ author details struggle of Iranian Jews

Cover of 'Fleeing the Hijab: A Jewish Woman's Escape from Iran

Jews once prospered in Iran. But after the Islamic Revolution, things changed, and escape became the only option

The aroma of jasmine and roses always makes my heart pound. The delicate scents remind me of the Persia of my childhood – Shiraz, splendid with its gardens and fountains, its public buildings decorated with Persian calligraphy. 

But Islamic Iran is a different place from the one I hold in my heart. Ever since the arrival of the mullahs in 1979, Friday lunchtime prayers have always preached one basic message: Death To America! Death to Israel! Death to England! The Islamic government led by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has clearly and repeatedly expressed its intentions. I grieve for my country of birth and for the havoc it wishes to unleash. 

Iranians know their history. They remember that Persia was once the largest empire in the world. They understand power and politics. Iranians saw how, in the 1970s, America and its allies offered weapons and training to Afghan mujahideen in their conflict against the Russians. They also observed how those same rebels later used those weapons against the Americans themselves. When members of the Iranian-Islamic government declare, “Death to America!” it is not rhetoric. They mean it. And history shows that they do what they say they will. We must take the message seriously.

Grieving for the home I once knew and loved

I was born in Iran. I know the country and I love its people. During the reign of the Shah, the Jewish community prospered. He was good for us, and we were good for him. At the time, there were no university quotas for Jews. We could learn, and work in professions that suited us. We had Jewish schools, kosher shops and synagogues. In the late 1970s, there were 100,000 Iranian Jews, and as long as we avoided politics, we had a place. 

Although under the Shah we prospered, the old claws of anti-Semitism still scarred us. At the age of six, I had my own interaction with this evil. As I played with a new friend in the park, the girl’s mother recognized that I was a Jew. She pulled my friend away, muttering, “Najest – dirty, impure Jew.” I still cringe, remembering this experience. Under the Shah, the word of a Jew was equal to that of a Muslim in court. But on the playground, the narrow-minded dictated their own rules. 

After the revolution, life changed dramatically. 

Muslim principals replaced the Jewish ones at Jewish schools, and Shabbat was no longer a respected holiday. It became difficult to import religious items because the trade in religious objects suggested to the paranoid government an alliance with Israel. All Iranian women, including Jewish ones, were obliged to wear the hijab. The government slowly rescinded many of the social advances made by the Shah in his effort to bring Iran in to the modern age.

After Iran became an Islamic state, we lost the comparative ease we enjoyed in former years. Schools edited references to female poets and social scientists. Modern music was forbidden, as was classical. Fanatics often took the law into their own hands to police social behaviour. The testimony of a Jew in court became worth only half of that of a Muslim.

Rumours circulated, serving to frighten people into accepting draconian changes. Was it true that women who showed too much hair could have acid thrown in their faces? 

Nobody dared take a chance, and so half the country swathed itself in robes. 

The atmosphere of fear was part of an effective strategy to obtain compliance. 

Throughout history, Iranian Jews had lived under different rulers and ideologues. We adapted to the most difficult of circumstances, always remembering that the bodies of our ancestors lay mouldering in the soil long before the first Muslims ever stepped foot in rich and beautiful Iran. 

But here, on the other side of the world where I live openly as a Jew, I look to the politicians for guidance and protection, and I am dumbfounded. I cannot believe that we have offered the Islamic Iranian government access to nuclear technology and have removed the economic sanctions they loathed. It’s a comedy; it’s a circus; it can’t be real that we give to this international bully the most brutal and dangerous ammunition ever created. Many believe that the mullahs will funnel the new money into supporting terrorism, and with their nuclear capacity, destabilize the whole world.

Because I needed freedom as much as I needed oxygen, I fled Iran at 17, risking my life for the unknown rather than accepting the mullahs’ doctrines. When I look back at the time before the revolution, it seems as if I had once lived in a story in The Thousand and One Nights of Scheherazade. In those distant days, I walked with my father on narrow streets. Behind the high walls, families lived together and prayed for peace. I could hear the laughter of happy voices and the echo of traditional music. 

It was a life where we expressed ourselves softly in public places and with confidence in our homes. 

We were as much a part of the country as the stones in the hills. We were Iranian Jews of Shiraz. 

That life is gone.

As the Jewish year begins anew, we are grateful for the blessings we have already received and for the abundance that surrounds us. But for the sake of our children and the generations to come, we must safeguard these gifts. If we cannot take back the access to nuclear technology from the Iranians, then at the least we must share our thoughts with our leaders and make them understand that this deal is foolhardy and can never advance the cause of peace and stability.

Roses and jasmine need fertile ground, gentle breezes and peace if they are to grow. So do our children. 

Sima Goel is the Montreal-based author of 'Fleeing the Hijab: A Jewish Woman’s Escape from Iran'