Editor’s Note: Marina Nemat is the author of two memoirs, “Prisoner of Tehran” and “After Tehran.” She is the recipient of awards for her writing and human-rights related work. Nemat is a fellow of the Renew Democracy Initiative’s Frontlines of Freedom project. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
I was 13 years old when the Islamic Revolution toppled the Iranian government in 1979. Though I was a Christian living in a largely Muslim country, I had never felt discrimination because of my faith.
My grandmothers had escaped the 1917 Russian Revolution and fled to Iran in search of freedom. And to a certain extent, they had found it. My father had become a successful ballroom dancing instructor in Tehran and taught Muslim couples the cha-cha and the tango. My mother was a hairdresser who styled fashionable Muslim women’s hair. And I had grown up wearing bikinis on the shores of the Caspian Sea, while partying with my Muslim friends.
The revolutionary leaders promised to expand social freedoms, grant political ones and build a democracy. They used our grievances against Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, to win our trust and gain power. But as soon as they assumed office, the few personal liberties we had enjoyed vanished and a strict Islamic law was put in place.
In less than a year, women’s rights to self-expression were stripped away: dancing, singing, holding our boyfriends’ hands in public and wearing bikinis all became largely forbidden activities. A few priests from my Roman Catholic Church, all of whom were foreign nationals who had lived in Iran for years, were deported, and several of the properties that belonged to the church were confiscated.
The irony was that a few of my Christian relatives had trusted Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic revolutionary leader, and celebrated when the Shah was forced into exile. Now, they, like me, were paying the price.
Though Iran’s transition from a nation of limited social rights to one of virtually none may seem like a distant reality to those living under democracy, the truth is that it is not.
If Western democracies are not on guard, their citizens can fall prey to the same kinds of leaders who now control Iran’s political infrastructure. The revolutionary leaders were populists who promised to return power to the people after decades of monarchical rule, and for many disenfranchised voters in democracies who feel their elected officials have ignored their struggles, the populist messaging can have quite a strong appeal – even if it is just a ploy.
But the risk is not only in losing civil or democratic rights, but in being punished for challenging the authority figures who have stripped citizens of those rights.
After 1979, our accomplished teachers were replaced by fanatical young academics, many of whom were members of the newly formed Iranian Revolutionary Guard. They spent class time spreading the government’s propaganda and trying to persuade us that the regime’s fanatical rules – like forcing all women and girls over age 9 to wear the hijab – were for our own good. They argued that we had to dress modestly so that we would not attract unwanted attention from men.
At the time, I told our principal that I was a Christian, so the new Islamic rules of modesty should not apply to me. She responded, “You believe in the wrong religion.” I was politically naïve, but I was also aggrieved, having experienced firsthand why freedom of religion mattered. I attended protest rallies to express my frustration with the new religious laws that limited or attacked the rights of Iranian women.
Speaking out against the regime, in any shape or form, was now considered an act of war against God – the penalty for which could be death. And, in January 1982, the Revolutionary Guard arrested me for doing just that. At only 16, I had been accused of being an anti-revolutionary and sent to the notorious Evin prison. I was tortured, physically and emotionally, and then I was forced to marry one of my interrogators, who was assassinated 15 months after the marriage.
Six months after his death – and two years, two months and 12 days after my initial arrest – I was released. My captors had decided that there was no reason to keep me any longer, perhaps because they had succeeded in destroying my spirit and suppressing my desire to protest. Many of my friends and cellmates had been executed while I was in prison, and I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder – not that I knew it at the time. I was just shy of 19 years of age when I was released.
Though it took me several years – and a move to Canada – before I shared the details of my tragic story, I determined to do so because a democracy is only as good as its citizens. Now, living in the West, I have become acutely aware that even the strongest democracies are not immune to demagogues parading as populists. Those of us who have experienced what the loss of basic rights looks and feels like have an obligation to speak up. Because once the demagogues – or aspiring ones – have assumed control, it will be too late.
Indeed, democracy is like water caught in the palm of our hands. If we do not focus on holding onto it, the water will drip away through our fingers, and we will be left with nothing but a burning thirst.
Though Iran was not a democracy before the revolution, any hope of a peaceful transition to one post-revolution has all but faded today. The Islamic Republic of Iran masquerades as a democracy, holding elections for its parliament and president. Yet, its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who replaced Ayatollah Khomeini after his death, and his Guardian Council decide who is or is not fit to run in elections.
The line that separates democracy from tyranny is not as thick as Westerners might choose to believe. In Iran, we believed that our good will, selfless efforts and desire for better governance could not possibly be manipulated and destroyed. Many of us even died during the revolution to bring the Islamic Republic into existence. But we were wrong, and we have been paying the price for close to half a century.