It is perfectly possible to have two countries and two cultures you love with all of their imperfections and complexities – isn’t it? Some might argue that I am not English, that this is not my country, as I wasn’t born here and I don’t have English genes.
But the glorious thing about knowing what I am is that I don’t feel I have to argue my case any more than I would argue with someone who insisted I was a hamster. I am not a hamster and if someone says I that I am then it will never be my life’s work to change their mind. I just get on my wheel and move on.
That said, I will point out that Boris Johnson wasn’t born here either; neither was Joanna Lumley; neither was tea. Also, for the record, there is no “English gene”. There is no gene that, when you put a microscope on it, looks up and says, “Do you mind! We are in the middle of our supper!” That’s not how science works.
Herodotus, the Greek historian who wrote extensively about the Persians, describes us as “chameleons”. The Persian Empire was a fairly tolerant one in that occupied countries could keep their religion and even their king so long as they bigged up the Persian king too, thus making him “King of Kings”. The ancient Persians were Zoroastrians whose religion did not accept slavery so, as empires go, it wasn’t the worst one ever and the food was terrific.
The Persians, or Iranians, are made up of a range of different races and religions but we define ourselves by country first. Whether you are a Muslim, Christian or Jewish Iranian, there is the shared kinship of a culture that celebrates science, nature and, next week, the Spring Equinox as its new year – this often trumps religious identity.
Having a native command of Farsi, the Persian language, as well as English plays a huge part in my sense of belonging to Iran. That and the fact that I undeniably have Xerxes’ nose and Cyrus the Great’s eyebrows.
I have not been able to set foot in Iran for 40 years. Thanks to my father’s, ahem, popularity as a writer critical of the regime, we were exiled in the 1979. (If you’d like to know more about this, it’s all in my book, A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English, out now in all good charity shops.)
And so this week I’ve seen two of my fellow countrywomen imprisoned. One is the unnamed Iranian woman jailed for the simple, powerful act of taking of her hijab and waving it on the end of a stick in protest at being forced to wear the thing by the Shia Islamist regime – this week she received a two-year prison sentence.
The other is Jayda Fransen, deputy leader of Britain First, who was locked up in the UK this week for relentless acts of intimidation and thuggery against innocent Muslim people.
Fransen and her ilk have a frenzied hatred of complicated and conflicting faith systems which all fall under the banner of “Islam”. They wilfully ignore the fact that pretty much all of the most popular religions have wording in their texts which, when taken literally by fanatics, causes harm.
Just as there is a tumbleweed response from Islamophobes when faced with less than politically correct passages from the Bible (take “I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent”, 1 Timothy 2:12) there is also an eerie silence from the vast swathes of the left, including feminists, when women in Iran risk life and freedom by publicly defying the enforced hijab law.
The left’s hush allows the far right to sweep in and use the plight of Iranian women to criticise the very existence of Muslims in the West and to belittle western feminists.
Why the silence? Is it the fear of appearing imperialistic? If you know anything of Iran’s recent history, you will know Iran was a secular country until the Khomeinist Shias took over after the 1979 revolution. Britain and the US famously destroyed Iran’s fledgling democracy which emerged after the secular Prime Minister Mossadeq was democratically elected in the early Fifties. He nationalised the Iranian oil industry by taking it out of British control, so the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company became plain old BP.
Mossadeq, known as “Old Mossy” in British newspapers, was overthrown in a coup d’état requested by the United Kingdom and orchestrated by the CIA. A real pain to Iranians who then had a “puppet” Shah imposed on them and got so cross with him that they eventually revolted. My parents supported the revolution and my 19-year-old uncle was shot dead in the protests.
The ayatollahs hijacked what was, for the majority of Iranians, the popular people’s revolution. They started executing Bahai people, political opponents, LGBT+ people, plonked the hijab on women’s heads, killed thousands inside the country, dozens outside (in 1984 thanks to a tip-off to Scotland Yard they failed to kill my dad). It really wasn’t the outcome Iranians wanted, but the Islamic Republic kills dissidents and shoots protesters so change has been beyond tricky.
It takes extraordinary courage to do what the first woman who protested against the enforced hijab this year did. Standing with her, speaking up for her, criticising the Islamic Republic 10 times louder than Jayda Fransen ever could, doesn’t make us anti-Islam or imperialistic, but pro-human rights and feminist, and shuts out the nonsense from the idiotic far right. Please, let’s not leave everything to Peter Tatchell.
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