Maryam Shaghaghi was born in Teheran, Iran, where she lived with her family until the age of 14. At the age of 5, she attended an international school, which is where she first learned English. In 1979, there was a revolution in Iran that changed Maryam’s life. Maryam’s older brothers had to leave the country, and her school was shut down. Maryam’s bond with her mother strengthened at that time, as she was one of the only people she could still be with. Eventually, Maryam returned to school, but this time it was an all-girls school. At this new school, all of the girls were forced to wear headscarves at all times, no matter the heat or the fact that no men were present at any time during the day. At this time, Maryam also notes drawing inspiration from her uncle’s wife. She was the first in her family to attend college. She was smart and confident and found that men were often intimidated by her.
Childhood Life in Iran
When asked to talk about her childhood, Maryam highlighted a specific moment that she remembered from her time attending the all-girls school:
“So I think one of my more proud moments was basically organizing with some of my classmates –friends that I had made– and just petitioning my classmates to ask for more freedoms. And Teheran, it gets hot in the spring and just to be covered up, from head to toe basically, with scarves and long jackets and things like that and there were no males –even our custodian was a lady– and we’re saying, why do we need to wear a headscarf and cloths? So anyway after much back and forth, we –I actually organized this– collected enough signatures and we presented it to our principal, school principal and that was a big breakthrough for us to be able to not wear our headscarves in a class of all girls.”
She further discussed how important it was to have people to look up to that inspired her, while also making her own decisions. She was influenced by poet Forough Farrokhzad when it came to taking action against the headscarf rules. I connected what Maryam said to a reading titled “How many women of color have to cry?” In this article, Caroline Kitchener addresses the issue of division within feminism. Women of color and white women are often forming their own separate organizations and fighting for individual issues rather than working together. This is because while they are all feminists, racism is still prevalent in these organizations. Maryam, as an Iranian woman, was forced to take matters into her own hands to make a change. She did not need to wait for anyone else to step in and do it. She did it herself and caused actual change to occur in her community.
First Years in the United States
Next in the interview, Maryam was asked about what it was like to move to the United States and if she encountered prejudice or racism directed at her in her first years in the US, which would have been the end of high school.
“I was smart and the Iran education system is very strong so when you come here they put you one year ahead. So I was taking AP calculus and you know all of that, but it was certainly um interesting to get questioned by certain rather uninformed classmates. I’ll never forget this one girl said uh ‘you guys have cars in Iran?’ (laughing) ‘how’d you get to school?’ and one boy asked me ‘how do you guys make love in Iran?’ (laughing) and I said we bite each other. And you know it was just because of not being around.”
Throughout the whole interview, Maryam shares that she really did not experience much prejudice, especially in comparison to other immigrants. But the experiences she mentioned in the quote above show that no matter how small, she still experienced prejudice and microaggressions. Her journey to the US connected to the stories in the documentary titled Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America. The people that were highlighted in the documentary had all been forced to leave their home countries for one reason or another to come to the US. When Maryam and her parents eventually did leave, it was to find a better life than what was left for them in Iran.
Voting as an Immigrant
Seeing as how the election was happening at the time of the interview, I wanted to ask her about her experience voting. Her response:
“No it wasn’t an issue and I did not vote because I’m not a US citizen, I’m a resident, I’m a legal resident. My paperwork has been stuck at USCIS, United States Customs, for the last three years and it’s been backlogged. And due to some decisions that I had made earlier thinking my parents were elderly and I may have to go back to Iran to take care of some family stuff, I was afraid that I would not be able to go back to Iran.”
When Maryam talked about the process of being able to vote, I was reminded of the documentary Suppressed: The Fight to Vote. A lot of what was shown in that documentary were different ways in which votes are suppressed. Something like Maryam’s story is never even mentioned in the documentary. Her paperwork has been at USCIS for three years and there doesn’t appear to be anything changing soon. Because of this, she was unable to vote in what can be interpreted as another, even unintentional, act of voter suppression.
My Personal Takeaways
As a white, male student growing up in California, I was blown away listening to Maryam’s story. A lot of times in movies and life in general, Americans are portrayed as the saviors of others. People of different races are depicted in tough situations, then a white person comes to save them. Hearing stories from Maryam like how she started a movement to allow her fellow students to not wear headscarves was very interesting for me to hear. She fought hard for everything she got and in the end, it worked. She has worked for everything in her life and I was truly privileged to get to hear her story.
Kitchener, Caroline. “’How Many Women of Color Have to Cry?’: Top Feminist Organizations Are Plagued by Racism, 20 Former Staffers Say.” Https://Www.thelily.com, The Lily, 3 Aug. 2020, www.thelily.com/how-many-women-of-color-have-to-cry-top-feminist-organizations-are-plagued-by-racism-20-former-staffers-say/.
Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America. Directed by Tom Shepard, 2019.
Suppressed: The Fight to Vote. Directed by Robert Greenwald, 2020.