For so many years of human history, nearly all stories about prisoners were about men. In this age, we are able to learn more about what it means to be a woman struggling to adjust to the impossible cruelties of incarceration. Similarly, in times past, most of our information about Muslim religion and culture came from male sources because women were held under the sway of a masculine-dominated religion. Now we have the blessing of being able to read the stories of liberated (in both senses) women who have escaped from oppressive regimes and from domineering fundamentalist religious restrictions. Nastaran Kherad is one such torchbearer.
Born in the waning days of the rule of Shah Reza Pahlavi, a monarch supported by the U.S. who sought to modernize Iran, Nastaran enjoyed the benefits of greater freedom for women and girls. She did not have to wear a head covering. Her school was showered with gifts from the West - cartons of milk, and bananas. She had the promise of being a university graduate, of being able to vote someday. The Shah went so far as to recognize the state of Israel, and then it all began to unravel. He was deposed and forced to flee by a junta of rabid Shiite clergy led by the notorious Ayatollah Houmeini. Since the deposition of Pahlavi, Iran has suffered under repressive religious rule. Yet the Shah was not without flaws - many - and political talk was rife within Nastaran's family. From an early age she recalls her brothers, especially her adored Mohammed, debating the benefits and deficits of the government.
Once the Shiite regime took power, Mohammed and other students quickly fell into rebellion and many were imprisoned. Mohammed and later Nastaran herself were held in mind-numbing, physically harsh detention for months, even years, with no hope of release, no explanation of the charges against them. The only event that was made clear was execution - if someone was going to die, everyone around them knew, and, sadly, the person marked for death was ignored and shunned by his or her fellow prisoners because spies were everywhere and speaking a kind word to a condemned person could lead to one's own death sentence.
In contrast the the grim dark life of imprisonment, Nastaran recalls the bright days of her childhood growing up with her maternal grandmother, her Bibi. From her Bibi she absorbed a picture of life under the monarchy, before the progressive era of the last Shah. She came to understand that for a woman in those days, obedience to men and to family was unquestioned. So adamant was her Bibi in her religious faith and her adherence to cultural mores that Nastaran was confused by the contrast between her traditional grandmother and her more liberated mother, two women who were often at odds. She says, "I was the icing of a twin cookie, connecting my mother and my grandmother." She was torn between the Islam of her brother Mohammed, an idealistic and freedom loving youngster, and the iron-fisted Islam of the Ayatollahs.The influences of two dissimilar generations of women and the stark distinctions between two heavy-handed governments would have been enough of a shock and trauma for Nastaran. Imprisonment heightened her sense of depression and terror.
Throughout her imprisonment, Nastaran asked repeatedly to be given news of her brother, to be allowed to see him. Later she learned that he had been executed many months before, and that her captors had toyed with her desperation and had never informed her of his death. It was the worst blow of her young life. She concludes that "My faith has been shattered over these years of turbulence and loss." In one final hopeful act, she leaves Iran and her mother forever.