The 1979 Iranian Revolution: A Personal Story

13 06 2009

We were all set to move to Tehran, Iran in 1978. My (then) husband was a software engineer with Ross Perot’s Electronic Data Systems (EDS) and we had the opportunity of a lifetime to move there (and him to work there) with our one-year-old baby girl.

Shah Pahlavi and Queen Farah 1977

Shah Pahlavi and Queen Farah 1977

Iran seemed stable then.  Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was the leader and had been since he came to power in 1941. He had put in place a lot of positive reforms, called the White Revolution, in Iran such as giving women the right to vote, advancing the country technologically and economically, guaranteeing children the right to go to school, allowing share croppers to own land, etc.

There was no Internet then, but I researched Iran the best I could. EDS gave us a packet of information on what to expect about living there and I learned more at the library. I knew it would be really different from living in the U.S. Things like celery and iceburg lettuce and other foods were hard to get and expensive when you could find them. I wouldn’t be driving there, but would have some freedom of movement. There was no email so contact with my family would be mostly through letters and the rare (and expensive) phone call. Still, I was ready for the adventure.

Ayatollah Khomeini

Ayatollah Khomeini

Things happened to change all that. Previously the Shah had Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was critical of his regime, imprisoned for 18 months and then deported in 1964 after Khomeini’s release and criticism of the U.S. government. Khomeini continued to speak out against the Pahlavi regime from exile. The Iranian (also called the Islamic) Revolution began in January 1978. A few months later, EDS asked if we would consider going to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia instead of Tehran. We didn’t really understand why, but they explained it would be safer. We changed course and agreed…and my research began anew. I became pregnant with our second child and had to hold back on going to Jeddah. Their father went around the beginning of November 1978. I, and our two children, didn’t go over until July 1979.

Amidst the backdrop of our changing personal saga, chaos had broken out in Iran and the Shah and his family had to flee the country in January 1979. His regime collapsed two weeks later. EDS employees fled the U.S.-friendly regime with the clothes on their back. Many of them came later to Jeddah and we were regaled with harrowing and heroic stories.

Khomeini returned from 15 years of exile and on 4/1/79, the people of Iran voted to become an Islamic Republic. In December of 1979, the people approved a theocratic (where God is considered the supreme civil ruler) constitution and Khomeini became the Supreme Leader, the highest ranking political and religious figure in the country. He has authority even over the president of Iran. Tens of thousands of loyalists to the previous regime were executed after Khomeini took office.

At this point, the U.S./Iran relationship deteriorated. On 11/4/79 Iranian students seized U.S. embassy personnel, accusing them of being CIA agents plotting to overthrow the Iranian government.  Khomeini supported them. Most of the women and African-American hostages were released after a few months, but the remaining 52 hostages were held captive for 444 days. They were set free in January 1981 in exchange for promises that included the U.S. removing a freeze on Iranian assets and not interfering with Iranian affairs.

While my family and I were spared the drama, tension, and danger in Iran, we were living in Jeddah when the Grand Mosque was seized and held for two weeks by Islamic terrorists on 11/20/79.  I wrote about this in a post entitled “Pilgrims to a Deadly Hajj.” I witnessed on the streets what an area under siege in a Middle Eastern country looks like.

Once again we seemed to escape potential danger unwittingly. We returned to the United States around mid-September of 1980. On 9/22/80 Saddam Hussein and Iraq invaded a weakend (from the revolution) Iran and thus began the Iran-Iraq War. It lasted until 1988 when Khomeini begrudgingly accepted a truce negotiated by the United Nations. 500,000 – 1 million Iranians died in this war; 100,000 of them from Iraqi chemical weapons.

Ali KhameneiKhomeini reigned as Supreme Leader until he died on 6/3/89. Ali Khamenei became Supreme Leader in 1989 and remains so in 2009. Iran had two additional presidents before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005.

I was a 25-year-old, wide-eyed, ready-for-anything young woman when my family was going to move to Iran. Things were pretty peaceful then. It seemed really exciting.

Today, in the aftermath of what looks like a rigged election, there is rioting in the streets of Iran. The people are crying out for freedom and representation and being heard. It’s a dangerous place to be. I could’ve walked amongst these people 30 years ago, but it would’ve been a different Iran, an Iran that was making progress and restoring rights to women and children and peasants.

Today, and the last 30 years, seem to have been a setback for the Iranians. I wonder when their country will be restored to peace and to being a place where another wide-eyed, brave young U.S. mother would dare to go undaunted with her family to have the adventure of a lifetime.

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SLAP HER: Advice at a Saudi Domestic Violence Seminar

11 05 2009

Judge Hamad Al-Razine advised men to slap their wives at a recent seminar in Saudi Arabia on domestic violence. Here’s what he said:

If a person gives SR 1,200 [$320] to his wife and she spends 900 riyals [$240] to purchase an abaya [the black cover that women in Saudi Arabia must wear] from a brand shop and if her husband slaps her on the face as a reaction to her action, she deserves that punishment.

Credit: AFP Getty Images

Credit: AFP Getty Images

Women in the audience booed…and rightly so. Arab News, which reported this, said that Al-Razine was trying to explain why domestic violence has increased recently when he made the comments. Al-Razine said that women and men shared responsibility, but also said that “nobody puts even a fraction of blame on women.” 

According to Arab News, Al-Razine: 

…also pointed out that women’s indecent behavior and use of offensive words against their husbands were some of the reasons for domestic violence in the country.

I lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for 14 months many years ago. Every time I see stories like this, it makes me angry. This is yet another example of men…and this time validated by a judge…using violence to subjugate women. Women have little opportunity to be indecent in this country. They wear veils everywhere they go. They cannot socialize, attend classes, work, or even be seen with a man who is not their husband. When friends come to visit in homes, men socialize with the men in one room and women visit with the women in another room.

It’s a religion that men use to repress women and attitudes like the one this judge displayed…and at a seminar on domestic violence…that keep Saudi women from gaining basic rights and being free from domestic violence.

It’s never okay to slap a woman. NEVER.





Saudi Arabia: A Bread Delivery Makes a Criminal out of Khamisa Sawadi, 75

9 03 2009

Her crime? Mingling with two 24-year-old men – one the nephew of her deceased husband – when they delivered five loaves of bread to her home north of the Saudi Arabian capital city of Riyadh last April. 75-year-old widow Khamisa Mohammed Sawadi is from Syria, but was married to a Saudi man. After her March 3rd sentence of 40 lashes and 4 months in prison is carried out, she will be deported back to Syria.

The men were arrested by the religious police after delivering the bread to Sawadi. They, too, will be lashed and serve time in prison. The court based its decision on “citizen information” from the father of one of the young men, who accused the woman of corruption. The court verdict said:

Because she said she doesn’t have a husband and because she is not a Saudi, conviction of the defendants of illegal mingling has been confirmed.

Khamisa Sawadi says she even breastfed one of the young men who delivered the bread…which would normally establish a degree of maternal relation and would save her from the charge of mingling. Because she can’t prove it, the charge stands. Her lawyer is appealing the sentence.

Saudi Arabia prohibits men and women who are not immediate relatives from mingling and practices some of the strictest interpretations of any Islamic country. I know…I lived there many years ago. When I, or any woman, would go to the main market (the souq), I had to have my arms and legs covered. I couldn’t drive…even as an American woman…and had to have a man with me everywhere I went.  

One morning when I was waiting outside a store for it to open. My driver was sitting in the car right in front of me and I had my baby in my arms. An Egyptian man came up to me and started a conversation about politics. After a few minutes, he asked me if I’d like to go with him to his house. Stunned, I just said no. I did my brief shopping and returned to the car (usually the driver would come in with me, but he could see me from the car and remained there this time). I told the driver what the man said and he was upset and said I should’ve immediately come and told him. I asked him what would have happened. He said the police would’ve come and gotten the Egyptian man and beaten him. I was glad I didn’t tell.

The outrageousness of the religious police in Saudi Arabia is reaching new levels and causing outcries. Recently King Abdullah fired the chief of the religious police and a cleric who condoned killing owners of TV networks that broadcast “immoral content.” When I lived in Jeddah many years ago, there was only one English-speaking television station that ran really old very wholesome shows and had 15 minutes per day of news – 10 of which was what the king did that day.

I saw the work of the religious police everywhere…a can of beans with serving suggestions of “with pork” would have those words marked out (pork is unclean and illegal there). A magazine ad showing a woman’s bare midriff would have the midriff blacked out. Some pages would be ripped entirely from magazines and some magazines – with news the religious police didn’t want us to know – would not even make it into the country. As I entered the country and waited in the Jeddah airport, a man was trying to smuggle a can of ham in his suitcase and the police were stabbing the ham and screaming at the man. I heard of an American man accused of dealing drugs in Jeddah. He was offered the choice of having a hand cut off or spending 10 years in a Saudi prison.

Justice is harsh in Saudi Arabia. Beheadings, advertised in even the English newspaper, were held in the public square for anyone to watch. For more on “justice” in Saudi Arabia, read my recent post on how being gang raped is considered adultery – a crime with a harsh sentence.

I never felt unsafe in Jeddah and the people were very nice to me, my two tiny children, and my then husband. It saddens me to see these helpful young men treated as criminals because they showed kindness to an elderly woman and to see her treated as a criminal for accepting their kindness. This is not religious. This is not just. This is not right.

Here’s a report from CNN on this:





Saudi Arabia: Where Being Gang Raped is a Crime

3 03 2009

A 23-year-old Saudi woman accepted a ride from a man and was assaulted by him and four of his friends all night long. She became pregnant as a result of the gang rape, tried to get an abortion (which was not allowed), and was made to “confess” to “forced intercourse” with her attackers.

FloggingA judge ruled that this unmarried woman had committed adultery and sentenced her to a year in prison and 100 lashes, which is enough to cause very serious bodily damage. She will be flogged after the baby is born.

I lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia many years ago. The people there were so kind to me and my very young children. It is hard for me to reconcile that kindness with the violence that I continue to read about that is committed against women in the name of Sharia “honor.” I consider that total bullshit, cowardice, DIShonor on the part of the men who order and practice it, and a total reversal of what the prophet Mohammed intended for his people.

Please contact the White House and ask them to intervene. You can do this by going to whitehouse.gov/contact.

For more on “justice” in Saudi Arabia, read my post on a 75-year-old woman sentenced for MINGLING and the harsh sentence she just received.

UPDATE: I wrote a post about 13-year-old Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow of Somalia who experienced something similar to this. It is the most visited post on my blog and tells a truly tragic story.





Pilgrims to a Deadly Hajj

7 12 2008

I lived in Jeddah during the violent 1979 Hajj. I’m reminded of it because the 2008 Hajj began on Friday and ends Wednesday. Muslims are fulfilling their command to do a pilgrimage to the holiest Islamic city of Mecca at least once during a lifetime. Jeddah is about 40-50 miles from Mecca and is the gateway to Mecca. Busloads of  Muslims with meager belongings wrapped in a blanket are transported out of Jeddah to Mecca to participate in the pilgrimage. The traffic at that time of year is just unbelievable with the influx of 3 million people, and there is an increased risk of disease.

hajj1

One can imagine that 3 million people descending into Mecca this year on the heels of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai is a concern. Saudi Arabia has 100,000 security people in place during the Hajj to keep it peaceful.

The 1979 Hajj was far from peaceful. On November 20, 1979 the Grand Mosque was seized. The Grand Mosque surrounds the Kaaba, the place that Muslims turn toward as they do their 5-times-a-day prayer, and Muslims consider it the holiest place on Earth. Muslims circle the Kaaba seven times as part of the ritual of the Hajj.

Wikipedia says that the Grand Mosque seizure:

…was an attack and takeover by armed Islamic fundamentalist dissidents of the Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the holiest place in Islam. The insurgents declared that the Mahdi, or redeemer of Islam, had arrived in the form of one of the insurgents’ leaders, Abdullah Hamid Mohammed Al-Qahtani and called on Muslims to obey him.

The story of what happened would make a good thriller movie. Just as prayers were to start, about 500 insurgents took out guns from under their robes, chained the gates shut, took the 50,000 worshippers hostage, and killed several policemen. They released most of the hostages, but put snipers in the towers and held off attempts by security and the army to retake the Mosque. A special fatwa was issued so that the Ministry of Defense could use deadly force because the Qur’an forbids any violence within the Grand Mosque. The city of Mecca was evacuated.

The insurgents, who were anti-Western, broadcast messages constantly during the siege over the loud speakers and demanded that oil exports to the U.S. be cut off and that all foreign civilian and military experts from the Arabian peninsula be expelled.

Many attempts were made to storm the insurgents and finally, after two weeks, grenades were launched and the surviving insurgents surrendered.

Wikipedia gives these casualty numbers:

The battle officially left “255 pilgrims, troops and fanatics” killed “another 560 injured … although diplomats suggested the toll was higher.” Military casualties were 127 dead and 451 injured.

A half-brother of Osama bin Laden may have been involved in the siege and may have actually transported the guns in before the siege through trucks being used in the ongoing Mosque renovation.

It was a very tense time. Armed soldiers with machine guns stood guard about every 15 feet on every street in Jeddah. I was the music director for “The Princess and the Pea” and we were in rehearsals at that time. We were stopped while traveling the streets at nights, asked where we were going, and told to get off the streets.

The immediate aftermath of the siege continued to be violent, as described in Wikipedia:

Muslim anti-American demonstrations followed in the Philippines, Turkey, Bangladesh, India, eastern Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emigrates and Pakistan. Anger fueled by these rumors peaked within hours in Islamabad, Pakistan, and on November 21, 1979, the day following the takeover, the U.S. embassy in that city was overrun by a mob, who then burned the embassy to the ground. A week later, this anger swept to the streets of Tripoli, Libya, where a mob attacked and burned the U.S. embassy there on December 2, 1979.

Perhaps the most disturbing development to come out of the 1979 takeover of the Grand Mosque was the eventual revelation of prime organizer al-Utaibi’s connection to the Saudi Arabian National Guard.

The rebels’ leader, Juhayman, was captured, and he and 67 of his fellow rebels—”all the surviving males”—were tried secretly, convicted and publicly beheaded in the squares of four Saudi cities.

Wikipedia goes on to say that after this attack happened,  Saudi Arabia implemented stricter enforcement of Islamic code. Crackdowns were made on shopkeepers who didn’t close at prayer time, pictures of women in magazines, etc. I got caught in the back of a shop during prayer time when the store closed down. The owner didn’t know I was there and was very upset when he found me. He told me to get, with my children, down on the floor so he wouldn’t be found out. I also remember that if magazines showed a woman with a bare belly, the belly was blacked out with a marker. I could quote many more strict examples.

The Hajj of 1979 was very violent, perhaps the 9/11 for Muslims and Saudi Arabia. We hope for a peaceful pilgrimage this year.