I Feel Like Traveling
By: Shirin Ardalan
Thursday 6 November 2008
Translated by: Sussan Tahmasebi
I have known her for years. I go to visit her, in the hopes that she will sign the petition of the Campaign. Farideh is a religious woman, who observes the full hejab. She is 43 and single. Half jokingly she says: "the ones I wanted didn’t want to marry me and those who wanted to marry me, I didn’t like." She lives with her elderly father and her sister in an apartment. Her mother died of a heart attack, following the death of her only son during the war. Farideh and her sister both read the booklet of the Campaign and sign its petition. I give them a petition form, so that they could collect signatures too, if they felt up to it. "Don’t get your hopes up, but I will try," explains Farideh. The rest of the visit we spend talking.
She graduated from high school in 1982, but with the cultural revolution and the closure of the universities, like many of her generation, she was not able to go to university. With great effort, she finally managed to get into Teachers University. Finally she entered the teaching profession. "For twelve years I taught literature. But three years ago, I asked my students to write essays on nuclear energy and about nuclear enrichment. The discussions in class turned political and a report was issued about me. First I was suspended from teaching, but with great persistence on my part, I was able to become an assistant principle in one of the schools in the south of Tehran."
I ask her about her memories from school and how those experiences compare to the experiences of her own students.
"The experiences are so different. I remember that I was sent to the principle’s office after I recited a poem by Shafi’e Kadkani. The poem was: ’Where to so hurried, asked the wild flower of the breeze. If you pass the desert of fear unharmed, give my regards to the blossoms, to the rain.’ The principle wanted to know what I meant by the desert of fear. I was almost expelled from school for having a copy of Samad Behrangi’s book, the Little Black Fish. But these days the students carry all sorts of stuff in their school bags, except for books."
"Do they still search their school bags?" I ask surprised.
"Yes. Make up, hair gel, films, pictures, these are all forbidden. On occasion the students tell on each other. For example a student who had been called to the principle’s office for having hair gel, told on her classmate who had films. We never have enough time. There are only two of us and there are 450 students, 45 students to each class."
"What do they do with the hair gel, under the thick veil they are required to wear?"
"Right before the bell rings, they take out a few locks of hair and put hair gel on it. The locks of hair become spiked and stand up like two horns. Wat makes the look even more absurd is the school uniform."
"Don’t these restrictions make the students more radical? Isn’t the act of searching their bags insulting to them?"
"Yes. I don’t agree with this policy. On many occasions, if there are no other teachers around, I let the students go past, and allow them to go to class. I talk to them privately later on. I give examples and plead with them. But the students don’t pay too much attention. It is as if they have shut out the world. Sometimes I can see that they are even laughing at me and what I have to say, as if they feel sorry for me. This generation is very different than ours. They skip school and go to their boyfriends’ homes. The father of one my students had locked her up in the storage unit of the second floor of their apartment, but she managed to jump out of the window on the second floor, make her way to the nearby highway, and go to see her boyfriend!"
"Don’t you remember your own school days? We too would run away from home during those times."
"Yes. But for us the ultimate in courage was to go for a walk with a boy or go to the park with him. Or we would go in groups to the cinema, where the boys would sit at the end of the rows, in essence providing the girls in the middle with some protection, so that no one would bother us. But these days, girls go to the homes of their first boyfriends, or bring them to their own homes. Sometimes too the mothers assist their daughters in these acts. There was this one girl who had gotten into the car of a boy near the school grounds. A teacher had seen this and reported it. They called her mother into school the next day. In response, the mother, had pulled her veil over her mouth and whispered: ’what can I do? If her father finds out he will kill her. So on occasion I tell her to bring her friend home with her and I go into the kitchen giving them some privacy. Sometimes she smokes and when I object, she protests by saying that other kids her age are doing all sorts of drugs, and that I am too old fashioned for objecting to her smoking.’ We have serious problems. These are cultural problems. Children these days, witness many contradictions between what they experience at school, at home and in society. They see something on television, which does not exist in society. Youth are looking for something on the streets, which has been denied to them in the home. Most of the families in my school district are not well off financially. The mothers and fathers of these children may have studied up to the 9th and 10th grade, and usually it’s only one parent who has studied through this level. Cultural poverty is endemic. I know a student who started a friendship with a boy because she wanted him to buy her an expensive Manteau (Islamic over coat). Most of these students are in love with expensive mobile telephones. Their interests are mostly money, clothes and make up. This generation does not value anyone or anything, even itself. Ours was the sacrificed generation. Theirs is the apathetic generation. And it’s difficult to convince my colleagues to use different strategies. Its difficult working in an environment where we are all women, and you have to constantly worry that what you say or do may be reported to higher up officials."
"Well, if you are so disappointed in everything and have no hope, then why did you sign the petition of the Campaign?" I ask. She does not reply to my question.
Two days later, Farideh calls me on the phone to tell me that some of the teachers at her school have signed the petition and others want copies of the petition and the booklet so they too can collect signatures. "You know, convincing them to sign was not at all difficult. The petition and talk of the Campaign served as an excuse for us to discuss some of our personal problems. The school officials have been supportive of the effort too. You know we should work to improve the future of our children." Her voice is filled with happiness and hope and she starts to hum the tune: "I feel like Traveling."