Notice: Your rights may be withdrawn quickly. I know because it happened to me

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My grandmothers had escaped the Russian revolution of 1917 and fled to Iran in search of freedom. And to some extent, they had found it. My father had become a successful ballroom dance teacher in Tehran and taught Muslim couples cha-cha and tango. My mother was a hairdresser and styled the hair of fashionable Muslim women. And I had grown up in a bikini on the shores of the Caspian Sea, partying with my Muslim friends.

Revolutionary leaders promised to expand social freedoms, grant political freedoms and build democracy. They used our grievances against Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, to gain our trust and gain power. But as soon as they took office, the few personal freedoms we had enjoyed disappeared and strict Islamic law was put in place.

In less than a year, women’s rights to express themselves were taken away: dancing, singing, holding our boyfriends’ hands in public, and wearing bikinis all became largely prohibited activities. Some priests from my Roman Catholic Church, all foreign nationals who had lived in Iran for years, were deported and many of the properties that belonged to the Church were confiscated.

The irony was that a few of my Christian relatives had trusted Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic revolutionary leader, and celebrated when the Shah was forced into exile. Now, like me, they were paying the price.

While Iran’s transition from a nation with limited social rights to a virtually non-existent nation may seem a distant reality to those living under democracy, the truth is, it is not.

If Western democracies are not on their toes, their citizens can fall prey to the same types of rulers who now control Iran’s political infrastructure. The revolutionary leaders were populists who vowed to return power to the people after decades of monarchical rule, and for many disenfranchised voters in democracies who feel their elected officials have ignored their struggles, the populist message may have an impact. strong enough appeal – even if it’s just a ploy.

But the risk is not only of losing civil or democratic rights, but of being punished for defying authority figures who have deprived citizens of these rights.

After 1979, our accomplished teachers were replaced by young fanatic academics, many of whom were members of the newly formed Iranian Revolutionary Guards. They spent time in class spreading government propaganda and trying to persuade us that the regime’s fanatical rules – like forcing all women and girls over the age of 9 to wear the hijab – were for our own good. They argued that we should dress modestly so as not to attract unwanted attention from men.

At the time, I told our director that I was a Christian, so the new Islamic rules of modesty should not apply to me. She replied, “You believe in bad religion. I was politically naïve, but I was also aggrieved, having seen with my own eyes the importance of religious freedom. I attended protest rallies to express my frustration with new religious laws that limited or attacked the rights of Iranian women.

Denouncing the regime, in whatever form, was now seen as an act of war against God, the penalty for which could be death. And, in January 1982, the Revolutionary Guards arrested me for doing just that. When I was only 16, I was accused of being an anti-revolutionary and sent to the infamous Evin prison. I was tortured, physically and emotionally, and then I was forced to marry one of my interrogators, who was murdered 15 months after the wedding.

Six months after his death – and two years, two months and 12 days after my first arrest – I was released. My captors had decided there was no reason to keep me any longer, perhaps because they had succeeded in destroying my mind and suppressing my desire to protest. Many of my friends and cell mates had been executed while I was in prison, and I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder – not that I knew of at the time. I was barely 19 when I was released.

Although it took me several years – and a move to Canada – before I shared the details of my tragic story, I decided to do so because a democracy is as good as its citizens. Today, living in the West, I have come to realize that even the strongest democracies are not immune to demagogues posing as populists. Those of us who have experienced what the loss of fundamental rights looks like have an obligation to speak out. Because once the demagogues – or aspirants – have taken control, it will be too late.

Indeed, democracy is like water caught in the palms of our hands. If we don’t try to hold on to it, the water will flow through our fingers and we will only be left with a burning thirst.

Although Iran was not a democracy before the revolution, all hope of a peaceful transition to a post-revolution has all but vanished today. The Islamic Republic of Iran masquerades as a democracy and holds elections for its parliament and president. Yet its Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who replaced Ayatollah Khomeini after his death, and his Council of Guardians decide who is or is not fit to stand for election.
And it certainly does not have a free press or a thriving civil society. Anyone who criticizes the regime and its leaders can be arrested and even sentenced to death.

The line separating democracy from tyranny is not as thick as Westerners might like to believe. In Iran, we believed that our goodwill, our selfless efforts and our desire for better governance could not be manipulated and destroyed. Many of us even died during the revolution to make the Islamic Republic exist. But we were wrong and we have been paying the price for almost half a century.

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