I reached for the bowl of apricots on the table, picked out a plump one, and passed it to Mitra. She took a nibble with a sip of tea. Our time together was usually spent with her two daughters, dancing in the living room or eating pizza on the balcony. This was our first private conversation.
I had always wanted to ask her about why she had decided to leave Iran, even after Khatami. Was it hard deciding to go, I asked. You stuck it out for so many years, what made it finally unbearable? She thought about it for several seconds, passing her finger back and forth over the apricot. When she finally did speak, it was not about the veil, or the violations of private life, or any of the daily degradations I had lived and expected to hear about. I couldn’t stand arguing with them anymore, she said, the Sister Fatimehs and Sister Zeinabs at the girls’ schools.
Mitra had two daughters, both teenagers. They would come home from school, having learned nothing useful, but with an earful of reprimands. “I would go down there every day, and ask them why my daughters were being treated like this. And they, these uneducated, unforgiving women, would stare down their noses at me, like, who was I to be asking questions about my daughters’ education.”
Every life in Iran came with its unique set of battles, most of which, like Mitra’s, were unknown to me. I had never tried to raise children under the Islamic Republic, so that particular challenge did not even occur to me. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like sending my daughters off to school each day, to be indoctrinated against me, their heads filled with an ideology that I would then need to unteach them at home. To be told that I, their mother, was anti-revolutionary, Westernized, immoral. Had I a choice, I realized, I might not have stayed to fight. Not if it meant sacrificing my daughters. The way I had learned to conceive of the Iranian nation, of devotion to homeland, was, after many months, still abstract. If I had children here, being pried from me and claimed for the revolution, if I had to go through a divorce under a system that stripped me of all my rights, then perhaps these notions of patriotism and loyalty would sound hollow.
Mitra’s cheek gently fell against a cushion, and her exhalations became regular. In the quietness of the moment, as twilight settled on the willow trees outside the window, I felt some of the guilt of belonging to the diaspora, to the tribe who left, recede. Through living here, through seeing all the complexity that went into people’s decisions to stay or leave, I was learning not to judge so harshly myself or others over such an intensely personal choice.
I respected Mitra for boxing up a privileged life, saying goodbye to all of her extended family, and starting from scratch in another hemisphere. Leaving was not an act of treason or disloyalty but of self-preservation. I had always believed that we outside were compromised for leaving Iran behind. That belief had colored my life, filled it with remorse for a decision that had not been mine. But for Mitra, and thousands of mothers like her, it would have been more compromising not to leave. Sacrificing a middle-aged life was one thing. Sacrificing two fresh daughters entirely another.
Well, this problem is hardly peculiar to Iran. It worries the education-focused parents of every society with a dysfunctional, oppressive public school system, and that seems to be most societies. Those with the means can opt to send their kids to private schools or move to a place with better public schools, even if it means emigrating. But very few parents have that option.