Woman, Life, Freedom: An Interview With My Mother

By: Illana Ahdout  |  December 6, 2022

By Illana Ahdout

For the past two months, protests following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini have swept the Islamic Republic of Iran. Amini, who was arrested for wearing her headscarf improperly, was beaten to death by the Iranian morality police. Iranian officials claim she died of multiple organ failure caused by cerebral hypoxia.

While the protests were initially focused on women’s rights and the state’s hijab mandate, they quickly evolved into calls to overthrow the religious Shiite leaders who have been running the country since the 1979 Revolution. 

Having witnessed the Shiite takeover during the Iranian Revolution, my mother remembers a time before these strict religious laws and their vicious enforcers were a reality; a time before Iran was the fundamentalist Islamic Republic it is today.

According to my mother, Ronit Ahdout, Iran could have been “another state of America.” She describes it as “advanced” and “westernized” and offering ample opportunities for women to succeed. There was no state-mandated dress code; women were allowed to choose whether or not to cover their hair.

All that changed when Ayatollah Khomeini took over in 1979. Suddenly, my mother, doubly at risk for being both Jewish and a woman, became second-class. Worse, she was treated as subhuman. As a young adult navigating her new oppressive reality, she felt stifled.

She could no longer experience traditional rites of passage for a teenage girl: learning to apply makeup, dressing up in bright colors, wearing heels, etc. These were all against the law and she knew the severe punishments that awaited her if she chose to disobey.

Stories swirled about morality police forcing any woman seen wearing makeup to wipe it off with a cloth soaked in acid. Common knowledge was that to be seen with your hair uncovered was to guarantee your arrest, which likely meant you would never be heard from again.

Once, when my mother was walking in the streets with her two-year-old nephew, he accidentally tugged down her scarf and the morality police immediately descended on her. She was terrified. “I thought this was it for me,” she told me. “I was sure my life was over.” Luckily, a friend saw her on the street and bribed the police officer before she could be arrested.

Unfortunately, for Mahsa Amin and countless women like her, no friends passed by. No bribes were made. They fell to the hands of a corrupt regime, never to return.

Eventually, circumstances in Iran became too much for my mother and her family to bear. They feared for their lives. With the help of a member of the once vibrant community of her hometown, Tehran, my mother obtained a fake passport and fled the country with her mother and sister. Her father later joined them, as well. None of them have since returned to their birth land.

On that fateful flight out in 1986, the sense of relief was palpable. My mother, then 22, felt bittersweet as she watched the women around her tear off their headscarves and apply nail polish. On the one hand, she was overjoyed to see these women finally obtain their freedom. On the other, her heart broke for the pain they had all endured, forced to live under an oppressive regime and denied the right to choose how they dressed.

Now, 36 years later, the women of Iran are still denied this basic right. They’re still facing dire consequences for disobedience, exemplified by the tragic story of Mahsa Amini and others like her, whose stories we may never know.

For those that protest this injustice, the response of the Iranian morality police over the past two months has been lethal. Iran Human Rights, a Norway-based group, estimates that at least 451 people have been killed by security forces so far. With authorities firing live ammunition and tear gas to disperse demonstrations and snuff out the voices protesting their rule, that number will only continue to rise.

At first, my mother didn’t think this current round of protests would amount to much. Her pessimism was not unfounded: anti-government riots and protests have happened numerous times in Iran. None have been successful.

But none of the other protests have gone on this long. None have engaged such a large, passionate following of young and old, rich and poor, men and women. None have picked up mass media attention, spurring protests all around the world.

Now, as my mother watches her fellow Iranian women burning their headscarves and cutting their hair in public to the chants of “Woman, life, freedom,” she is much more optimistic. “Maybe this time, we’ll get it right,” she said. “When they do, I’ll be eager to visit.”

Witnessing what is being called Iran’s biggest anti-government protest in decades has made my mother proud. “As grateful as I am that I left Iran, I almost wish I was still there so I could join the women in protest. To join them in the fight against the evil and oppressive regime that forced me out of my home,” she told me. “I’m rooting for my fellow Iranian women as they take up the cause.”


But the battle is far from over. In my mother’s words, “Far more blood will be shed before anything changes. But we must keep pushing. The regime is not afraid to harm and kill. We must show them that we are equally unafraid, and we must not back down.”