A warm late spring day before university final exams start with classes still in session I went with my friend to hang out in her college. I got dressed, took a bus very early in the morning and followed her to the university’s front gate. I had just stepped inside the university’s entrance when a security guard stopped me. A middle aged woman, with a half of a smile frozen on her lips stepped down from a raised cement booth and walked toward me. Very calmly and nicely she reminded me that I am not a student there, thus cannot enter the university.
I was told by my friend that she is nicknamed Sanjagh-Ghofli or safety-pin. As I stood there, staring, trying to make a connection between her and a safety-pin, my friend and her classmates began a loud argument.
“She is our guest,” one said. “Is this how Iranians treat their guests” the other followed. “Don’t be so cruel.” “She won’t do anything,” my friend said. But her classmate lied, “She is our case study for psychology class.” I heard someone saying “Why do you like to make our lives hell?”
My friend studies in a small private university. Rumors have it that it is financially sponsored by the revolutionary guards. I personally couldn’t find any information about the accuracy of that claim. But it is clear that her college is somewhat different from other Iranian colleges when it comes to tightened security. Even though the university is technically called Azad or what westerners would consider a non-state university, the academic agenda of the school would be the same as any other higher education institution in Iran. However, my friend’s college is amongst the few remaining colleges (excluding seminaries and Quranic schools) that demands women to wear Chador and enter from gender segregated doors.
As I stood at the gate, speechless about Safety-pin’s wit on knowing every single student by face, my friend looked determined to get me in. Within the first five minutes of my arrival, however, I lost all my hope and told my friend to call for a taxi so I could go home.
“Are you out of your mind?” she asked me in disbelief. “This is Iran! You don’t let any one tell you what to do. Mijangi! Woman, you will fight here!” she said tightening her mandatory chador beneath her chin and went back to the circle of her friends who were enveloping safety-pin in front of her security guard booth.
I stood back and watched. I have to admit, I was very scared. But I couldn’t find any reason for my fear. Suddenly, my fear worsened when I heard the word “America.” My heart dropped. I heard “journalist” and I began to shiver. Cold sweat began to run down my neck. I felt the rush of blood through my veins and my body, nearly toasted underneath the black uniform and black chador grew hotter and hotter. My heart was beating fast and I was helpless in preventing my face from turning red. I begged my friend–in silence–to not to mention any thing about me being an American educated journalist.
Safety-pin rolled her eyes after hearing those words and gave every one a disdainful smile.
“If you treat her like this, what will she write about us when she goes back to America?” I was sure that safety-pin will call Hersat–Islamic Republic of Iran’s notorious intelligence service at universities and governmental offices. Instead, she shrugged and a half-smile froze on her lips.
“What do you think she would write?” my friend repeated her question again and waited for an answer. But Safety-pin’s silence was enough for me to know that she could care less about America. She would probably think of it as the great Satan, like Ayatollah Khomeini called it during 1979 revolution. Why would she care about what Americans think of her country? She could have very well been one of those people who had participated in the revolution just to get rid of the American interference in Iranian matters.
I was ready to leave. I pulled my friend aside. This time I really begged her to let me go. I wasn’t direct about it, of course. My reputation as a courageous woman was at stake, so I claimed I don’t want to jeopardize her education specially when Safety-pin was holding her student ID in her hands. However, she assured me that it wasn’t about me any more. She “will get me in.” Then, she made Sanjagh-Ghofli to call her supervisor and ask for her permission. Yet, the battle did not end there. She hung up the phone and swaggered toward her chair. She sat behind the desk, ponderously opened a book in front of her. “I told you! The answer is still no.”
My friend’s classmates who were late for class, left. Even though she was late too, my friend wasn’t going to give up. She left me at the gate to go talk to the supervisor herself. It was too late to back up. I had to gather my courage and be graceful for her effort. So, I walked into Safety-pin’s booth and sat on one of the three chairs in front of her desk. I occasionally looked at her from the corner of my eyes to see if I could read her expressions. Of course, there was none. There were no feelings in her face to read or interpret. She was doing her job. She gets paid to make sure the safety of the college is not threatened and in her opinion I could be a threat.
I sat there hiding my shaking hands under the chador, praying for my friend to show up soon. All of a sudden, I heard “Koja? Come back here, right now!”
It was the same familiar warning I had heard fifteen minutes earlier when she spotted my unfamiliar face in the crowd. I looked up and I was immediately taken aback from what I was seeing.
“Oh, there is going to be a nasty fight,” I thought to myself.
Safety-pin got out of her chair and stepped out side of the booth.
“What makes you think you could get in like this?” she asked in a calm, genuine tone.
A young woman dressed in black chador which was perfectly covering all her hair was walking away from the entrance door. Her bright pink lipstick flashed against her dark features. She was wearing an exaggerated pair of big brown Chanel sunglasses that strangely put more emphasis on her lips.
The young woman would not stop at Safety-pin’s warning, so she had to run after her and grab ing her by arm.
“Khanoomam, my lady, you cannot enter with such make-up.”
When chador is considered the only proper Islamic dress for an Islamic academy, make-up and bold colors are subsequently going to be considered not proper and non-Islamic.
“Come on, Mrs. Moradi!” she kept answering each time Safety-pin whose real name I had just learned asked her to clean it up or turn in her student ID.
“Take off your glasses at least. Are you wearing more make-up under there?” Questions followed, but the young woman’s reaction was the same. Just a slow “come-on” with a big bright smile.
I, who had forgotten about my own situation, was enviously watching the young women reaction to something that could probably cause me a panic attack. I watched how the two women performed their duties; Mrs. Moradi to enforce Islamic values and the woman to disobey them.
All of a sudden, the young woman freed herself from Mrs. Moradi’s arm and grabbed her shoulders instead. She violently shook her. “ I cannot! Mrs. Moradi, I cannot.” She repeated again, “I cannot take off my lipstick.” She said in such sympathetic tone that both Mrs. Moradi and I became anxious to know why.
She took her hands off of Mrs. Moradi’s shoulders and began to walk backwards away from her. She raised her arm and waved at her, shouting “because my lips will be chapped if I don’t wear lipstick.”
Mrs. Moradi looked like a planted flower where she was standing watching the young woman disappear into the crowd. She was still smiling when my friend who was running toward me shouted “Let’s go!” Finally, Mrs. Moradi’s supervisor called. She said I can come inside the university.
Later, I asked my friend what happened between her and the supervisor.
“Irad-e-alaki!” an unimportant excuse “she asked me if your Hijab was proper.”
“And what did you say?”
“Even better than yours!” my friend said in triumph with a victorious smile for being able to mock the system that is supposed to control her.
I wondered if Mrs. Moradi was still smiling about the young woman who played with her rules that morning or she was angry that I won my case. Is she going to take revenge? Or is she going to brush it off with a frozen half-smile on her face?
I didn’t know the answer, but I was really content–not because I won–because I had no more fear. I had learned how to dance around the restrictions. I was happy because I had learned that number one rule was to break the rules–while laughing, wearing pink lipstick and fighting with safety-pins.