Our journey is a combination of trials. We are constantly building and rebuilding our lives. Winning and losing are the result of the games we play. Crashing and falling are part of the learning process. These practices bring us closer to fathoming the many levels of self to finally experience the consciousness within. (Winter 2019)
Like many girls from middle-class families, I grew up under enormous pressure to succeed. My father, a successful doctor, instilled ambition in me and modeled the rewards of hard work and dedication. But post-Islamic Revolution Iran was hardly the place for an ambitious career-oriented girl. I dreamt big, but the society and culture that surrounded me was far more concerned by the modesty of my clothes than with creating opportunities for learning and growth. The contrast between a Western family that instilled big dreams in a girl and a society that squashed all those dreams was an ongoing source of conflict. My life was therefore a paradox between what one could do as a young female in Iran and what I was driven to do with my ambitions and family background.
I came to see our society as a farce. The majority of my personal network kept an outward Islamic appearance while struggling for freedom against its repressive forces. Not only were the dreams and careers of many repressed, mundane enjoyments such as music, dancing, and drinking were deemed illegal. In public, women had to cover their bodies and hair to prevent arousal in men, making everyday life painful and many other activities, like outdoor exercise or swimming, difficult or impossible. Restrictive clothing was the most obvious expression of control.
In the building complex where I grew up, there was a swimming pool. In the summer, men and women used it at different times. The pool was shrouded with a big tent, presumably to keep out the prying eyes of lusty youth, but it was impossible to cover it entirely from the direct gaze of those living in the tall apartment towers that surrounded it. Females as young as nine, which is the age that you become a woman in Islam, had to wear T-shirts and leggings under their swimsuits as a protective measure so those in the upper levels of the towers wouldn’t be aroused by chance. The police and security forces that oversaw the property’s management strictly enforced these rules.
As I entered adolescence I began to realize that these constraints on clothing have far more pervasive and pernicious consequences. They don’t just restrict one’s attire; they kill our dreams and aspirations. Even though I left Iran when I was relatively young, the indoctrination and the message that girls simply “can’t” still echoes in my mind. The ridiculous clothing required for the swimming pool forever symbolizes for me the drowning of a girl’s dreams and quenching of the internal fire of her ambitions. It is not simply that you can’t train to become a swimmer wearing such clothing; it is all about developing a sense of shame for being a girl. This feeling of inadequacy and shame gnaws at your unconscious long after the summer swim is over.
In Islamic Iran, a woman’s greatest achievement is considered motherhood and serving her husband. My Westernized family understood these limits and encouraged me to seek an outside career in areas such as medicine or engineering. But I realized as a teenager that my love was art, and it took enormous work to convince my family and even myself that art can be a career. Given my struggle with my Westernized family, I wonder what it would have been like had I been brought up in a true Islamic household. I wonder how many dreams have died and continue to be crushed.
Spring / Summer 2023
The Iran Issue
Mehregan Pezeshki is an Iranian American multidisciplinary artist. Her work, which is often autobiographical, unravels traumatic memories of her youth growing up in Iran. Pezeshki uses photography to uncover hidden behaviors that affect our daily lives. She employs an unconventional angle to challenge viewers to step out of their comfort zone and observe human behaviors from a new perspective. Pezeshki holds a BA in Historical Conservation and Preservation from the Cultural Heritage University of Tehran, and a BFA from the University of Texas at Austin. She recently graduated with her MFA from California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).