Posted by CODEPINK Staff
I ( a CODEPINK co-founder) and Col. Ann Wright, a retired U.S. state official, are spending a second week in Iran on a citizen’s diplomacy visit, engaging with Iranian women’s groups and officials to build bridges and create peace from the ground up. We arrived Friday. Here’s a bit of our experience in Eshafan the following week.
After Jodie went back to the U.S., Ann and I were ready to get out of polluted, congested Tehran and travel south to Shiraz and Esfahan. We hadn’t made plans earlier, because we were not sure of the schedule for our government meetings, and our Fellowship of Reconciliation contact, Leila Zand, had to stay in Tehran to prepare for the 14-person Fellowship delegation that was arriving in a few days. We were not sure that we would be allowed to travel on our own, since Americans are supposed to have government-sanctioned “minders” who travel with them. But no one in the Foreign Ministry seemed to care about our whereabouts. We checked for a flight to Shiraz or Esfahan, but they were all full, so Ann and I got up early on Friday and took a taxi to the bus station. We found a nice man to help us maneuver our way through the maze at the bus station and buy a ticket to Esfahan for a mere $5! Within minutes, we were on a lovely bus headed south.
The girl behind us on the bus was traveling with her aunt to Qom to take the bar exam. She had just finished law school. Although she had never lived or traveled to an English-speaking country, her English was terrific. We had a great conversation about everything: the struggle for women’s rights, student activism, Islam and the death penalty. We learned so much from her and were so impressed by her clarity and commitment to making Iran a country that upholds human rights and international law. When we asked her what she thought about Iranian Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, she told us that Shirin was her heroine and the reason she decided to go to law school.
She also helped explain a few fascinating things going on in the bus. The driver had an Iranian music cassette playing, with a woman singer. After about 10 minutes, a female passenger wearing a chador approached the driver. She yelled at him for playing music with a woman singer, which, she said, was illegal. He turned it off. Annoyed at the interference, a young man across from us turned up the volume on his own cassette player, blasting Iranian hiphop music. This time, the self-appointed “music policewoman” remained silent.
Our friend also gave us a synopsis of the movie that was being shown on the bus (yes, for $5, we got a six-hour drive in comfy seats—with a movie!). It was about a rich, Iranian playboy with two pretty, modern (but scarved, of course) wives, who was trying to marry a third one. The three women got together to trick him, pretending he could marry the third woman if he divorced the other two. He did, and then all three women dumped him. It was an interesting comedy depicting female solidarity against a womanizing husband (strong, beautiful women finding a clever way to overcome an unequal marriage law), and seemed to be a real crowd pleaser.
When we got off the bus in Esfahan, not knowing where to go, a nice man offered to drive us into town. He owned a local bicycle shop, and took us to see his shop. All the bikes were imported from China. He said that Iran makes bicycles, but they were over twice the price for the same quality. He showed us two prized bikes with the brand name Carbondale, which he said was American. He bought them from China as well. He, like most Iranians, loves the United States and can’t wait for the sanctions to be lifted so he can buy directly from American companies.
The people in Esfahan were so friendly. Everywhere we went, we were approached by people asking who we were, where we were from. And unlike in Tehran, where it was taboo for men to shake a woman’s hand, the men here eagerly reached out for a handshake. It was refreshing to be acknowledged with a human touch.
We went from there to visit the magnificent Imam Square, an immense, breath-taking square surrounded by perhaps the most majestic collection of buildings in the Islamic world. We shopped in the lovely craft stores that dot the square and surrounding streets, including having tea with the famous miniature artist Hossein Fallahi and his students. Ann and I bought so many gifts that we had to buy two giant canvas bags that market women carry!
The next day we continued our sightseeing, visting the Chehel Sotun Palace with its sumptuous frescoes portraying historic battles and extravagant court life with musicians and dancing girls. From there we went to the Jameh Mosque, with 800 years of inspiring Islamic design. As we were ooh-ing and aah-ing over the architecture in the interior rooms, we met four Iranian businesswomen who were part of a national association of Iranian businesswomen. They had just finished a meeting in Esfahan, and some of them stayed on to sight-see together. All owned their own businesses. One was an architect who designed large power plants, another was a chemist who produced car lubricants, one was a rice farmer and the fourth was a consultant on business development.
These strong, vivacious women took us under their wing, taking us out to a delicious traditional lunch of “dizi”, continuing our sight-seeing together, and making sure we had a way back to Tehran (we’d been told by Leila Zand to hurry back because we had a meeting with the mayor of Tehran the following day). One of the women even took us out to dinner the following evening in Tehran. We were so impressed by them, and look forward to hooking their association up with businesswomen’s groups in the United States.
One of the main issues we talked to the women about was how U.S./European economic sanctions were hurting their businesses, giving us lots of concrete examples. It renewed our commitment to work, upon return, the lift the sanctions.
We splurged on a $9 luxury bus ride back to Tehran, with reclining seats like in first class of a plane. One thing this country has is good public transportation. Too bad they have so many cars that pollute the air and clog the streets—as we were reminded when we returned, late at night, to Tehran.