I Left Iran for the U.S. to Get AWAY From a Theocracy | Opinion

People used to ask me how women of Iran could allow their rights to be taken away. The overturning of Roe v. Wade provides a glimpse of how swiftly, in broad daylight, decades of progress and half the population's rights can be trampled. I grew up in Iran, where the fundamentalist Guardian Council doesn't allow any laws to pass without their approval. Several recent rulings by a fundamentalist U.S. Supreme Court favoring religious ideology and the expansion of gun rights, despite legislative efforts, show that we're heading in a similar direction here. This feels eerily familiar.

I had just started kindergarten when women's rights were cut in half: Female heirs would inherit half the amount of their male counterparts, and two female witnesses were needed to equal one male witness. Women judges were stripped of their judgeship. Reminiscent of pre-desegregated America, buses became segregated by gender. Those who were cursed with two X chromosomes had to sit in the back — veiled, crammed, and dispossessed of their dignity.

This all began shortly after the Iranian revolution in 1979 when the Islamists, led by their supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini, usurped power. Iran became a theocracy where mosque and state conjoined as one entity. Later, a Guardian Council of clerics and lawyers was established to ensure all laws were in compliance with their interpretation of Sharia law.

In post-revolution Iran, Morality Police patrolled the streets to make sure women were veiled, modesty laws were in effect, and no anti-government activity was afoot. In the past 40-plus years, hundreds of thousands of dissidents have been jailed, disappeared, and executed. Many Iranians, including myself, escaped the theocratic oppression under extraordinary circumstances. Others were caught while trying to escape or are forbidden from leaving the country.

A Protest Outside the Supreme Court
Protesters gather in the wake of the decision overturning Roe v. Wade outside the Supreme Court on June 25, 2022, in Washington, DC. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

In 2016, many of us who had first-hand experience of our civil rights scorched by the flame of religious zealotry sounded the alarm. We saw how former President Donald Trump pandered to the Christian Right and White nationalists. We predicted that he would deliver on his promise of overturning Roe v. Wade. Some accused us of overreaction. I don't blame them. Unlike the Islamic Republic of Iran, a core tenet of the U.S. Constitution is the separation of church and state, even if it is not stated as such. Iran's rulers implement their interpretation of Sharia law and in this, they are quite honest and transparent. But this month, Americans who counted on checks and balances were struck by a handful of highly motivated Guardian Council-style Christian Supreme Court judges as they restricted abortion rights and delivered several back-to-back pro-religion rulings.

Women of color, predictably, bear the brunt of the war on women but the effects of abortion restrictions are far-reaching. They encompass aspects of health care, that in a sane society are decided by a woman and her health care provider. For example, The Cleveland Clinic called out Ohio's House Bill 413, which suggested "attempting to reimplant an ectopic pregnancy into the woman's uterus." This bizarrely concocted procedure by amateur OBGYNs is "not plausible" in the real world. Just as in Iran, unqualified fundamentalist judges and legislators in the U.S. are now effectively practicing medicine without a license. In Texas, the recent abortion law limits miscarriage care, a natural termination that occurs in one in 10 pregnancies.

Ironically, a few months ago, Iran also severely restricted access to abortion and contraception. United Nations human rights experts condemned this decision just as they condemned the reversal of Roe v. Wade in the U.S.

The Iranian parliament has no legislative power without the Guardian Council. In 2005, the parliament introduced a bill that would have allowed abortion during the first 16 weeks of pregnancy when the woman's life was endangered or a child would be born with a severe disability. The Guardian Council simply rejected it. Now, in the U.S., the majority of Supreme Court justices can strike down any future attempts at codification of abortion or gay rights as "unconstitutional."

Unless we implement checks and balances, this radicalized court can strip away more rights and cause more harm. Rather than seeing the recent rulings as a fundraising opportunity, we need Democratic leaders to act boldly and represent us. They shouldn't shy away from calling the Supreme Court illegitimate. And they must have all hands on deck to find meaningful solutions, such as expanding the court.

The liberal justices must also question the legitimacy of the institution they're part of. Unlike many women in the trigger states and physicians who can lose their medical licenses or go to prison for providing health care for their patients, the liberal judges have choices. They can and should protest the rulings by refusing to vote in other cases that undermine our civil liberties. If they continue to proceed with business as usual, they, too, are complicit.

I came to the U.S. as a refugee, escaping oppression, and have dedicated my life to working with refugees. Women escaping the unjust new laws in trigger states are now refugees within their own country. My heart breaks for them. And we all must do what we can to do right by these women and other vulnerable populations who are at the whim of these "holy" justices.

Ari Honarvar is the founder of Rumi with a View, dedicated to building music and poetry bridges across war-torn and conflict-ridden borders. Her novel "A Girl Called Rumi" on post-revolution Iran is available wherever books are sold.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.