Fleeing the Hijab, A Jewish Woman’s Escape from Iran
We are pleased to be a part of the virtual book tour this week for Sima Goel’s wonderful new book, Fleeing the Hijab. Her account of her escape out of Iran at the age of thirteen is a remarkable, inspiring story. We hope you will drop by and visit other stops along her tour to learn more about the book and the author. You can find her schedule here, at iRead Book Tours.
Ms. Goel provide Jaquo with an interview, giving us an opportunity to hear about her journey first hand. We are delighted to share it with you now…
First, thank you for taking the time today. We wish you success with your book, one that should inspire youth and adults alike. It’s a remarkable story.
No matter how mature you were when you undertook your escape, it is still a very young age to take off on your own. It’s so impressive that you took the first step as well as completing your journey. It sounds frightening. Was it at that age, or did you see it as an adventure?
I did not have a choice, or I should say I could not accept living in my beloved Iran as a second-class citizen, or even less. I could not tolerate that in Iran, I would always be two times a minority: a woman, and a Jew. I had big hopes and big dreams, and it was clear to me, and my mother that I would not be able to realize them if I stayed.
You can call it adventure, but to me it was a risk I had to take to be able to have a chance to realize my dreams. I wanted to be educated and I was prepared to die for it. Life in Iran was a living death for me and at that time, Iran was just a large prison cell.
I believe that we are much stronger than we know. Even as a teenager, I knew that I was a determined person and I could be brave when I was motivated by a purpose, something that was bigger than me. In retrospect, the escape and all its challenges tested me and allowed me to recognize my strength. It also clearly demonstrated to me, practically and unequivocally, that strangers – good strangers – appear at the pivotal moment. Many kind people appeared out of nowhere to assist me. I think they balanced the feeling of fear and persecution I experienced in Iran, so if life gave me lemons, it also offered me unexpected sweetness.
What was the most frightening to you?
When I was crossing the desert toward Pakistan, Afghani militants were crossing the desert toward Iran. If they would have seen us, we would have been taken back to Iran and executed.
Did you have a moment when you felt you had come home in Montreal? What made you decide on that city?
It took a long time to call Montreal my home. I needed to know the city and its culture with the same intensity I knew Shiraz. I learned the culture, the literature, and the politics. I explored the city with its different neighborhoods and attractions, and once I mastered English and French, I grew more at ease. Montreal is diverse and it welcomes new arrivals. I came to love it with a passion, but true love does not happen overnight!
How old were you when you arrived/settled in Montreal? How did you manage, after arriving there penniless? Did you have people to live with?
I had just turned 18 years old when I arrived in Montreal; I felt as if I had wings and could fly because I was finally free. I was able to dress the way I wanted, read the books I wanted, listen to music I wanted and go to school. That new freedom was so meaningful to me that I did not mind that I had to work hard in menial jobs. I took a small apartment, I lived frugally and I saved money so I could return to school. I had been given the opportunity to follow my dreams and if I was lonely or homesick, it was a small price to pay.
How long were you in the desert?
Too long. I was supposed to walk through the desert for only for twenty minutes; it ended up being a march of twenty endless hours, and there were many dramas that evening. When my mother originally proposed that I leave, she warned me that the crossing would either end in relative safety or death, and that if something happened to me, my grave would never be found. It was 20 hours of terror and that was the night that I vowed to myself that if I survived, I would write my story.
How long did it take you to reach safety, and where was that?
It took twenty hours to arrive in Pakistan, then four additional days through the desert to arrive to Quetta, and another two hundred and ten days in different cities in Pakistan until I arrived in Canada. Once I arrived here and asked for asylum I was detained for fourteen days until I was free.
I’m trying to imagine (and can’t) the relief you must have felt once you were safe. Did you have a moment like that, or was it more of a gradual belief that you were finally safe?
Actually I did have a specific moment that I felt safe; a few weeks after I arrived in Montreal, I met a social worker – Catholic, as it happened – who insisted I reveal my religion. I had kept my religion private ever since I left my home in Shiraz. The fact that I told the lady that I was Jewish and she did not bat an eyelash was, to me, extraordinary. She did not look down at me and further, did not find anything remarkable or even distasteful. Brunette? Blond? Jewish? I was first and foremost a human being. At that moment, I felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders. I was free. I was equal. I was going to be fine.
The desert scenes we can picture seem almost impossible to safely cross. Was there anything that made that easier?
When I was going crazy, when fear was challenging me and showing me its hideous face, I surrendered to the prayer that my mother used to recite at difficult times. I had learned it by example, and so, in moments of terror, the prayer came to my lips and saved me from insanity. That made all the difference.
Did your family know and accept?
Once I was in Pakistan and my mother knew we were out of Iran, she invited the entire family to her house and told them we were safe.
What does it mean to be blacklisted from school? Not allowed?
It means that I could not register at the school of my choice. Instead, I was obliged to go to the only school permitted to me. This was an institution run by the Islamic government and absolute conformity was required. Here, I was followed everywhere I went. Each day I was body-searched by three devout women before entering the schoolyard. Further, my knapsack and lunch bag were carefully examined, to the extent that one of the ladies went through each school text as well as my notebook, to verify that I had not written anything or possess any literature that could be connected with freedom.
Before the revolution, the promise had been that the new government would give us freedom, and I wanted them to deliver on their promises. This made me a counter revolutionary. And counter revolutionaries were not considered as human beings in that system. You can imagine how caged I felt, when all I really wanted was access to a library and music.
How many sisters did you travel with? Did you leave family behind there as well?
One sister traveled with me out of Iran and few months later my other sister joined us in Pakistan. The three of us arrived in Montreal together. The rest of my family reminded in Iran until we eventually met in Canada, many years later.
What led you to your current career?
I was always intrigued by how magnificently our bodies worked, and I wanted to work in the health care system. My father suffered from chronic neck pain after an accident, and during the revolution, my stress resulted in serious pain in my arm and neck. My interest and experiences prompted me to pursue chiropractic and wellness.
Many teens are still so young at that age, busy trying to find their place. Where did your courage and maturity come from, that sense of personal freedom in a nation trying to restrain it?
If you have never been hungry, you would not know what hunger is. I longed to read books that were banned. I could not understand why I was not able to read a book, which was not harming anyone in any way. Understand: the books that called to me were hardly controversial by Western standards. I am talking about the ideas of Gandhi, Freud, Jung, and Darwin. I am talking about classical music. When I tell young people that these people were banned, they laugh. How strange to think that these thinkers were so radical I had to run away from home.
During late 1978, my freedom to choose was the most important element of my life; it was like oxygen to my lungs. Imagine the reaction if today’s teenagers were told to cover up, listen to music from a government approved list, and read and think what the government dictated. I bet they would go out of their minds, the way I did.
That is why I encourage everyone to read my book, Fleeing The Hijab, so they can recognize how blessed they are to live in a country where they are free to choose for themselves. In the West, our rights are guaranteed, by the American Constitution and Canadian Charter of Rights. In order to appreciate what we have, we must realize that for many people around the world, the situation is very different. Read my book and come with me as I journey into the past and live again my fight for freedom.
Was it your nation and/or circumstances, do you think, that required you to grow up so quickly?
It was combination of both. In 1978 I demonstrated in the streets of Shiraz, demanding freedom. I was promised that once the Shah left, we would be free. But I was betrayed. I had no idea that the Islamic Government that followed the Shah was to be even worse. I had been lied to, and as a young teenager I was not prepared to acquiesce. The new Islamic government not only refused to give us freedom, they even took liberties away. They decided that all women had to be covered from top to toe, regardless of religion and belief. I was in a constant state of fury, but I had to try to keep quiet or face terrible consequences. I understood that I had demonstrated on behalf of a system that turned out to be worse than the previous. I had been used to bring about an ideology that had nothing to do with my definition of freedom.
I want to share that with our youth and tell them to please be careful when they lend their voices. They have to do more than just read pleasant articles on social media and support every underdog. The stakes are high, the opposition clever, and young people are naïve. Education is key if we are to safeguard our rights and freedoms.
Have you been back to Iran?
No, and since the publication of my book, I wouldn’t even consider going back.
Has it improved? Do you think it is better or worse now, after so many years?
If the government’s ideology is based on the premise that they are the only representatives of G-d on the planet, how can anything be better? They believe they are the only ones who have the key to paradise, so that leaves everyone who does not follow them as dissidents and infidels. The Islamic government may be equipped to silence the masses, but history has proven over and over again that absolute power will fall absolutely.
Do you plan on more books about your life, either in Iran or in Canada?
Yes, there are many more stories that I would love to share with my readers. Iranian culture is rich and the people are open, kind, generous and welcoming. We have a long history and the country is beautiful. No matter how long I will be in my adopted country of Canada, I will always have the poetry of Shiraz running through my veins. You can take the girl out of Shiraz but you can never take Shiraz out of the girl.
What would you say to the women of Iran today?
Follow your dreams and believe in yourself. All loving wishes will come true. I am so proud of my sisters in Iran – my sisters under the skin and of all religions – who are quietly fighting to be heard, in a system that does not want them to have a voice.
Is that the same message you would have for women in other Middle Eastern countries?
Yes. History has given us many examples of women who initiate change, not only for themselves but for their children. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to work for recognition, for the right to be heard, for the right to work cooperatively. It is not “me versus you”, or man against woman: it is all of us working together to create a healthy, peaceful, open world where we can live, side by side, in mutual respect.
This is what I learned by running away from Iran, and this is my message: we are all brothers and sisters and we will live and die on this lovely, little planet. We can either just survive, or thrive. And to thrive, we must cooperate so that each person can contribute his or her unique strength.
Thank you so much for your time and insight, Ms. Goel. Your story in Fleeing the Hijab, is one for teens and adults both. It is inspiring to see the courage and strength that can be found in one so young.
A true account of Sima Goel, the Iranian teenager who crossed the most dangerous desert in the world rather than accept the restrictions of life in Iran of the early 1980s. Her quest for freedom is a thrilling, timely inspiration for people longing to create a life of meaning. It was the last straw!
The Ayatollah Khomeini had decreed that all women in Iran must wear the hijab, whether they were Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or Baha’i. Thirteen-year-old Sima had gone out into the streets of Shiraz to demonstrate for freedom under the Shah’s oppressive rule, and now that he had fled the country, this was the result: a new regime, and a much more repressive rule. The changes Khomeini’s regime forced on the population were totally incompatible with Sima’s ambitions and sense of personal freedom. Blacklisted by her school, unable to continue her studies, mourning the murders of innocent family members and friends, and forced to wear the hijab, she realized she had to leave her beloved birthplace and find a country where she could be free to follow her dreams.
Fleeing the Hijab is a vivid portrait of a dangerous journey made by two teenaged girls through the Iranian desert to Pakistan, where, as homeless refugees, they struggled desperately to find some way to escape to the West. It is a story that needs to be heard and remembered.
Iranian-born Sima Goel has always had compassion for those who suffer. Her instinctive need to speak out against oppression ultimately resulted in unwanted attention from the authorities, which led her to flee her beloved Shiraz and eventually to Montreal.
Sima Goel is a self-made woman. Her journey to freedom, recounted in her memoir, Fleeing the Hijab, A Jewish Woman’s Escape from Iran, reflects her belief that, without freedom of choice, life is worthless. She is a strong advocate for the disenfranchised and the rights of all, specifically the rights of women. With the publication of her book, Sima has fulfilled the promise she once made to herself: to speak out and share her truth that freedom is the most precious commodity of all.
Wellness chiropractor, health advocate, inspiring author and an in-demand speaker, Dr. Goel considers her most important role to be that of mother to her two teenage boys, and wife to her beloved husband.