Reviewed by Anita Nham
Jacqueline Saper’s From Miniskirt to Hijab: A Girl in Revolutionary Iran (Potomac Books of the University of Nebraska Press, 2019) is a captivating and heart-wrenching exploration into Saper’s life in Iran from 1961 to 1987. Saper tells her intimate story of living in Iran for 26 years, and how she survived its three eras: the monarchy, the revolution, and the Islamic Republic. Through these experiences, she learned to accept who she truly is – a person with multiple cultural identities in a society that doesn’t value her.
As a child, Saper lived a comfortable, carefree life in a Jewish family. Her Iranian father was a well-educated professor teaching at two of the most prestigious universities in the country. Her English mother held a high-powered position with British Airways. The family had four consecutive live-in maids who were part of the family. They helped teach Saper all things Persian, including history, language, traditions, and rules. This education helped acclimate her to Iran’s culture and society. Still, she was considered a doerageh – the Farsi term for a person whose parents are from two distinct nationalities.
Women were not required to wear hijab during Saper’s youth under the rule of the Shah in Iran. Instead, Saper grew up wearing miniskirts and the latest colorful Western fashion trends. She also attended school dances and took classes in various subjects in four languages. As a teenager, Saper obsessed over Elvis Presley, went on weekend trips and long vacations with her family, and hung out with her friends in local pastry shops and bookstores. But things changed during the summer of 1978 before Saper’s senior year of high school.
The major political and cultural reforms under the Shah’s rule led to tensions and animosity toward the monarchy. Traditionalists wished to return to a non-Westernized world, and the civil unrest of the 1979 Iranian Revolution was relentless. Members of Saper’s community and other groups fled from Iran as quickly as possible, leaving all their belongings behind. But Saper’s parents wanted to stick to their roots.
“Dad said, ‘Go abroad? To do what? Things will settle down somehow. They are not going to get their wish by turning to the clergy. Ultimately, they will lose more than they had had before.’ Mom added, ‘It is like opening a Pandora’s box. Who knows what will happen in the future?'”
The Shah was eventually forced out of the country, ending 2,500 years of monarchy in Iran. Two weeks later, Ayatollah Khomeini returned after years of exile in Iraq and France and then founded the Islamic Republic of Iran. Soon, new laws dictated women to wear hijabs to cover their hair and body. History textbooks and curricula were completely changed to focus on Islamic culture, and Western entertainment options were banned.
As the unease and distress continued, one could only wish for Saper and her family’s safety. At 18 years old, Saper was not only adjusting to the new order – she was also a newlywed to Ebi, an educated surgeon, who had to serve at a field hospital in the war zone for one month every year. Under the Islamic Republic of Iran, bias against religious minorities became a fact of life. Saper had the realization she was a true “second-class citizen” when she went to a salon and the hairstylist said, “I do not have any Johud [a derogatory word for a Jewish person] clients here to make my tools najes [unclean, impure]. Everything I use is clean!”
Each chapter seamlessly added more painful details about the growing hardships and heightened dangers for Saper and her family. The stakes grew even higher when Saper became a mother to two children. She now had to protect them from propaganda, while managing the fear of Iraqi warplanes dropping bombs over the city at any time of day or night. Though surrounded by negativity, Saper frequently mentions her continued love for her country. When a bomb hit too close to home, her love for her country wasn’t enough for them to stay. Because of Ebi’s profession, they finally got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to leave abruptly.
This moving memoir describes Saper’s struggle of being a young woman with multiple cultural identities in one of the most turbulent parts of the world. Saper eloquently shows her time maturing from a teenager to a mother of two under Ayatollah Khomeini’s conservative rule. From Miniskirt to Hijab: A Girl in Revolutionary Iran is an insightful and important window to a difficult chapter in Iran’s history.