Roya Hakakian, a writer, documentary filmmaker and journalist, will deliver this year’s annual Diane Markowicz Memorial Lecture on Gender and Human Rights at Brandeis University on Tuesday, Feb. 27. Sponsored by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, Hakakian will aptly address, “Iran’s Unfinished Revolution: What Began in 1979 Continues Today,” on the eve of Purim. A Hadassah-Brandeis Institute scholar-in-residence, Hakakian will also intersperse her own story with groundbreaking developments for women in Iran.

Hakakian was born in Tehran in 1966 into a prominent Jewish family. She chronicled her childhood in Iran in a critically acclaimed memoir, “Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran.” Just 12 years old at the outset of Iran’s Revolution in 1979, Hakakian writes with verve and heart about how the Revolution eventually uprooted her life. By the time she was 19, she and her family came to the United States with the help of HIAS. But first there was a yearlong layover in Vienna, during which Hakakian and her mother lived with other Iranian women refugees.


“I haven’t written very much about that year,” Hakakian recently said in an interview with JewishBoston. “My memoir ends in 1984, and when I arrived in the United States I started to learn English immediately and went to work.” Hakakian recalls grasping English by taping her college lectures and listening to them closely as she transcribed. “My goal for those first few months was to figure out when the sentences ended,” she said.

For her upcoming lecture, Hakakian will explore the long-term effects of Iran’s 1979 Revolution on both the country and her life. She observed that 1979 was the beginning of “a long process of trying to bring about a fundamental change to the country and to its governing system. I was there in 1979 and saw how the Revolution changed the country, the region and in many ways the entire world.”

Hakakian further noted that the Iranian Revolution changed the notion of radical and religious extremism. “Islamic extremism,” she said, “follows from that incredible event that took place in Iran.” According to Hakakian, the Revolution was a continuation of the change Iranians had been demanding for over a century. That desire for change has now given way to women engaging in what Hakakian described as “stunning acts of civil disobedience” as they remove their hijabs or head coverings in public. She reported that women have been quietly taking their scarves off as they ride the subway or videotaping themselves as they walk in the park without their hijabs.

According to Hakakian, most women demonstrate by taking the hijab off and then standing silently on a bench. They hold out the scarf, which is usually white, as a sign of protest. Despite a number of arrests for removing their hijabs in public, the women peacefully continue their non-violent rebellion, often with the support of men. “I have thought for a long time, and what is happening now confirms it, that Iranian women are truly the most avant-garde of Iran,” she said. “They make up the most progressive force in the country.”

In a recent opinion piece published in The New York Times, Hakakian noted that it was not a coincidence that women in Saudi Arabia insisted on the right to drive cars as the women next door in Iran were removing their hijabs. She wrote: “One way to view the Middle East quagmire is that it is less a byproduct of mismanaged economies or radical religious views than a problem engendered by entrenched misogyny. The differences that distinguish Iran from Saudi Arabia, including the Shiite-Sunni divide, vanish in light of what they have in common: Their women live under abject conditions.”

Hakakian remains an optimist. She predicts that women’s activism in the Middle East will continue to have a butterfly effect. “The forces of good in Iran, whose image is completely captured in the image of women standing on benches waving white scarves, will lead to a democratic change in the country, and we will all benefit,” she said.

Find more information about Roya Hakakian’s lecture here.