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This fall’s New York City Marathon was unlike Maryam Naghavi’s 10 previous marathons where she happily blended in with thousands of other runners. On November 6, Naghavi stepped out of the shadows to daringly denounce the dictatorial Iranian government for not only allowing but “blessing” the mistreatment of women.
In deciding to be the voice of Iranian women on such a world stage, she sacrificed any chance she had to return to Iran again to see her family. “The reason someone violates someone else’s rights is fear. I consciously chose not to be fearful anymore,” said the 44-year-old corporate lawyer who now lives in San Francisco.
Naghavi ran the streets of New York City with a red, green, and white striped flag draped around her like a cape. On it were painted strands of black hair and the words, “Women, Life, Freedom,” the battle cry of Iranians protesting the recent death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. The Kurdish-Iranian woman was arrested by Iran’s morality police for allegedly not observing the hijab law which requires women to wear a headscarf. A few days later, on September 16, Amini died in police custody of a supposed heart attack.
“I’m very angry. The most dominant thing that was going through my mind (during the race) is I’m going to show this flag to as many people as I humanly can,” said Naghavi, one of the 23 selected to be a part of NYRR’s Team Inspire.
In Brooklyn, she heard \spectators chanting in Farsi, “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” (women, life, freedom).
At mile 22, Naghavi broke out in tears hearing the cheers grow more intense in support of her carrying the flag out in front of her. “I finally felt heard. I felt relieved that people were listening,” said Naghavi who spent her first three decades in Iran.
Naghavi’s story is one that reflects thousands of abused and oppressed women in Iran neglected by their government. “It’s not a one-off story,” Naghavi said. “This is a repetitive thing that happens in Iran. The government should stop this [abusive] behavior. Instead, it encourages it.”
Naghavi grew up in a lower-middle class conservative family in Tehran, where her father worked for the military. “My dad was incredibly abusive physically and emotionally. He once chased after me with an axe,” said Naghavi. When she was only 9, he broke her jaw during one of the beatings. When she was 17, she was hospitalized after her father broke her skull.
“Every time we went to the police they responded, ‘It’s your dad. What did you do to deserve this?’” said Naghavi. From the age of 9 (when she began wearing a headscarf) until 13 she was sexually abused by close family members. “It was presented to me like it was my fault.”
When she was 17, her parents divorced which allowed Naghavi, her mother, and 7-year-old sister to move away from the abuse. When she was 19, she managed to escape another entrapment: an arranged marriage. A few years later while working as a teacher at the Refinery of Tehran, she was fired from her position for disobeying Islamic dress code.
“They terminated me by calling me one day and saying I should no longer bother coming in,” she said. The new dress she’d worn came up too high, exposing some of her calf which was already covered by her black pants. “For a long time, I thought, that’s just my destiny. I’m going to spend the rest of my life being abused and neglected.”
But when she was 28, something clicked. The man she was engaged to left for Australia and broke up with her over email. “That was the point when I told myself enough is enough. I am not waiting for a white knight to save my life. I will change everything. [But] I did not yet know how.”
A year later, she left Iran to study law in Paris. Four years later, she won a scholarship for further study in Boston, and in 2012, she moved to New York to practice law. It was there, after years working long hours and eating poorly, she started running and, in a sense, breaking free. “I started being a bit kinder to myself.”
Growing up in Iran, she saw no female athletes on TV. “It was taboo for women to move when I was growing up,” said Naghavi who was constantly mindful of her body image and the food she consumed. She was discouraged from walking upright for fear someone would notice her breasts. “[In Iran] you’re always cowering, trying to hide yourself as a woman.”
During the summer of 2014 she took a colleague’s recommendation to start walking a path along the Hudson River for exercise. She progressed to running hills in Central Park. “The wind that I felt in my hair not wearing a headscarf was my motivator. I wanted to find a way to do more of it.” It wasn’t long before she’d signed up for New York Road Runners and started raising money for a charity for her first marathon.
Naghavi admits that for many years she used her professional and academic accomplishments as a band-aid on the trauma she’d experienced in Iran. It wasn’t until she started running marathons that she realized she had unresolved issues to address. “Marathon training requires a lot of being good to yourself,” said Naghavi. While she recognized the trauma wasn’t her fault, she was cognizant she still needed to do something about it.
“I think the only time that you can actually positively impact your life or anybody else’s life is when you know who you are, to know your strengths and weaknesses. You have to look at yourself holistically and say I’m going to use my strengths to overcome my weaknesses over time. Running in particular has helped me do that.”
Naghavi hopes to continue to build awareness by running the Boston or London marathon in the spring. In the meantime, she says it’s critical for Americans to ask their representatives what they’re doing to help the situation in Iran.
Last week, the U.S. announced it will work to remove Iran from the UN Commission on the Status of Women. “The United States believes that no nation that systematically abuses the rights of women and girls should play a role in any international or United Nations body charged with protecting these very same rights,” vice president Kamala Harris said in a statement.
Since citizen groups in Iran erupted in protest against the authoritarian regime in mid-September, the UN has reported more than 14,000 arrests and almost 300 deaths.
“This pot is no longer right for the people of Iran. They have outgrown this way of thinking,” Naghavi said. “This pot has to be broken. We don’t want this regime anymore. They are an illegitimate government. They are not ours.”