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Author interview'I hear between the lines of what Iran's leaders say'

Miniskirted no more: Jewish woman charts 8 years of oppression under Iran regime

In award-winning memoir ‘From Miniskirt to Hijab,’ Jacqueline Saper explains how watching her 6-year-old daughter don a hijab for 1st grade forced her to finally flee her homeland

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Jacqueline Saper at age 16 in 1977, before the 1979 Iranian Revolution (left), and at age 23 in 1982. (right).
Jacqueline Saper at age 16 in 1977, before the 1979 Iranian Revolution (left), and at age 23 in 1982. (right).

On January 6, 2020, Jacqueline Saper appeared on a PBS Newshour broadcast to comment on the assassination of Quassim Suleimani, military commander of Iranian forces, by a US drone strike. Now, as if to bookend the year, Mohsen Fakhrizdeh, the senior Iranian nuclear scientist, was eliminated (reportedly by Israel) outside Tehran on November 27.

“The assassinations of these two influential men are a massive blow to the regime. Iran can retaliate in many fashions, but it would possibly get more gains by not taking any action,” Saper said.

A writer and speaker, Saper is not a military or political expert. However, she is often called upon to provide her opinion of Iran’s actions based on her unique life experiences that enable her to “hear between the lines of what Iran’s leaders say.”

When Saper was in her last year of high school in Tehran in 1979, almost all her friends and classmates left the country at the advent of the Iranian Revolution. Within months of the overthrow of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi by Islamic revolutionaries, the vast majority of Iran’s 80,000 Jews fled to Israel, the United States and Europe.

‘From Miniskirt to Hijab: A Girl in Revolutionary Iran’ by Jacqueline Saper (Potomac Books/University of Nebraska Press)

Although Saper’s brother was already in the United Kingdom, and her sister and her family hurriedly departed for the US, she was left behind with her parents. Her academic father doubted he could start over in a new country, so they chose to stay, hopeful that the revolution would pass and that things would revert to normal for the Persian Jewish community, one of the oldest in the world.

As a result, Saper is one of very few Persian Jews of her generation to have lived before, during and after the revolution in Iran. Within the span of a few short years, she went from being a university-bound 18-year-old to a stay-at-home wife. She was forced to exchange her fashionable Western clothes for ones that covered her from head to toe, according to the dictates of radical Islamic law now ruling her homeland.

Saper, who managed to escape Iran with her husband and children to the US in 1987, chronicles her unique story in her concise memoir, “From Miniskirt to Hijab: A Girl in Revolutionary Iran.” The bookwon the 2020 Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award for traditional non-fiction and is nominated for the Clara Johnson Award for Women’s Literature.

Saper is one of very few Persian Jews of her generation to have lived before, during and after the revolution in Iran

In speaking recently with The Times of Israel from her home near Chicago, Saper, 59, emphasized that her experiences in Iran differed from her Jewish peers in another key way.

“I was the only bicultural Jewish girl in Tehran, and probably in the whole of Iran at the time,” Saper said.

Saper’s mother Stella is an Ashkenazi Jew from England. She met Saper’s father Rahmat Lavi in 1947 at the University of Birmingham in the UK, where he was a foreign student in the chemical engineering department. To the dismay of Stella’s family, she agreed to marry Rahmat and move to Tehran with him.

An infant Jacqueline Saper with her parents Rahmat and Stella (née Averley) Lavi in Tehran, 1961 (Courtesy)

“It wasn’t just my mother’s parents who thought this was a tragedy. My father’s family was shocked, as well. Persian Jews didn’t marry Ashkenazis. It was never done,” Saper said.

Stella never managed to learn Farsi, and gave her children English names (Jacqueline, the youngest, is named for American first lady Jacqueline Kennedy). She socialized  mainly within Tehran’s ex-pat community, and unlike other Jewish mothers, she worked full time outside the home.

While Stella was employed by British Airways at Mehrabad International Airport, little Jacqueline was cared for by local Muslim maids. This turned out to be beneficial when she later had to adapt to her new life in the Islamic Republic.

“I learned from these maids about Islam, how to behave around Muslims, and how to talk to them. I learned from them the Islamic salutations,” she said.

Saper’s bicultural upbringing also included long trips every summer to England to visit relatives.

Jacqueline Saper’s mother Stella Lavi (left) working at Mehrabad Airport, Tehran, 1973 (Courtesy)

“When I was at home with my friends, I was 100% Iranian. And then when I was in the UK with my grandparents and cousins, I just shifted to being English,” she said.

“This learning early on how to adapt helped me a lot later on when I had to learn to live in post-revolutionary Iran, and then later when we immigrated to America,” she added.

According to Saper, the close knit Persian Jewish community — although it prospered and contributed to Iran under the Shah — kept a low profile. She, like other Jewish children, went to the Jewish day school in Tehran, rather than to a school with Muslims.

“I was always on guard. We were a minority,” she said.

During the revolution and under the Islamic Republic, Jews felt even more vulnerable.

I was always on guard. We were a minority

“It was much more difficult to be a Jew than an Armenian or Christian (although being Baha’i or Zoroastrian was even worse). I had to always separate myself from Israel and deny having ever been there. I had to say that Zionists were bad,” Saper said.

Jacqueline Saper’s father Rahmat Lavi (center) with his students at the Ettefagh Jewish Day School, Tehran, 1956 (Courtesy)

After the revolution, it was illegal to express one’s Jewish identity in public. Saper writes of her mother-in-law sadly burying a favorite gold coin pendant at the foot of the pomegranate tree in her garden. It had the symbols of the 12 tribes of Israel one one side and the likeness of Israel’s first president Chaim Weizmann on the other.

Saper married her husband Ebi, a surgeon originally from Isfahan, when she was 19, a move her family supported as an extra safeguard during the uncertain period. Together, they moved to Shiraz, where he practiced at a prestigious university hospital.

In Shiraz, Saper quickly discovered that they were the only Jewish couple or family living in the comfortable compound reserved for hospital staff. She purposely never mentioned that she was Jewish, and although she might hear an occasional off-hand anti-Semitic remark, she built strong friendships with the women around her.

Jacqueline age 8 (front row, right) on group tour in Israel, 1969. Her mother Stella and sister Victoria are in back row (circled). (Courtesy)

When the eight-year Iran-Iraq War (also known as the First Gulf War) broke out in September 1980,  Saper’s husband initially cared for war wounded that were flown into Shiraz, the closest large city to the front.

“They would bring in jumbo jets of something like 300 wounded at time. The hospital was overflowing. Then for one month at a time every year Ebi would be sent out to serve in field hospitals on the border. There were bombardments all around, and he saw the effects of the chemical weapons Saddam Hussein used. I honestly never knew if he would come home,” Saper said.

When Ebi was at the front, Saper would run to bomb shelters at night with her children, or she would fly back to relative safety in Tehran. By the time the young family escaped Iran, the bombings had reached the capital, as well.

Jacqueline Saper with her husband Ebi and children at Bandar-e Bushehr (on coast of the Persian Gulf), 1985 (Courtesy)

As hard as Saper and her husband tried to adjust to life in the Islamic Republic, it was ultimately the sight of their six-year-old daughter in a hijab as she headed to first grade that made them realize that they had to get out.

The family gained asylum in the US based on a claim of religious persecution, and eventually settled in Chicago after an initial stint in Houston. Saper was finally able to pursue high education, becoming a certified public accountant. She also works as an educator, speaker, writer and translator. Her parents were finally able to leave Iran in 2001 and settled in Los Angeles.

Jacqueline Saper’s daughter in Iran, 1986 (Courtesy)

Saper often takes the opportunity to educate Americans about Iran, which she finds few know much about.

“Until the US invasion of Iraq under president George W. Bush in 2003, many people mixed up Iraq and Iran all together,” she said.

“Most people who read my book remember the hostage crisis and the Ayatollah Khomeini, but do not know the region. That part of the world is confusing,” she added.

When asked, Saper shared some of her political views with regard to  Israeli policy toward Iran. She said she thought Israel has done well to preemptively protect itself from Iran’s threats in a way that has not been overtly confrontational.

Like the Israeli government, she is not in favor of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran nuclear deal) completed toward the end of the second Obama administration, believing that the Iranian regime could not be trusted to use the money it would gain for the benefit of Iranian citizens.

“I knew the money would be directed to their proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen,” she said.

Jacqueline Saper (Bekig Joassaint)

Saper is pleased to see that today’s Iran is different from the one she left 33 years ago. She is hopeful that the country’s overwhelmingly young population, raised in a more globalized world, will bring about reform.

She said she was buoyed by laws that have already been changed to reverse legal discrimination against women. It looks like women could be able to run for president, and Iranian women married to foreigners are now allowed to pass their Iranian citizenship on to their children.

“And with hijab, when I was in Iran it was very strict. One strand of your hair [showing] could get you arrested… But look at hijab today in Iran! It’s colorful, and instead of going down [on the face], it is going backward on the head,” she said.

Knowing that many Iranians oppose the regime, Saper would love to see more change, including Iran-Israel relations eventually reverting to the kind of positive ones that existed prior to the revolution, with Iran benefiting from Israel’s advances in water technology and the like. But she doesn’t see that happening.

“I doubt Iran’s leaders would ever do anything to jeopardize the regime’s stronghold on power,” she said.

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