Empowerment through storytelling

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s now famous TED Talk, titled “The danger of a single story,” resonates with me much more than it did in the past. I’ve seen this video twice – once in a Leadership seminar during high school and again in my African American Studies freshman seminar last week at Cal. Adichie talks about the danger of having only a single story, about race or ethnicity for instance, that’s out in the public or in the media. You can (and should) watch her talk here.

Now let me take you back to the last two weeks of February. I’m in a comparative politics class that talks about and compares developing, developed and (post) communist regimes and countries. Two weeks in a row, there were readings about Iran. The first week, there was a reading from Robin B. Wright’s book Rock the Casbah (Chapter 4 – “A Midsummer’s Eve”), amongst others. The second week, our only reading assignment was the entire book My Life as a Traiter: An Iranian Memoir by Zarah Ghahramani.

When I flipped to Wright’s reading in my course reader, I was visibly shocked and delighted- finally!  I thought. A reading about Iran! What a surprise! Wright spoke about the Iranian Green Movement of 2009, recounting it and more information about the regime through the story of Neda Agha-Soltan, the woman who became an symbol of the Green Movement after being shot in the street. The reading brought me to tears. It was so beautifully written and emotional, personally for myself because I’m Iranian. It was about my country.

We talk about each week’s readings in discussion every week. I was more than excited to talk about Iran in section, to talk about how I was watching the events unfold with my family on the TV, miles and miles away. I wanted to tell this story to my peers. I wanted to tell them that this shit affects my people, my family who live back home. It fucking affected them and it’s a REAL story that deserves credit and discussion and empathy.

We didn’t talk about it.

“The article is very similar to the other two Arab Spring readings we had about Syria and Tunisia.” How is the Green Movement…. how is Neda Agha-Soltan’s death….. similar to the events in Syria and Tunisia? Each one of these events deserves its OWN time in class. So why did Iran’s get pushed to the curve when we talked about Syria, Tunisia, Russia, China, and Zimbabwe that week? Tell me.

My classmate visibly saw my face fall when I received that answer about the lack of attention brought to Wright’s reading in my section. I was LIVID. I called my dad, let that shit slide after a long rant, said I would write a blog post about it. It’ll be fine next week dad, we’re going to read a WHOLE BOOK on Iran. We have to talk about it. Don’t we?

We didn’t.

A whole book. 200+ pages. The only assigned reading that week. “It was a memoir, didn’t really have an argument, mostly just personal narrative. We’re gonna focus on preparing for the midterm instead.”

The midterm is a valid argument. I can see why that’s important, why we need to go over how to prepare for it. But…? Nothing about Iran? Nothing about Zarah Ghahramani‘s gut-wrenching story about surviving her time in Evin Prison…nothing? That’s disrespectful. I find that disrespectful. Not even a 10 minute summary/discussion about it? Nothing?


I called my dad again. Ranted about how academia pushes Iran to the curb. How our stories are never told. These two weeks were the CHANCE these stories COULD be told and discussed in an academic setting, but they weren’t.

Our midterm review had a prompt about Iran on it as well. I wasn’t surprised when it wasn’t picked for the test itself. I’d given up on hope. The week of Ghahramani’s reading, I walked out of my section and said to my classmate that I was not surprised that we didn’t talk about the book, only disappointed. Disappointed and angry out of my mind.

Which gets me to Adichie — I have my AFRICAM seminar midweek, and by this point my anger had dissipated to a small ball of fire. I was back to living my life like usual, Iran on the back burner. Then we watched the TEDtalk. However, this time Adichie struck a different cord within me. I was suddenly given a phrase that encapsulated why I’m so angry about my political science class: “the danger of a single story.”

I’m angry because not talking about these other sides about Iran PERPETUATES its single story narrative of oppression and censorship, of violence and naked coercion, of authoritarianism and theocracy. While this single story may be true, as Adichie says in her talk, it only tells one story.. it creates a stereotype that all of Iran is like this, but that’s simply not true. The readings highlight these stories but also tell other ones. I’ll get to that later.

Even I have thought in the mindset of a single story when it comes to Iran, especially when I was younger. There aren’t women’s rights and that’s why it’s oppressive! Being forced to wear a headscarf and long coats while we visit, even in the summer, that was so oppressive to my younger self. My dad always said that I wasn’t looking at the situation clearly. While lack of equality is definitely a factor, it’s not Iran’s whole story. There are so many Iranian women doing great things, in and out of Iran – Maryam Mirzakhani and Leila Araghian to name a few. There are multiple stories that just need to be told! And arguably, when they’re told, more women will go out and do great things because they’ve been inspired by these women that are like them.

The two readings tell the stories of Iranian people’s passion for individual rights and determination to demonstrate to get their point across. I think that’s inspiring and beautiful, and I think it needs to be discussed. Without the discussion, people will think of stereotypes about oppressive Islamic regimes when thinking about Iran. I know that for fact, I’ve dealt with comments and frankly it’s really annoying and uncomfortable.

Look at the world we live in today – Trump’s unreasonable Travel (Muslim) ban for instance. It bans people from Iran and 5 other Muslim majority countries from traveling into the United States, which further perpetuates Islamophobia within the nation and in the world. It punishes citizens for governments’ actions. I think talking about these different countries is so valuable and important to everyone who is able to read about them. Let’s TALK about these stories. Let’s educate each other. Let’s EMPOWER each other.

This was a chance for people to discuss stories that defy the projected norm in today’s society about the country of Iran. Yes, the country and the government is deeply flawed, but the people are worth celebrating. The Iranian people deserve a voice; they deserve to be heard, supported, and amplified.

I was so thrilled to read Wright and Ghahramani’s writings, then so crushed to have them disregarded in section. I understand (vaguely – I’m really trying here) the reasons why they were left out of discussion, but I’m not okay with it. I hope this post explained why.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Adichie’s talk:

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”


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