A Sacrificial Light: Self-Immolation in Tajrish Square, Tehran

A Sacrificial Light: Self-Immolation in Tajrish Square, Tehran

by Martha Shelley

“MY SISTER ENDED HER LIFE AS AN ACT OF PROTEST against the way the Islamic Republic is treating Iranian women, especially the educated ones.” Parvin Darabi talks softly, as though the Persian tongue has sanded over the rough edges of English. But her voice wells up with passion when she speaks of conditions in her native land. “The situation is so degrading and so painful and so terrifying that many women don’t feel any way out. The general discontent among Iranian women is rising. The suicide rate has increased drastically.”

Parvin’s sister, Homa Darabi, M.D., had been politically active since her student days. In 1960, relates her sister, Homa was briefly imprisoned for protesting against the Shah’s regime. In 1963, she married a classmate and, after graduating from the University of Tehran Medical School, practiced in a rural village.

Dr. Darabi obtained a residency in pediatrics in the U.S., where she lived for nine years and took on U.S. citizenship. But in response to family pressures to serve her country, and also to repay the cost of her education, she eventually went home to Iran as one of the nation’s handful of child psychiatrists. She was appointed director of the child psychiatric clinic at the University of Tehran.

A fervent nationalist, Dr. Darabi initially supported the 1978 revolution. She was one of two women who met with the new prime minister, Abolhassan BaniSadr, to present a list of women’s demands. Like many Iranians, she believed Khomeini’s promise that after the Shah was deposed the exiled cleric would return to the holy city of Qom and leave government to the secular politicians. Instead, he established an Islamic Republic that has stripped women of almost every right they had obtained in the previous decades.


“Not because the boys are better, but because women suffer more. One worries about their future; one wonders into whose hands they will fall.”

Shusha Guppy, The Blindfold Horse: Memoirs of a Persian Childhood, Beacon Press, Boston, 1988.

In 1979 Khomeini decreed that all women must wear the Islamic dress (hijab) at work. Dr. Darabi refused, and for a long time her unique status protected her. Then in 1990, the government transferred her to Iman Hussein Hospital. Its director, one of Dr. Darabi’s former students, was a strict fundamentalist who insisted that she wear the full Islamic hijab, according to her sister. Dr. Darabi refused, saying that it was too difficult for her to examine a patient while she was swathed in so much material. As a result she was dismissed from her position. She took the case to court, but the judges, who can deliver a death sentence in a matter of minutes, took four years to decide her case.

Like most Iranian physicians, Dr. Darabi had a private practice in addition to her work at the hospital. But the terrors of the revolution intruded into her home office. Parents would come to her saying, “My daughter was arrested for wearing makeup and sentenced to 150 lashes. I beg you to write a letter certifying that she is mentally incapacitated so they won’t punish her.” The letters saved the girl from flogging at the cost of destroying her future; she would always be considered insane, and unsuitable for marriage. Dr. Darabi had two daughters of her own living in the U.S., notes her sister, and these incidents tortured her.

“She has a chicken as a companion. Whenever she can, she lays her fleshy body down and from a bag in the corner, takes out some Millett and pours it over her chest. The chick peeks at her white and tender skin with rapidity. Her heart dances with the happiness and under her breath she whispers endearing words to the chicken.”

Fereshteh Moulavi, “Rooz-e Khan-e Piran,” -Pari-e-Aftabi, Nashr-e-Ghatreh, Tehran, 1991.

The regime began concerted harassment. Government agents made phony appointments. One in Darabi’s office they harangued her for hours, demanding to know why she didn’t wear the hijab. They refused to pay for the “appointments.” Darabi believed her patients were harassed as well because they stopped coming for treatment. Unable to make a living, she closed the clinic.

For years, Dr. Darabi had urged her sister, Parvin, an engineer living in California, to come home and help reconstruct her native land. Now it was Homa who wanted to leave. In 1991, Parvin traveled to Iran and asked Homa’s husband for permission to take her out of the country so she could start a new life. “In front of my entire family, the man turned obnoxious,” she says. “He told me that Iran was an Islamic Republic and he owned this woman, that I was nobody and my mother was nobody and there was nothing we could do. And he was correct. Under Islamic rule, a woman has no rights. And this is what bothers me the most, the feeling of helplessness.”

In January 1994 the government finished construction of a psychiatric hospital for children, which had been designated under Dr. Darabi’s instruction and to her specifications. They asked her to return to work as its director, as long as she followed their rules. Dr. Darabi refused.

“My willfulness was her despair. For Persian daughters were supposed to be meek and self-effacing and I was a contradictory square peg in her smooth round notion of what a real girl should be. Naturally, the necessity of making sure that nobody ever said the wrong thing was a constant strain on my mother’s temper, which was normally frayed anyway.”

Sattarch Farman Farmaian with Dona Munker, Daughter of Persia, Crown Publishers, NY, 1992.

On the tenth day of Ramadan, February 21, 1994, Dr. Darabi, who now rarely left her house, got dressed to go out. She put on her ropoosh, a long overcoat considered an acceptable substitute for the chado. She tied her headscarf, tucking every strand of her hair out of sight, and got into her car. On that day, especially, she was apparently determined not to be stopped by the pasdaran (revolutionary guards) before reaching her destination.

Dr. Darabi drove to the local gas station and asked the attendants to fill her tank and a spare can. Then she drove to northern Tehran, to a plaza in an upper-class neighborhood.

Tajrish Square is incessantly noisy and crowded, even during Ramadan. The surrounding streets are residential, but the plaza itself is lined with offices, small shops and fruit stands. A loudspeaker from a nearby mosque broadcasts prayers and ritual lamentations. Many bus routes come through here. At each stop there are two lines, one for men and one for women, who must travel in separate vehicles, except on larger buses where women ride in the back.

Dr. Darabi was familiar with the neighborhood. Her brother-in-law lived there. Sometime before, a girl of 16 or 17 had been shot in this square in a skirmish with a overzealous guard who had stopped her for wearing lipstick.

Dr. Darabi stopped her car and walked to the center of the plaza. It was 3:00 p.m. Passersby stopped, frozen, as she tore off her headscarf and emptied the gasoline can on her head. She began to shout at the top of her lungs, and her voice rang out over the noise of the traffic, over the wailing of the loudspeakers. “Death to oppression! Long live liberty!” Then she lit a match.

Homa Darabi died at 1 a.m. the next day, leaving one less physician to tend to the needs of the Iranian people. About 10,000 people attended her funeral, according to her sister.

The news was first broadcast outside the country on Israel’s Farsi-language radio, then on the BBC. The Iranian press was silent until much later, when the regime portrayed Dr. Darabi as mentally ill. (Suicide by fire is not uncommon in Iran; on the same day that Dr. Darabi committed suicide, a 14-year-old girl set fire to herself to escape a forced marriage with a 44-year-old man.)

“Once you have children you just sit and bear it, whatever it is.”

Shusha Guppy, The Blindfold Horse: Memoirs of a Persian Childhood, Beacon Press, Boston, 1988.

In California, when Parvin heard the news she sent a press release to the U.S. television news shows, but there was no coverage of the event. “When I called them, they told me that this story wasn’t sensational because I didn’t have a picture of my sister burning in fire. I was really shocked and humiliated.”

Aghazi No (New Start), a Farsi-language journal, reports there have been public memorial services for Dr. Darabi in a number of U.S. and European cities. Like South African funerals before the end of apartheid, these commemorations became political rallies. Instead of observing a moment of silence for Homa Darabi’s death, mourning were asked to clap in celebration of her life.

Martha Shelley is a freelance writer and radio journalist in Oakland, California. Parvin Darabi invites people interested in working for human rights in Iran to contact her at the Homa Darabi Foundation, 11200 Donner Pass Road, #176, Truckee, CA 96161.

I want him to press me against himself.
Squeezing the lovesick me,
Curling around my being, twining tight,
those powerful, tender arms.
In the folds of my hair and neck,
whirling the breeze of his breathing.
Drinking, drinking me until I join,
with my bitter river to his ocean.
Wild, burning thirsty and trembling,
the unyielding, playful flames,
Overtaking me, overtaking me tumultuously,
My ashes remaining in the bed.

Forough Farrokhzad, Majmouse-Asha’ar, Desire and Night, Navid, Germany, 1989.