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Sousan Abadian Addresses the Women’s Assembly

Sousan Abadian addressed the Women’s Assembly at the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, USA.

Good morning, beloveds. My heart feels full as I stand before you, and my deepest gratitude goes to Reverend Phyllis Curott and Dolly Dastoor of the Women’s Task Force for inviting me and making it possible for me to be here.

I begin by paying homage to the traditional spiritual guardians of the land, this land that has provided refuge to me, my family, and many others. We are deeply grateful to them, the original caretakers, and thank them for sharing their bounty with us, our families. And I call upon the wisdom keepers in my own Zoroastrian lineage, those who have gone before me and stand behind me. And I acknowledge myself as one among them in a long line of unbroken line of women lineage keepers. We too have survived against all odds. I thank you for welcoming us here in the name of the most ancient of orders.

May our thoughts, words, and actions be aligned with the highest good for all human and non-human relatives. On September 16th, one month and one day from today, we mark the one-year anniversary of the death of the 22-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa Amini, also known as Jina Amini, who died in a hospital in Tehran, Iran, after being arrested by the religious morality police of the Islamic government of Iran. The movement her death sparked in Iran has been captured by the slogan, “Woman, life, freedom” and its masculine counterpart, “Man, nation, rebuilding.” I will be speaking on a panel later this afternoon devoted to this topic. 

Mr. Khomeini and his lackeys conveniently frame the protests in Iran as an uprising influenced by the West. But this is highly misleading. I’d like to suggest that the Iranian people are reclaiming something from their past. Their embrace of what we consider progressive Western values may be more about a return to indigenous Iranian values and an instinctive drive toward healing and cultural restoration.

I am proud to be part of an Iranian lineage that represents these indigenous values that has for thousands of years recognized and celebrated the value of the feminine and known it to be equal to the masculine, that has upheld the critical importance of freedom of choice and a lineage that has always honored the natural world as sacred and has given humanity the responsibility to caretake the sacredness.

Dina McIntyre, a prominent Zoroastrian elder, has described an earlier time in Iran when Iran was rooted in these traditions. Once upon a time, both women and men served their communities as priests and spiritual counselors, could own property and were expected to be able to take up the mantle of political leadership. Surviving texts, for example, instruct Zoroastrians that when it was necessary for a woman priest to travel, duties should be allocated in a balanced manner between married couples so that neither priestly duties nor family responsibilities should suffer. Women also had an independent control over property, even after marriage. Gender equality extended to governance. And one ancient Zoroastrian text prays, may good ruler, man or woman, thus assume rule over us.

Thousands of years ago, it was taken for granted that women could rule in their own right, and they were encouraged to be just rulers. This call of Zan Zendagi Azadi is not just a remembrance of the past, but a call to a future Iran, free from servitude and oppression. One that will bring together the best of the past with the best of today, a place where every religion, every ethnicity, and every gender will be welcome and celebrated. Whatever faith we identify ourselves as being part of, and Zoroastrian texts teach that every young person is entitled to choose their own faith after reflection.

Iranians can tap into the wellspring of their ancient heritage and live according to its original tenets. “Zan. Zendegi. Azadi.,” and if I could, I would add a fourth phrase to the trio, and that would be “Zamin” or “Earth.” This call “Zan. Zendegi. Azadi. Zamin,” woman, life, freedom, Earth, is not just for Iranians, but for all of humankind, a call for all of us to reconnect to our ancient knowing. Regardless of what religion we identify with now, all our Indigenous wisdom traditions, new of the sacredness of the Earth, cherished the preciousness of life, of being birthed into this gloriously beautiful Earth, not to mention the menstrual blood that makes it possible. Humans were understood as having innate nobility and dignity, and entrusted with the freedom to explore truth in order to spiritually evolve. 

I want to close with a story. In the spring and summer months near Yazd, Iran, where my mother was born, Iranian Zoroastrians make annual pilgrimage to a shrine, a top a mountain, a little oasis in the midst of a stark landscape with a freshwater spring, a cave, and a large tree. For the locals, the stories of the origins of this and other shrines are interwoven with the fate of the last Zoroastrian queen and her daughters during the Arab Islamic conquest of Iran.

The story goes that the invaders were in hot pursuit of the royal assembly of the queen and princesses. Things began to look hopeless, and the party decided to separate and ride toward different mountains to allow for some to escape. The queen, bānbišn in Farsi, rode hard, but she could not outrun her pursuers. About to be abducted, she reached the face of a mountain. Nowhere to go, the Bānbišn called out to God for direction and strength. O Ahura Mazda, wise supreme being. It is said that in her desperation and haste, instead of calling out “Yahu,” a shortened form of “Ahura,” she called out “Yahu Kuh,” meaning mountain. Hearing her distress and in compassion, the mountain opened itself to her and she stepped inside, sealed safely within. Many Zoroastrian elders swear that until recently, a part of her garment was still caught in the rocks and could be seen.

Centuries passed, Iran was overrun, and the queen encased in the mountain was forgotten. But the story of the Bonneau did not end there. It is told that one night, an old blind man resting at the side of the mountain had a dream. In it, a queen came to him and bestowed upon him a miracle. And when he awoke, he discovered that she had indeed given him back his sight. In awe and gratitude, he asked what he could do for her in return. She shared her story and instructed him to build a structure there to commemorate the miracle. The shrine he built has become the annual pilgrimage site for Zoroastrian. It is referred to as “chak chak,” an onomatopoeia word which mimics the sound of the drops of spring water as they fall on the rocks, said to be the tears of the mountain sheds for the fate of the queen and for Iran. And yet the message is clear. Even in the dark times of social blindness, sight can return. 

Iran is a traumatized nation freeing itself from internalized oppression. The land itself is parched in calling for regeneration. Many of those governing it, like the old blind man, have lost their sight. In their myopia, they waged defensive battles against chimeras and succeed only in amplifying the suffering of a majority of Iranians. 

But I’d like to humbly declare that we are living now in the age of the return of the hidden Bānbišn. No longer is the queen encased in granite, she’s embodied in the increasing numbers of Iranian girls and women rising up, shedding internal and external veils to reclaim their sovereignty. As the spirit of the hidden Bānbišn reemerges from her mountain shelter, she brings back lost sight. Iranian girls and women, together with their male allies, are leading Iran and inspiring all of us toward a generative cultural renewal necessary to make all of our communities a force of liberation.

May it be so, may clear sight return. Thank you so much.

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