Few things are as powerful as a simple personal story, especially if that story’s been kept inside for many years. Here’s the story of Sheema and her first love. Sheema’s in her early thirties now, and has moved back and forth between Iran and Europe. We’re grateful she decided to share her story with us.
At the age of 12, although living in a European country, I was very religious. I held the fast, did all the required prayers and added many extra ones. The hidden Imam, the messiah who’s return Shi’a Muslims wait for, was my favorite to pray to. I was fascinated by this mysterious holy man of whom no one knew what he looked like, whether he was married or when he would return. I also attended Persian classes with one other kid, a young boy who became my boyfriend 7 years later. We would cuddle from time to time, but it was all very innocent. We were convinced we would get married one day. He moved away that same year, and being the only Iranian kid left in our class they closed it down.
My parents made me attend an Iranian high school. All the teachers were imported from Iran. It’s there that I met Shireen. Her father was, if possible, even more traditional than mine. Our parents encouraged us te be friends. Her parents wanted her to be more studious like me, whereas my mine wanted me to hang out with more Iranians. At that time I didn’t even like to shop like other girls did. Whenever I needed new clothes my mother would select a bunch for me and bring them to me, while I stayed at home, busying myself with books and prayer. Shireen loved to shop, we would be a great match.
We became great friends, spending every day either at my house or at her’s. It felt like we were two sisters with four parents rather than two friends visiting each other’s houses. We shared everything, even our most intimate talks, all the while hugging and kissing like close friends do. That is, until one day a regular friendly kiss turned into a weird kiss.
Mind you, until then I knew nothing of sexuality or even my own body. My mother hadn’t told me anything and I never cared to find out being lost in my religious interests. It was Shireen who told me a concept like virginity even existed. When some time before I’d had my first period I became incredibly scared, I thought it was some affliction caused by not properly washing my underwear. When in my panic I asked my mother about it all she told me was that up until that moment I had been a girl and my sins had been my mother’s. From then I was considered a woman though, and my sins were my own. I still didn’t know what was happening, but I knew it was something I should hide and be ashamed of. I was instructed how and when to use the restrooms while on my period so that no one would find out. I also learned that I couldn’t attend prayer while unclean, but I also couldn’t miss prayer so people would find out. The compromise was to attend prayer at school, but stand in the back and pretend I’m praying along with the rest.
Finding out about my own body, as well as another’s was an amazing ride. And we didn’t just look at our own. We would go to all the museums in the city and marvel at the statues with exposed breasts and bellies. We would make stories about the sexual lives of the statues. By this time our days and nights were just for each other. And it was more than sex, this was proper love, hour long conversations about metaphysics, the existence of the soul, the meaning of dreams and love.
At school we would snooze and lose the plot of what teachers were telling us, our own parents thinking the poor teachers were to blame. After school was our time to explore the city. We bought underwear together and at one time even matching rings, which we exchanged, like newlyweds. We were only 14 or 15, but we had plans of staying together and raising children.
Once we even went to buy a dildo together. Imagine that! Two Iranian teenage girls, wearing headscarves, shopping at a seedy sex store. I don’t know how Shireen finally got one. Not that we ever used it, this was in the nineties, when most of the vibrators and dildos you could find were hideous monsters, not the sleek women friendly designs of today. Of course since we never dared to leave it anywhere, not wanting our mothers to find it in our room, I had to take it with us where ever I went! I had a bag that no one touched, not even my mother, it contained my sanitary pads and some other bits and bobs. For the longest time it also carried our poor virginal dildo. By the way, getting rid of it was also an adventure. When my parents later wanted to send me to Iran, I finally buried it in a garden in the city. Hah! Think of what future archeologists will think of that, maybe they’ll write of some hopeful soul who dreamed of growing a tree bearing some very interesting and exciting fruit!
It all came to a dramatic end after one of the spring celebrations. Shireen and I had decided to bake sweets for the whole school. It was a big project for which she stayed at our house for two days and two nights. All the time my mother kept getting annoyed at how close we were physically. She wondered about why we kept bumping into each other. At school many of the kids idolized us. We were studious enough, but obviously had great fun together, and now we’d arranged the haft-sin table, the traditional new year spread, and we’d made all these tasty sweets.
After school we ended up at her place. We had a simple and pure night together, enjoying each other’s presence and bodies. We thought we’d gotten away with it again. When her mother decided to check up on us, we’d already put on our clothes and were pretending to sleep. I did have my head on her belly, but that’s innocent enough for teenage girls, right?
Sadly, it was the last night we were allowed to stay together. The irony was that we’d both convinced our parents not to leave the city during the Iranian school and go on holiday trips, but what was supposed to be our time together became shared torment. We were prisoners in the same city, who every once in a while could sneak in a phone call. We didn’t have cellphones or the internet. When the two long holiday weeks were finally over we met again at school, where she cried and told me her parents had decided to send her back to Iran and marry her off.
I remember those days as a period of mourning. I would constantly cry and fight. I did go to the airport to see her off, but of course there we couldn’t show our real emotions. After our seperation we kept writing each other and sending gifts, but no letter or gift ever made it to the person they were intended for.
I didn’t see her again, until some months after my own marriage. It was with the same boy I’d met at the Persian classes when I was a young girl. It was a strange reunion. She had taken to wearing the Chador, the long veil donned by women from very traditional families. As I was showing her my glamorous wedding pictures the memories of our teenage years were coming back. All I could think of was how I would want her to be in those pictures with me. I even told her as much. When I asked her if she’d been with other women after me she told me that she hadn’t, she couldn’t imagine liking a woman as much as she’d liked me.
Many more years have passed since even that reunion. Shireen lives in the States now. It’s funny how both of us have lost religion around the same age. Though we didn’t discuss it at the time, I know we lost it for similar reasons. We felt we’d been the pretty dolls of the family, carrying the banner of tradition. Religion had increasingly become a way of appeasing our parents, and when we started to become our own person our religious identity just started to unravel. I find it beautiful that though Shireen mostly identifies as straight, she’s maybe had one or two one night stands with other women, she still cherishes and openly discuss with me the love and first sexual experiences we’ve shared.
For me it has not been as easy. While I now see that it was real love that I had felt for her, at the time no one had told me that a woman could be attracted to another woman. I wouldn’t have minded if they’d told me and had disapproved, but in my world it wasn’t even something that could exist, let alone disapproved of. For years I had a guilty conscience towards my religion and even towards my sexuality; had I experienced with her what my body had wanted or needed to experience with a boy? Was I only attracted to her because a boy had not been around?
If from the start I had known about the bigger picture I would’ve had an easier life with much less complications. It’s only quite recently that I’ve come to identify as being lesbian.