She was a teenager with a vision of freedom as well as the courage to articulate it aloud during the early days of Ayatollah Khomeini’s brand of Islamist extremism.
After being forced into hiding for speaking out against bigotry, Sima Goel chose freedom over remaining with her large, tight-knit family in the ancient city of Shiraz, and she and her sister embarked on a dangerous hike through the desert to Pakistan.
During the terrifying journey, Goel promised herself, “If I survive, I will write this story.” She accomplished the former, and in 2009 she set a goal for the latter: to write 5,000 words a week for 15 weeks. She accomplished that, as well, and in 2015 her self-published book, “Fleeing the Hijab: A Jewish Woman’s Escape from Iran,” was released.
Now in her early 40s, Goel will share details of her Jewish upbringing in Iran and her harrowing escape at the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks’ Women’s Philanthropy Spring Luncheon on May 3. Also during the luncheon, Naomi Richman Neumann of West Windsor will receive the Woman of Valor award for her service to the community (see sidebar).
Life started deteriorating for Iranian Jews, who had lived in the country for 2,500 years, when Goel was 13. Until then, Goel told NJJN in a phone interview, the Shah had been good for the Jews. “During his time, Jews went to professional schools,” she said. “Women got the right to not wear head coverings, to go to school, and to drive a car.”
For the young teen, a series of events pushed her toward an acute political consciousness, accompanied by a spirit of activism. In August 1978 terrorists murdered more than 400 people by starting a fire and locking the doors of the Cinema Rex movie theater in southern Iran. Then in the fall of 1978, Islamist extremists started burning the homes of people of the Baha’i faith.
“I was hysterical,” Goel said. “If they come for the Baha’i, what stops them to come for the Jews?”
The Jewish community experienced its first sign of danger in May 1979 when its leader, Habib Elghanian, was murdered by a firing squad, having been charged with having contact with Israel, among other crimes. Later, Goel’s aunt was executed because she owned a beauty salon, Goel said.
Adding to the atmosphere of fear was that because the media was censored, it was difficult to get information about what was really happening in their country.
For Goel personally, she was flagged as a “rebel” after an incident in her Muslim middle school, and her status remained through high school. A Muslim student, previously a close friend, said “too bad they didn’t burn your house,” to her Baha’i friend. Goel responded to her former friend with a lesson from the Muslim prophet Mohammad, whose name means “peace and tolerance” in Arabic. “What is the ‘peace and tolerance’ in burning the homes of innocent people?” Goel asked. The chastised teen reported the conversation to the principal, and Goel was suspended for three days. The Muslim student was never reprimanded.
“That was the beginning of the end for me,” Goel said.
When her mother, who raised her three daughters to be strong women, picked her up from school, she said, “‘Good for you; you did the right thing,’” Goel remembered.
Still, her mother was realistic. “My mother always taught me that I lived in a society that being a Jew and being a woman was two times being a minority,” she said.
Goel continued to be on the government radar because of rebellious acts in school — such as her request not to study Arabic, and for writing a paper on an Iranian feminist — and her anti-government actions, including attending demonstrations and distributing pamphlets. Also, the same girl who caused her suspension prevailed upon the principal to transfer Goel and her best friend to a Muslim school in a religiously right-wing neighborhood.
She recounts in her book how her best friend was arrested and never heard from again, and at one point, “a shabbily dressed women I had never met before,” Goel wrote, came to her home and told her mother that Goel was in danger, so she went into hiding.
“I went to different cities. My parents didn’t know where I was, and I was afraid to tell them,” she said, because she feared they might be tortured. When she ran out of hiding places, she returned home for six months. Her mother told her, “This is not a life you are living; this is living death.”
Soon after her mother took her and her older sister, Farah, to a border city, where they linked up with the smugglers who had recently helped Farah’s new husband leave the country.
The trip was dangerous and costly — about $1,000 per person — and success was not guaranteed. “As we were crossing Iran, there were Afghanis marching to come to Iran. If we had been seen and picked up, we would have been raped or killed,” she said. “I was blessed to be able to make it and tell the tale.” Later their younger sister made the trek on her own and joined them in Pakistan.
Goel said a man agreed to hold the money they owed to the smugglers until he got word that they had safely reached their destination, and an Iranian student in Pakistan helped them purchase Turkish passports on the black market.
“There were lots of angels who came in disguise and protected me,” she said.
Regretting that she didn’t say goodbye to her father, who would have vetoed the trip, Goel said, “It was a risk I had to take. If I stayed, I would have died or had an unfulfilled life, or I could get out and take the risk and maybe survive.”
After living in Pakistan for eight months, Goel flew to Canada, with the Jewish Immigration Aid Services helping her get settled and start a new life. She learned English and studied biochemistry at Concordia University, eventually becoming a chiropractor.
“We have so much going on for us in the West and so much to be grateful for,” Goel said. “Maybe by reading the story you will get a glimpse of how lucky we are, how blessed we are to live in this fabulous land; how the whole world looks at us to help them get to the level of freedom we have.”