Oscar Wilde’s famous words went, Be yourself, everyone else is taken. It isn’t always easy to be oneself: but to Elaheh Zohrevandi, being anyone else but who she really is, is not negotiable.
A writer, teacher, biologist and an activist, Elaheh puts one identity of hers at the foremost: that of being a woman. Ela has a Bachelor’s degree in cellular and molecular biology, and is an earnest and passionate fighter for causes that are closest to her heart. Her parents married when they were still very young, and were still poor when they had Ela. She grew up without the fancy things that some of her peers were used to –having been raised by a mother who inculcated in Ela the attitudes of tolerance and prudence, she grew up believing and knowing that women are powerful. As a small girl, she believed in herself simply because everyone around her believed in her.
Firmly rooted in the understanding that her shortcomings were her strongest points, life’s curveballs were never too much of a challenge for her. Ela was dyslexic and hyperactive as a child, often with a short attention span, easily forgetful of the real world. She was ambidextrous, even, sometimes ambivalent about which hand she had to use for even simple tasks like drawing. Ela was born when the Iran-Iraq war ended, but the country was still recovering and health and education was not of good quality. In that backdrop, getting an IQ test or evaluating a child with ADHD to a specialist was not something her parents could afford. Consequently, Ela attended school dealing and coping with the small yet very challenging things in life. Her life passed in a dream, as she saw herself aspiring to be a teacher - an instructor or a bit of help to children and people like her.
Ela went on to take up a degree in cellular and molecular biology at the University. At that point, she decided to teach at an NGO in downtown Tehran, one of the poorest districts of the l city. Most of the children and teenagers there are Iranian and Afghan child-labourers, children with substance-addicted parents, or abused children. Ela began as an English teacher but the children made her someone more than just a teacher. She became close to most of them and got to know their world. Life was much different in the eyes of a child-labourer.
Always observant and analytical of every situation happening around her, Ela always questioned gender inequality, wondering why it was that men were always gentlemen but women were always inferiors; that straight people were normal but homosexuals were nothing but the side-effects of the human factory. This drove Ela to begin putting her questions down through writing, especially fiction, memoirs and short stories that speak of Equality and Human Rights. Being a woman affected her life a great deal but in a very brilliant way. To Ela, being a woman means being real.
Living in a rather reserved country, where one cannot quite speak her mind if what she’s saying is against the government’s policies, Ela decided that her work would speak of reality, but through fiction, novels and fantasy stories. The first story she published in print was a very subliminal reflection of one’s life in her country.
The lack of freedom in speech made writers like her restrict their creativity to fiction. Ela was chosen for two years in a row, in 2011 and 2012, as one among the annual list of the top ten Best Young Writers, by Hopewell Publications. It gave Ela the confidence of stepping into a whole new world. Ela also chanced upon an opportunity to work with Delta Women through the UN Volunteering system, an experience that gave her many wonderful friends. In 2012, she won a Presidential Award which pushed her towards seeing herself as a more effective person.
The most confusing and unresolved issue in Ela’s life has always been Gender Discrimination. Working and living in Iran, an Islamic Democratic country, Ela naturally expected things to be different for men and women. But, she found that there was no such a thing as “acceptance” for people with different belief systems or religions, people with different sexualities or people with different opinions.
Ela’s unshakeable faith in herself turned out to be an obstacle in her personal and professional life, for people outside of her family were not very kind and accepting.
When she entered university, Ela was a young woman with big dreams. But then she saw herself changing: as her peers expected her to be in conformity with what they thought was normal. She was being anorexic, moody and confused, and life was not easy at all. The only things that saved her were her Family and the people she worked with. Ela met such extraordinary and friendly people in Delta Women, she could not see herself anywhere close to being different from any of them. She decided that she would never stop believing in herself – for life would be fabulous for her, with the never-ending efforts of the people she had the opportunity to know, and the ones she will meet in the future. she resolved that she would never stop being herself.
When she once travelled to the United States, at the airport, she was interviewed by an officer. During the whole 20 minute conversation, it was obvious that he was treating Ela like a second-rate citizen. But she did not retaliate rudely. The smile on her lips never disappeared. She did not let him put her off. She instead talked to him for 10 more minutes and in the end, he was not that same aggressive officer trying to belittle her, but was one human being talking to another human. Today, Ela is confident that he will never treat people the way he treated her that day.
At Delta Women, Ela manages and produces the monthly E-zine. She gets emails and phone calls from people saying that her magazine has made a huge change in their lives. Contributors of the magazine have stories from their past that keep haunting them every day and when Ela publishes their stories, they make their peace with their past and that is the biggest outcome of her work. As a teacher, Ela has tried to be more of a friend to her students, and is a great listener. Even when she cannot do much to help her students, she is there for them by just listening to them
Ela’s biggest strength is the lack of regret for the decisions she made. She tries to appreciate every mistake she makes, and never blames her creation. Every girl faces an endless list of challenges towards the path of becoming a woman – all of which are real. Ela always carries a picture in her head: that all beings, the dead and the living, burn down and vanish and nothing is left in this universe except the feminine element of the world which is “the power of creation”. This element functions in a very feminine way: it creates everything from the very atoms within itself. This is what being a woman means to Ela: a very real existence.
To Ela, winning something big doesn’t mean what she does is big enough. She always fancies the idea of standing in the city centre and looking around her, to be able to find everyone happy, satisfied and full of hope and love. She dreams of a world with no hate. Any activism has its own priceless value, and to Ela, writing is no exception. The power of words is not negotiable. Words are silent, hidden beneath the lines and when they are read by a human, they make their impact. They change that person for ever and a change of heart is a change in this world. The power of words is always there. It never disappears.
Firmly rooted in the belief that one is not defined by how others treat her, and that mistreatment happens because fears exist, Ela understands that most people do not trust the power of love. While we hate, fear and despise, we never try to love. Even when we taste love, we tend to hate it.
As making the bold boundaries of hate invisible is not a global issue, but a personal one, Ela understands that she should just be herself, and respect the next person for being herself. She remains an all-time warrior, crusading boldly for causes close to her heart.
Written byKirthi Jayakumar
Kirthi Jayakumar is a lawyer, activist and writer based in Chennai. She has worked extensively with grassroots organizations and runs the Red Elephant Foundation, an initiative for women’s rights. She also runs a journal and consultancy that focuses on International Law,called A38.