In the Name of Sisterhood, Kate Millett Finds Herself in the Eye of the Storm in Iran

UPDATED 04/02/1979 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 04/02/1979 at 01:00 AM EST

It was Sunday morning, and an uneasy calm had settled on strife-torn Tehran when two plainclothes officials demanded to see the occupants of Room 1012 at the Hotel Inter-Continental. Down to the lobby came U.S. feminist author Kate Millett, 44, and Canadian journalist Sophie Keir, 35. Flashing a badge, one of the men told Keir to go up and pack their bags at once—no questions asked. "I was dumbfounded," Millett recalls ingenuously. "I'm a pacifist. I hadn't done anything illegal."

The authorities, however, were adamant. Leading the pair out of the hotel by a back entrance, they drove them to immigration headquarters and locked them in a room under armed guard. Anxiously, Millett scrawled the phone number of an Iranian feminist contact on the inside of her shirt cuff, then scribbled over it for fear it might be discovered. "The men were very angry and menacing," she says. "They kept saying they were going to take us to jail. We begged them not to. We feared what that could mean. We didn't know if we would come out alive."

For Millett, arrest marked the inevitable denouement of the mission that had brought her to Iran two weeks before. Traveling under the auspices of the Committee for Artistic and Intellectual Freedom in Iran, an organization she helped found seven years ago, she flew to Tehran to demonstrate her concern for the rights of Iranian women. "I was there as a friend," she explains. "There was never a question of me organizing anything. I don't even speak Farsi."

Though her arrival was virtually ignored by the press, Millett was warmly welcomed by Iranians she had known in the U.S. They were increasingly concerned, she found, about the direction of the revolution that had toppled the Shah. Under the leadership of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the new government had abolished coeducational schools, revoked a law that allowed wives to divorce their husbands and had warned working women to return to the veil in public or lose their jobs.

Angrily, protesters scheduled a small rally for March 8, International Women's Day. "To their utter astonishment," says Millett, "thousands of women showed up." They gathered at the gates of Tehran University, and as their number grew they surged through the streets, variously clad in high heels, jeans and a smattering of the traditional chadors. "Nobody organized them," Millett points out. "It was amazing. But you have to remember that these women had just been through hell and fire to reassert democratic values."

In the days that followed, Millett appeared at two press conferences and took part in demonstrations at the ministries of justice and foreign affairs. During one march, through Tehran's Freedom Square, some 20,000 women were surrounded protectively by 1,000 men, who linked arms to ward off attacks by fanatics armed with knives and acid. "To be together with men like this was really super," says Millett. "It's what you always hope for. There was a tremendous sense of mutual admiration."

That sense was not universal. "Either you cover your heads or we beat your heads!" Muslim hard-liners screamed at the demonstrators. Several women were beaten, and a few were stabbed. "It began getting totally hairy and terrifying," says Millett. Edging away from the crowd, she and Keir were surrounded by more than a dozen men shouting abuse, but managed to stop a private car and escape.

As the protests intensified, Millett and Keir kept moving, staying at different women's homes every night. ("It became dangerous for people to harbor us.") Then, on March 15, they were told that the government planned to deport them. Though the news was premature, the women immediately checked into the Inter-Continental—both to avoid jeopardizing their friends and to let the authorities know where to find them. They did not want to risk a confrontation.

Realizing her hotel phone was tapped, Millett carried on some conversations in code, resorting to a combination of symbolism ("double wedding" for the number two) and Roman numerals. Surveillance was so crude, she says, that government agents eavesdropping on the telephone would sometimes clumsily drop the receiver.

After their arrest, the women spent a sleepless night in a small room at immigration headquarters, where Millett wrote an account of her experiences in a notebook. She was allowed to receive one call from a journalist. As she was led to the phone, she heard people muttering "lesbian" behind her (Millett is an avowed bisexual) and remembered that homosexuals were being executed elsewhere in Iran. Of her 24-hour confinement she says: "You couldn't treat human beings more scurrilously or more sadistically without resorting to physical force."

Finally the women were put on a plane, but not told where they were going. After takeoff their passports were returned, stamped to insure that they could never enter Iran again. The flight's destination turned out to be Paris, where Millett arrived trembling and close to tears. "At the end," she confesses, "I couldn't wait to get out. Maybe my name got me expelled. Maybe it kept me alive. But what is going to happen to Iranian women is the question. They can't get on a plane. That's why international sisterhood is so important."

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