It’s hard enough being a woman in the Middle East, but what if you are also disabled?
Now in her 80s and living in California, Minou Soumekh Michlin has recently published her memoir, ‘I kept walking’.
She grew up in Tehran, the daughter of a large and protective Jewish family. Hers was an upper-middle-class childhood during the ‘golden age’ under Reza Shah Pahlavi II. Her father Agha Jahn had made good in the Tehran Bazaar and her elegant mother, known simply as Maman, belonged to the first generation of women to benefit from education at the Alliance Israelite Universelle, although she married aged 13. The family had servants and spent lazy summers away from the big city.
It was at the age of three that Minou contracted polio, then a widespread and little-understood disease. Maman refused to let her daughter be defined by her twisted ankle and foreshortened leg. She was sent to the best schools, even ballet classes. Minou wore the best clothes, her feet stuffed painfully into the most fashionable shoes. Her parents sacrificed time and money to improve her quality of life, putting her through two bouts of surgery in Israel.
There were setbacks along the way – as when her brothers felt acutely embarrassed by her participation in an open day relay race.
Maman did everything for Minou to become ‘the best she could be’. She does indeed grow into a well-educated and compassionate young woman, eager to help the poor and disadvantaged of Persian society.
But when Minou reaches marriageable age she begins to doubt her mother. Why does Maman find every potential suitor wanting? Is it because she has decided that her daughter’s disability is a permanent stigma on the family? Is it because she has decided that her daughter will never marry that she was determined to encourage her to be self-sufficient?
Society in Iran is not yet ready to accept strong, independent women. It is only when Minou moves to the US and undertakes therapy that she eventually finds her feet. She forges a career as a professor of social work and finally meets a man who values her for her qualities. She fulfills her dream of marriage and children.
Beautifully told with the help of Gali Kronenberg, ‘I kept walking’ is the triumph of will over adversity in an age where rigid social and cultural norms constrained the lives of women.