The deaths of two beautiful, intelligent young women would be tragic in any part of the world. However, the death of Ladan and Laleh Bijani, the Siamese twins whom doctors attempted to separate on July 8, carries an especially strong symbolic message for Iranians.
The twins’ operation in Singapore was reported minute-by-minute in Iran, and mourning for their death was universal. The sisters seemed to embody the flowers they were named for— Laleh, the tulip, sweet and retiring; Ladan, the nasturtium, bold and spicy. Media attention made their personalities well known to the many who watched breathlessly through their operation.
The public attraction in Iran went beyond personality. The sisters were seen as noble for risking their own lives for the chance to be free and independent. The idea of achieving freedom— spiritual and political— runs deep in Iranian life, and is frequently expressed as a “longing,” an almost palpable need.
But it is not just the notion of risking one’s own life for freedom that is important in Iran. What really captured the Iranian imagination was the idea that one sister might be sacrificing herself for the other.
The idea of sacrifice is deeply engrained in Iranian life. It is the highest ideal one can express toward another person— the ultimate expression of affection. Letters are signed with the closing, “May I be your sacrifice.”
The idea that separation of the twins could result in the death of one for the sake of the other was seen as a tribute to the sisters’ nobility and strength of character. Iranians see the greatest sacrifice as that of Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Mohammad, who died in Kerbala in 680 A.D. at the hands of the enemies of the Shi’a Muslim community. All personal sacrifices— including the twins’— are ultimately related to the death of Imam Hussein.
For young people in Iran today, such a sacrifice is being weighed daily as student protests rage against a government that many feel to be restrictive of personal freedom and ambition. Ladan and Laleh’s bravery is an inspiration to those young women and men.
Then too, the reasons why the sisters sought independence were themselves an inspiration. Laleh wanted to pursue a career as a journalist. Ladan desired a career in law. For obvious reasons the sisters could not easily pursue the same course of study at the same time. Laleh acquiesced to her sister’s desire to study law, putting aside her dream of a degree in journalism and getting a law degree herself.
What one almost forgets in this modern age is that for young Middle Eastern women in many nations, such careers were not possible a generation ago. Ladan and Laleh’s optimism and faith in themselves and their ability to pursue these careers were stunning. It should put many over-privileged Western young people to shame.
The two sisters came from Firuzabad, a small town in Southern Iran. Born into a poor family, they were adopted by the family of a physician in Tehran, who raised them to be the exquisite young women they came to be. Despite their modest origins and physical limitations, they managed to have a full life— a fine education, many friends and relative good health. In their lives and achievements they showed that even with an astonishingly restricting handicap, they could achieve personal success. In so doing, they embodied the highest ideals of modern Iranian women.
Their desire to undergo the dangerous operation flew in the face of the advice of their relatives and other authority figures, including Ayatollah Khomeini, who advised their father in 1976 not to allow the procedure, claiming it was contrary to the will of God. Thus their bravery was an assertion of their own ethical path, their own course. This is not the view that much of the world has of Iranian women, who are frequently portrayed as helpless victims of male hegemony.
Ironically then, in death, Ladan and Laleh have given inspiration to many: hope to women who dare to pursue their own course in life; courage to those who contemplate self-sacrifice for the good of others; and support for all who have the courage of their own convictions, flying in the face of even the most formidable authority. Their story has quickly attained legendary status. It will not be soon forgotten.
William O. Beeman is director of Middle East Studies at Brown University. He has conducted research in the Middle East for 30 years, and is author of “Language, Status and Power in Iran,” and the forthcoming book: “Double Demons: Cultural Impediments to U.S.-Iranian Understanding.”