This week, I lost the most pivotal role model in my life. My grandmother. Ashraf Soufer Yeganeh, or "Maman Ashraf," as we affectionately knew her, was a strong, brilliant and determined Iranian matriarch.
She was ahead of her time for any society and a female maverick in her own.
Even at 85, she understood global economics better than most of the analysts at Bloomberg or Forbes and could give you a better understanding of politics than any book or news report.
She was a true sheerzan, or lioness, the term Iranians use to describe a bold and courageous woman. The irony is that Iranians of her time had a term for a woman of such valor, but no place for her in society.
I have always said that had she been born into a different culture, she would have been among the ranks of Madeleine Albright, Golda Meir, or Rosa Parks. Nowadays she would hobnob with the likes of Hillary Clinton or Condoleezza Rice.
Maman Ashraf sought equality and justice for women and religious minorities, often acting as a voice for the voiceless and a defender of the defenseless.
Without any newspaper or magazine subscriptions or access to anything more than her weekly Persian radio shows, she was an expert on everything and understood the most complex of international issues. But instead of gaining a Ph.D. in politics or economics, her life circumstances made her a master in the kitchen and in child rearing.
She was famous for her ghormeh sabzi (Persian green stew) and dolmeh (stuffed vegetables), but we grandchildren were partial to her impeccably golden tahdeeg (crispy rice).
Just about anything she touched was delicious. We would always say, "even if grandma boils water, it’s just perfect."
She had a gift. She did things with love and passion and one could taste, feel and hear it in everything she did.
From a young age my grandmother’s exceptional qualities of leadership and strength were apparent.
She was such a smart, sharp student that after having only completed sixth grade, they asked her to be a teacher at the school, essentially becoming a mentor to her peers. And this followed throughout her life.
She was a leader and commanded the respect and admiration of everyone she met. With no formal education, she was enlightened.
Without any claims to religious observance, she was the most spiritual soul.
My grandmother was married by the age of 19, giving up teaching to be a full time mother and wife.
Her maternal instincts were so strong, she immersed herself in this role, acknowledging that this was her true calling.
She was selfless, loving and compassionate and did everything for her family and extended family.
She gave birth to three beautiful children, and from the day Maman Ashraf became a mother, she utilized her strength and intelligence to guide her children and create the greatest possible lives for them.
But her compassion and selflessness did not stop at her family.
She lived to do charity work and to help others. Whenever anyone needed to raise money for a worthy cause, a surgery, a fund, my grandmother would lobby from one organization to another organization, even going from one living room to another living room, making appeals to raise money.
When the Iranian Revolution occurred in 1979, my grandmother abandoned the Tehran she loved so much to come to New York, knowing life would never be the same in her native land.
It was hard to replace the beauty of Tehran with her new urban home.
For years, my grandmother would still talk about her love for Tehran, the flowers, the nature, the smell of spring, and the unique taste of its fruits and vegetables.
But even as she settled in a community in Queens, New York, she found plenty of opportunities where she could help others.
As soon as she emigrated to the United States, she began to help fellow Iranian refugees with immigration advice, helping them settle with ease in the U.S.
And soon enough, my grandmother and a few others saw the need for a community center in New York that would meet the needs of its fledgling Iranian expatriate community.
She and a few others founded PARAS, an Iranian cultural center. My grandmother and her co-founders worked tirelessly to cook for fundraisers, and valuing the importance of family and marriage, my grandmother became the community’s most popular matchmaker, proud of the many successful matches she had made.
The community loved and treasured her, often recognizing her dedication on International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day.
From the day I was born, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. Rumor has it, she even offered my mother to take me as a daughter. Regardless, I was her daughter.
I remember as a toddler we would go to the center together, visit the sick together, and organize charity events together.
I loved being her buddy. Now looking back, I realize that she wanted me to be a sheerzan (lioness) in training.
Her method was always tough love. This applied to her children and grandchildren as well. She spoiled us with actions but never with words. Her words were often harsh, and strong, just as her heart was. My grandmother always believed a child’s manners were above all.
But Maman Ashraf’s life was complex. As contented as she was by her children and grandchildren, by the dinners and holidays, she died feeling unfulfilled, and perhaps this is the saddest part for me.
She was an idealist. She had big dreams and real ways and ideas of realizing them, but the life she imagined and the one she was assigned were worlds apart.
She was a resilient matriarch stuck in a society dominated by generations of traditional patriarchy.
Everyone commended her on her courage, on her strength, but her contemporaries did not easily understand her. They would often say, “She should have been born a man,” or “She could work as well as a man.”
I never understood. If there are any should’s or could’s then I think the most appropriate hypothetical would be to wish my grandmother were born into a society and time that understood and appreciated her potential, one that respected her mind and ideas regardless of her gender.
Maman Ashraf saw a lot of herself in me. She would always tell me that. She encouraged me to work, to become educated, and to continue to learn throughout life. She would always remind me... "Agar man mogheyat tou ro dashtam…” (If only I had the opportunities you have…”)
And maybe that’s why she continued to live in Queens, despite its very disparate character to her homeland.
She saw the U.S. as a country full of opportunities for her children and grandchildren.
Every Friday night as I would leave her home, she filled me with enough love and encouragement to send me out the door and followed up with frequent phone calls throughout the week to make sure I ate the food she packed for me.
In reality, Maman Ashraf was fueling me with something much more valuable. Every time I heard her voice, I was reminded of the selfless sacrifices she made in shaping the lives of my family.
She may have not realized her personal dreams, but she did succeed in teaching her progeny the values of courage, self-assurance and most importantly, resiliency. And as I stood by her hospital bed the night before she passed away, I promised her, with my eyes and not my words, that I would continue to carry the torch and to be the lioness she had always wanted me to be.
Rest in peace, Maman Ashraf. You will always be roaring in my heart.