Your rights could be taken away rapidly. I know because it happened to me

Updated 1:30 PM ET, Wed November 10, 2021

Marina Nemat is the author of two memoirs, "Prisoner of Tehran" and "After Tehran." She is the recipient of awards for her writing and human-rights related work. Nemat is a fellow of the Renew Democracy Initiative's Frontlines of Freedom project. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)I was 13 years old when the Islamic Revolution toppled the Iranian government in 1979. Though I was a Christian living in a largely Muslim country, I had never felt discrimination because of my faith.

Marina Nemat
My grandmothers had escaped the 1917 Russian Revolution and fled to Iran in search of freedom. And to a certain extent, they had found it. My father had become a successful ballroom dancing instructor in Tehran and taught Muslim couples the cha-cha and the tango. My mother was a hairdresser who styled fashionable Muslim women's hair. And I had grown up wearing bikinis on the shores of the Caspian Sea, while partying with my Muslim friends.
The revolutionary leaders promised to expand social freedoms, grant political ones and build a democracy. They used our grievances against Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, to win our trust and gain power. But as soon as they assumed office, the few personal liberties we had enjoyed vanished and a strict Islamic law was put in place.
In less than a year, women's rights to self-expression were stripped away: dancing, singing, holding our boyfriends' hands in public and wearing bikinis all became largely forbidden activities. A few priests from my Roman Catholic Church, all of whom were foreign nationals who had lived in Iran for years, were deported, and several of the properties that belonged to the church were confiscated.
The irony was that a few of my Christian relatives had trusted Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic revolutionary leader, and celebrated when the Shah was forced into exile. Now, they, like me, were paying the price.
Though Iran's transition from a nation of limited social rights to one of virtually none may seem like a distant reality to those living under democracy, the truth is that it is not.
If Western democracies are not on guard, their citizens can fall prey to the same kinds of leaders who now control Iran's political infrastructure. The revolutionary leaders were populists who promised to return power to the people after decades of monarchical rule, and for many disenfranchised voters in democracies who feel their elected officials have ignored their struggles, the populist messaging can have quite a strong appeal -- even if it is just a ploy.
But the risk is not only in losing civil or democratic rights, but in being punished for challenging the authority figures who have stripped citizens of those rights.
After 1979, our accomplished teachers were replaced by fanatical young academics, many of whom were members of the newly formed Iranian Revolutionary Guard. They spent class time spreading the government's propaganda and trying to persuade us that the regime's fanatical rules -- like forcing all women and girls over age 9 to wear the hijab -- were for our own good. They argued that we had to dress modestly so that we would not attract unwanted attention from men.
At the time, I told our principal that I was a Christian, so the new Islamic rules of modesty should not apply to me. She responded, "You believe in the wrong religion." I was politically naïve, but I was also aggrieved, having experienced firsthand why freedom of religion mattered. I attended protest rallies to express my frustration with the new religious laws that limited or attacked the rights of Iranian women.
Speaking out against the regime, in any shape or form, was now considered an act of war against God -- the penalty for which could be death. And, in January 1982, the Revolutionary Guard arre