Tammy Darvish at her home in Potomac, Md. A portrait of her father, John Darvish Sr., hangs above the mantel. (Amanda Voisard/For The Washington Post)

In 1987, Tammy Darvish was on top of the world. At 23, she had a thriving career in the family car business, working alongside her father, a man she adored. She was an enthusiastic big sister to her three half-siblings. And, after four years of dating, the love of her life had finally proposed.

“Oh my God,” she recalls. “I was so excited.”

A few months into the engagement, her dad asked her to dinner — just the two of them, a rare chance for time alone in an otherwise relentless schedule. He took her to Raindancer, a seafood restaurant on Rockville Pike. She was upbeat and a little nervous: Did he want to talk about her job? The wedding? Maybe he wanted her fiance to join the company? She had no idea.

“I want you to give the ring back,” she says he told her. “Tell him we’re not interested.”

Tammy remembers being stunned as her father calmly continued: It wasn’t the right time. They had a business to grow. Marriage now would be a distraction.

She was devastated, but “I didn’t argue,” she says now, “because I would have never argued.” She promised to break the engagement.

It was the first of many sacrifices she would make over the next three decades as she put her father’s happiness ahead of her own, she says. John Darvish Sr. had two local dealerships when she started working for him in 1984; he now owns 22, worth an estimated $400 million. Working 12-hour days, Tammy became the public face of Darcars Automotive Group, one of the largest car dealers in the country, and a top female executive in an industry dominated by men. Her father, she says, promised that one day she and his two sons would inherit the company and run it together.

Then, a year ago, she was blindsided again. Her father handed the company over to his sons, John Jr., 42, and Jamie, 39. Tammy kept her title as senior vice president but says she was asked to clean out her office and stay away from the dealerships.

Nothing personal, said her father: “This is business.”

“I think they knew I would be very hurt, very mad, but do what I always do,” she says. “Turn the other cheek.”

But for the first time in her 51 years, Tammy says, she fought back.

She sued them.

Tammy Darvish and her father, John Darvish Sr., at Darcars in Baltimore. (Courtesy of Tammy Darvish)

There are so many questions, and Tammy will be the first to tell you that she doesn’t have many answers.

She doesn’t know, for instance, whether her dad willingly chose to cut her out or whether he was pressured. She has no idea why or when things went sour with her brothers. Was it last year, when her father started formalizing plans to transfer stock to all three of them? Or sometime before that, when she thought they were all on the same team? Although she was more experienced and more involved with day-to-day operations, she had no problem with sharing the company with her brothers, who had both worked in the dealerships for the past 15 years.

Or maybe it’s about money? Tammy is the product of her father’s first marriage; John Jr., Jamie and a half-sister are from his second marriage, to Judy Darvish.

Of all the friends, professional colleagues and current and former Darcars employees interviewed by The Washington Post, not one could offer a definitive explanation for Tammy’s ouster. Many believe it happened primarily because she’s a woman. “She knew the business inside out and is probably the hardest-working person I ever met,” says a former Darcars manager who asked not to be named because he’s still actively involved in the local car industry. “If she was a male, she’d be president.”

But Tammy was never one to lean in. She bent over backward. She believed that if she worked hard enough, played by the rules and trusted her father, she would be rewarded one day. This is the other road of feminism: not marching forward but being stopped in your tracks by a final, intolerable outrage.

John Darvish Sr. and his sons declined multiple requests for interviews, citing the pending litigation. Tammy says he promised her one-third of the business; in his legal response, Darvish Sr. moved to dismiss the case and called his daughter’s claims “pure fiction.” A family representative released this statement:

“Darcars has always been about family and Tammy’s lawsuit has been painful for the entire Darvish family. Last March, Mr. Darvish began implementing a comprehensive succession plan, which appointed John as CEO, Jamie as COO and Tammy as SVP of Darcars. Mr. Darvish felt this was an equitable arrangement for his children and the best decision for Darcars, its employees and customers. Unfortunately, Tammy chose to publicly reject her father’s plan, and resign from her Senior Vice President position at Darcars, by filing a lawsuit. As a parent and grandparent, Mr. Darvish loves his children and grandchildren and continues to support them in every way he can.”

A year later, Tammy is both broken and defiant. She’s running late, as usual, for an interview. Her brown hair is swept back with her trademark headband and her suit is slightly rumpled. Her tone is no-nonsense and almost brutally honest, especially as she struggles to understand how she ended up here — once the good daughter, now furious and willful — and why she was so completely under her father’s sway.

Even now, after everything that has happened, there’s only one thing she knows with absolute certainty: “Swear to God,” she says, “I don’t know of any daughter who loves her father more than I love my father.”

Tammy Darvish at her high school graduation in 1981 with her father and her brother John Jr. (Courtesy of Tammy Darvish)

Tammy Darvish at work in 2009. After joining her father’s company in 1984, she fell in love with the car business and learned every aspect of it. (Kevin Clark/The Washington Post)

John Darvish Sr.’s first job in the United States was working in the cafeteria at Elon University in North Carolina. The young pre-med student from Tehran had planned to become a heart surgeon, but he fell in love with selling cars. His father gave his blessing, with one caveat: “Don’t be just a car salesman. Go out there and be a Henry Ford.”

It would be 15 years before Darvish bought his first dealership, and three decades before his company reached No. 31 on the Automotive News list of top U.S dealership groups, with revenue topping more than $1 billion a year. In 2012, he was inducted into Washington’s Business Hall of Fame. His only indulgence: a 130-foot yacht dubbed Tsalta (“At last” backward), based in Annapolis.

But first, he was just a used-car salesman. There was a short, turbulent first marriage that ended when Tammy and her twin sister, Terri, were 4 years old. Bonnie Darvish moved to Chicago with her daughters; their father remarried the day after the divorce became final and had three more children.

There wasn’t much money, so she worked two jobs and the twins were latchkey kids. They visited their dad for a couple of weeks in the summer and at Christmas but rarely saw him — he was at the dealership day and night.

Still, Tammy adored him “without question,” her mother says. The marriage had been bad, the divorce worse, but she wanted the girls to know him — less for his sake than for fear that they would hate her if she kept them apart.

At 17, Tammy graduated from high school and begged her father to let her move in with him in Maryland. “I just thought if I was with my dad, everything would be perfect,” she says. “There’s a mom and dad together and a house. There are kids and they play together and they’re not lonely. There was a stability there.”

What’s striking about that time is her lack of ambition. Unlike her twin sister, Tammy never considered going to college. Her life plan? “I just wanted to get married and do nothing.” She loved being the cool older sister to her half-brothers and half-sister, who were still in elementary school. She worked at the dealership during the summer and spent a semester at community college. Then her father sent her off to Northwood University in Michigan, to the only automotive management program in the country. Her grades were abysmal, and she wasn’t much interested in cars.

But she had what she calls her first life-changing moment after she was hit by a van and suffered two broken legs. The accident forced her to stop moving and think about her life. She decided that she wanted to be a better person. She went back to school, took extra classes and earned a four-year degree in two years. By the summer of 1984, she was back in Washington and working for her father.

Even though she had a management degree, he started her at an entry level, selling cars. “You have to be a salesman until you’re salesman of the month for two months in a row,” she remembers him saying. She hit that goal in her first 60 days, she says, selling more cars than anyone else on the lot. She was 20 years old.

It was the first step in a lifelong quest: trying to do something so spectacular that her father would be forced to say, “I am so proud of you.” That never happened, she says — not then nor during the next 30 years. But she fell in love with the job and began learning every aspect of the business.

She was also in love with the perfect guy, the Iranian American son of a friend of her father’s. When he proposed, she felt that her life was falling into place.

Then came that crushing dinner and the broken engagement. The two dated secretly for another year, but her boyfriend finally called it off for good. “It was just too much for him,” Tammy says, adding that she never asked her father to change his mind. “I was afraid he would not love me and he would send me away.”

Rose Bayat, her college roommate and best friend, tried to talk her out of returning the ring. “To this day, I’ll never understand it,” Bayat says. “It’s the perfect example of how she lived her life to please her father. He’d say jump and she’d say, ‘How high?’ ”

It was seven years before she fell in love again, this time with another Iranian — engineer Hamid Fallahi, who understood that her father came first, then work and only then her personal life. Theirs is a traditional marriage with a modern twist: Tammy became the breadwinner who worked nights and weekends. Hamid, who oversees construction for Darcars properties, was home for dinner when the kids came along.

The first time she got pregnant, she worked 10 days beyond her due date, until her doctor insisted on inducing labor. Instead, she had to have an emergency C-section. When she finally woke up, only her brother John was in the room. “You had a baby girl,” he told her. She thought he was teasing; she had convinced herself that she was having a boy. Her first thought: “I bet Dad’s really disappointed.” She took three weeks of maternity leave.

There was a second pregnancy, about 18 months later, but it ended with a miscarriage after five months. She was angry — at herself, at the job, at all those long hours on her feet. “It was a very bad time,” she says. “I think it was probably the first time in my life when I started to reevaluate.”

Did anything change? “No.”

She got pregnant once more and went into labor with her son during Labor Day weekend, one of the busiest in the car business. She asked her doctor if there was any way to delay the birth for 24 hours so that she could go to work.

Tammy Darvish had long been the public face and spokeswoman for Darcars. (Courtesy of Tammy Darvish)

Chances are, you’ve seen Tammy somewhere, in a Darcars commercial or a news story about the car industry, or at an event for business or for one of the dozens of charities she supports. For years, she had been the public face of the company: the woman who personally answered every single ­e-mail sent to tammy@­darcars.com, the first female chair of the Washington Area New Auto Dealers Association, a board member of the National Automobile Dealers Association. Last year, she was named Philanthropist of the Year by the Community Foundation in Montgomery County.

She personified the new look of the industry: young, independent, female. Women buy more than half the new cars in the United States and influence up to 80 percent of all auto purchases, according to industry surveys. Tammy was a walking billboard.

According to her lawsuit, she ran day-to-day operations and served as gatekeeper. “There’s no way anyone could get to my father without going through me,” she says. They were so close that she knew what he was thinking, what he wanted — she says this included buying all the birthday and anniversary gifts for his wife and children, and organizing family holidays and big company parties.

Both father and daughter were well respected by the dealerships’ employees — they were always on the sales floor, their office doors open, free to chat. She remembered birthdays and brought cupcakes to the dealerships on July 7, Darcars’ anniversary. But she was also a demanding boss who acted and sounded like any male executive. “There was no grass growing under her feet — and no BS,” says the former Darcars manager.

But that confidence evaporated with her father. He kept her off balance, criticizing and bullying her one moment and asking for her advice the next, said former employees.

Following the General Motors and Chrysler bankruptcies in 2009, Tammy took on her biggest public fight: a national campaign against the federal government to protect car dealers. The government allowed automakers to close more than 2,000 underperforming dealerships as part of their reorganization plans, a move that put several family-owned locations at risk, including three of her father’s properties. “I didn’t want him to die being labeled a reject,” she says.

She teamed up with a local competitor, Jack Fitzgerald of Fitzgerald Auto Malls, and Chicago’s Alan Spitzer to form the Committee to Restore Dealer Rights, which successfully lobbied for a law giving dealers the chance to fight closings in arbitration. Tammy chronicled the battle in her book, “Outraged: How Detroit and the Wall Street Car Czars Killed the American Dream.”

“She’s very good,” Fitzgerald says. “She’s very astute and very aggressive, and some men don’t like that in a woman.”

Fitzgerald has known her father for decades and Tammy since she was a little girl.

She’s a lot like her dad, he says: very intense, passionate about the car business.

“I don’t know her brothers,” he says. “I never see either one of them at things. Tammy has always been the one running the business with her father.”

Tammy Darvish at a Darcars dealership in 2007, when she was elected the first woman to chair the Washington Area New Auto Dealers Association. (Kevin Clark/The Washington Post)

John Darvish Sr., now 78, took the first formal step to secure his succession in January 2014. As sole owner of the company, he signed a stock purchase agreement giving Tammy, John Jr. and Jamie each 5 percent ownership and the power to manage day-to-day operations by unanimous vote, according to court documents. When he gave them copies to sign, the brothers demanded a majority vote instead, which would effectively give them controlling interest. The agreement fell through, and Tammy now believes that’s when they began pressuring her father to cut her out of the business, a charge her family denies.

On a Monday in March 2014, an e-mail went out to all Darcars managers. Tammy was taken aback; she usually called meetings and had no idea what this one was about. She called her father. “I’m going to make some changes,” she recalls him saying, and he asked her to meet that night at his Potomac home. Tammy brought her husband, and they sat down with her father and stepmother. Her father explained that he was turning over management to the boys. It’s just titles, he reassured her — it doesn’t really mean anything. She didn’t believe him.

She didn’t go to the office the next day, or to the managers’ meeting where John Sr. read from a prepared statement naming John Jr. the new president of Darcars and Jamie the chief operating officer. Tammy would remain senior vice president, he said, and run two of the company’s dealerships.

By the end of the day, John Jr. had contacted the managers of those locations. His father, he explained, had misspoken: Tammy would not be running any dealerships. He and his brother also made a YouTube video introducing themselves to employees. “As some of you know,” John Jr. says, “Darcars is entering a new era of leadership as Jamie and I have accepted new roles within the company.” There was no mention of Tammy.

She says her father asked her to clean out her office because her brothers thought that it would be distracting for customers to see her, but he said that he’d continue paying her “until we sort this out.” What “this” meant was unclear — she hadn’t been fired and she hadn’t resigned.

Her father, she says, told her, “A year from now you’re going to thank me.” Her brothers urged her to move forward for the sake of family unity.

A family spokeswoman says it’s true that John Darvish Sr. originally planned for all three children to inherit the business but denies that Tammy was forced out; she remained as senior vice president until she filed suit. The succession plan changed when it “became apparent it was impossible to find a plan that all parties approved of.” The spokeswoman said that, as owner, Darvish Sr. felt he needed to act: “It was time to make a decision, and he made a decision” — formally promoting his two sons.

Tammy kept it all a secret from her daughter, who was away at college, and from her teenage son. Every morning, she got dressed and left the house before he woke up, just as she always had, and left again before he came home from school. It was two months before she admitted the truth, because “I didn’t want my children to be angry with my father.”

Kathy Kessler Overbeke, a research fellow at Case Western Reserve University, says that fewer than 1 in 5 daughters end up running family-owned companies. Even if they’re qualified, it’s very rare to see women in charge, especially in traditionally male-dominated industries.

It’s not a lack of love, Overbeke says, but that powerful gender norms persist: Fathers believe that sons have a right to take over, where daughters don’t. Some believe that customers and employees won’t trust a female chief executive as much as a male. And some women are welcomed into the company until a male family member becomes interested, whereupon they’re marginalized or squeezed out.

“If the daughter is usurped by the son, that’s culturally acceptable,” Overbeke says. “But if a son is going to be usurped by the daughter, that’s really bad.”

Tammy Darvish with her husband, Hamid Fallahi, daughter Nadia and son Nima. (Courtesy of Tammy Darvish)

Tammy says she agonized for months about filing the lawsuit. For the second time in her life, she had time to stop and think.

At first she was just devastated and missed her dad. “It’s hard,” she says, “because I was used to seeing him almost every day.”

She would wake in the middle of the night, convinced that she had just had a terrible dream. She still talked to her father, but never about business, she says, and had dinner with her brothers only once and hasn’t talked to them since.

Then, finally, she got mad. It was crushing to be personally humiliated in front of her co-workers and her husband, but in her mind her father and brothers had stripped away her children’s future, too. All the plans and all the sacrifices — the late nights, the weekends, the missed PTA meetings and soccer games — had counted for nothing, she thought.

In January, she sued. In the pleading filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court, Tammy says that she helped build Darcars into one of the most successful car franchises in the country and that, over the past 15 years, her father had repeatedly promised to give her and her brothers equal ownership and equal control. She claims that after her father drafted the formal stock agreements, John Jr. and Jamie pressured him to disavow his promises to her and give them control. The lawsuit seeks damages equal to one-third of the company’s value.

Her father was “really hurt” by the suit, says his spokeswoman. He and the company responded with a motion earlier this month, saying that John Darvish Sr. never pledged to give her an equal share of the business, that nothing was ever put in writing, and that “her characterization of her father’s succession plans is pure fiction.” They have asked the judge to dismiss the case in its entirety.

Jamie Darvish talks with Darcars employees in Fairfax in 2009. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

In February, Tammy started a new job at Pentagon Federal Credit Union, as executive vice president in charge of business development and government/community relations. A longtime professional buddy — someone she met at a charity dinner — persuaded her to accept the position. It has been a revelation to be treated as an equal, she says.

“I’m so fortunate and blessed to have a man recognize that this is somebody with talent who has a lot to give.”

Her lawsuit is being followed by everyone in the car industry, with special attention to how it might change Darcars’ reputation among the big automakers, who want “peace in the valley,” says Michael Charapp, a lawyer who specializes in family businesses. “That’s why most of these cases settle before going to court.”

Regardless of the outcome, he says, he’s seen many families come back together after the business issues have been resolved.

The first hearing is in May.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Tammy says. “But at the end of the day, I’m going to know I’m not a coward, and I’m not a hypocrite.”