Women's Rights & Movements in IranLife for women in Iran beset by fate, culture

Life for women in Iran beset by fate, culture


Washington Times: Growing up female in Iran, Layla did not know happiness. At age 13, her family sold her to a man who forced her into prostitution. At 18, she was arrested and sentenced to death for adultery, while her pimp only paid a fine. The Washington Times

By Margaret Coker

TEHRAN — Growing up female in Iran, Layla did not know happiness.

At age 13, her family sold her to a man who forced her into prostitution. At 18, she was arrested and sentenced to death for adultery, while her pimp only paid a fine.

In contrast, Shadi Sadr, an Iranian lawyer, was raised with the world at her feet. When small, her parents encouraged her education. As a young adult, she was free to travel and marry a man whom she loved.

These women’s different fates aren’t unusual in Iran, an Islamic republic of 70 million people, where on the same street some women run businesses while others walk anonymously behind their husbands, waiting to speak until given permission.

In Iran, women can drive, vote and own property. They also can be legally independent from male relatives — a status that is rare in the rest of the region, where the male-dominant tenets of Islam and tribal culture often subjugate women.

Yet Iran’s legal system also codifies traditions that confer second-class status for women. A woman’s testimony in court is worth half that of a man’s. A girl is considered an adult under the law at age 9, but the age for boys is 13. The laws also deny women equal rights in divorce, custody and inheritance.

But Layla’s story — a young woman forced into prostitution and condemned to death for it — is extraordinary in how it turned out.

Her fate changed two years ago, when Ms. Sadr, a crusading lawyer on women’s rights in Iran, walked into her cell and saved her. Today, Layla lives in a women’s shelter, ready to start a new life at age 22. Her family name is being withheld at the request of the shelter where she lives, for fear that people from her past might seek retribution for telling her story.

Layla’s ruddy face carries an easy smile, and the sparkle in her walnut brown eyes offers no hint of the harshness of her past.

“When I was little, I didn’t have any dreams for my life,” said Layla. “All my life, people hurt me … until Shadi came. Now, each day is better than the last.”

A Persian proverb says: If fate doesn’t adjust to you, adjust yourself to fate. It has been used to console women — and resign them — to the harsh realities of life in Iran. Ms. Sadr and her colleagues want to banish this proverb from everyday life.

Growing up chattel

Layla grew up with her parents and two brothers in a three-bedroom home in Arak, an industrial city about 120 miles south of Tehran. She helped her mother around the house, a task that her father told her made it impossible for her to attend school.

Her father rarely worked, a situation typical for families in the crime-infested, working-class town. To get money, Layla’s parents sold her to a man who they knew wanted to prostitute her, Ms. Sadr and Layla’s social workers said.

For a father to sell his daughter is legal in Iran if done in the form of a marriage contract. At the age of 13, Layla became the legal wife of her pimp.

The cultural and legal traditions of Iran left her no way out. Girls are raised to obey their fathers. Once married, women have to obey their husbands. Judges, no matter the circumstances, usually side with the man in cases related to domestic disputes, said lawyers practicing civil and domestic law.

That was Layla’s predicament when police arrested her at 18, having survived two pregnancies and the trauma of having to give up both babies. Authorities charged her with prostitution and adultery.

While awaiting trial, Layla tried to defend herself against the charges. She told stories of incest at home as a child and physical brutality from her husband.

“My whole, life nobody listened to me, no one understood my problems, and no one believed me when I told them the terrible things that had happened. Everybody judged me and thought the sexual abuse was my fault,” Layla recalled.

When he heard her accusations, the judge decided she was responsible for seducing her brother. He sentenced Layla to death by stoning — the punishment the Koran commands for both adultery and incest.

A different life

Ms. Sadr, 33, decided to become a lawyer because stories like Layla’s were too close for comfort, even for someone with her privileged and independent life. Most university students in Iran are women. Parliament has a small but consistent number of elected female members. Women excel in all fields open to them: the arts, education, business, law.

Behind many of these successful women are tales of female relatives whose yearnings were quashed by tradition or religion.

For Ms. Sadr, that person was her grandmother, one of the first girls in Iran allowed to attend school in the 1930s, thanks to a decree by the monarch and reformer Reza Shah Pahlavi, who ruled Iran until his abdication in 1941. His son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, ruled Iran until he was overthrown by the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Ms. Sadr’s grandmother completed sixth grade and dreamed of becoming a teacher or midwife. But Ms. Sadr said her great-grandfather forced her grandmother at age 13 to marry someone more than three times her age, consigning her to a life as a housewife.

Ms. Sadr didn’t want her life to turn out like that, and doesn’t want such a fate for her daughter Darya, 7.

“My grandmother wasn’t allowed the life she wanted. I was lucky. I achieved everything, but the struggle was still hard. I didn’t want the dearest person in my life to have the same troubles,” said Ms. Sadr, a petite woman with spiky, dark hair and a strong voice.

Ms. Sadr spent years as a muckraking journalist before going to law school — a career switch prompted when the government shut down the reformist newspapers where she published unflattering stories about the treatment of women within the Islamic system.

For the past three years, she has operated a pro-bono legal service helping dozens of women. She has secured the release of eight women from death row after their adultery convictions were overturned. Her cause has not been easy. Ms. Sadr has spent time in prison, including a recent three-week stint for organizing women’s rights demonstrations in Tehran.

Practicing law, the odds are against her, too.

Soon after the 1979 revolution, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a prohibition against female judges. Ayatollah Khomeini said that a woman’s brain was not developed enough for such decision-making. Female justices — including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi — lost their positions.

The male clerics who now run the judiciary interpret laws more harshly against women, said Ms. Sadr and other human rights lawyers.

“It’s a monopoly of power,” she explained. “They have a mentality that is very traditional, and a bias against nontraditional women. It’s a constant struggle for justice.”

Saving Layla

In 2004, a friend told Ms. Sadr about Layla’s case. She found the young woman languishing in prison, alone in her misery and catatonic. Ms. Sadr presented an appellate defense based on the Koranic injunctions of mercy and charity. The court saw merit in the argument because of Layla’s deteriorating mental state.

Ms. Sadr persuaded the judge to sever the legal relationship between Layla and her family and make her Layla’s custodian.

In 2005, when Layla was freed, Ms. Sadr brought her to Tehran and enlisted help from a network of women working to rehabilitate thousands of women and girls abused by Iran’s system.

They include homeless girls, victims of rape, divorcees and prostitutes. In the eyes of traditional Iranian society, they all have one thing in common: the presumption that all have lost their virginity, and therefore, their worth.

“Girls and women like that … are completely written off by the government and by most of society. We don’t believe that is true,” said Marjaneh Halati, a trained psychotherapist who founded Omid e Mehr, the women’s shelter in downtown Tehran where Layla now lives.

The government also runs shelters for abused women that provide them with beds and meals. But Omid e Mehr is a rarity in Iran because it provides a way for girls to escape the shackles of their past and not be defined by it.

The center provides individual and group therapy, foster care, vocational education and job placement. Women range in age from 20 to 35 and spend two or three years in the program.

Social workers are teaching Layla to read and do math. She gets to draw and paint with her friends. She goes on field trips to the mountains outside Tehran, and to see a movie once a week.

Most of all, she feels safe to dream about the future she wants — about finding love and starting a real family.

“It’s difficult to be a girl in Iran. You survive by learning to tolerate what life brings you. That was what my life was like in the past,” said Layla. “Now I dream about making myself happy, about having the whole world brought to me on a silver platter.”

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