This article by IranWire’s Azadeh Moaveni includes an expert opinion by Mehrangiz Kar.
In my early twenties, I lived for a time with my elderly grandfather in his old house off of Villa Street. A housekeeper lived in the basement with her family, a young woman called Khadijeh, and though my bedroom was upstairs and next to a rumbling gas cooler, I would often hear her screams in the night. The morning after, she would be in the kitchen as usual, her little girl hiding between her skirts, having already waited in line for barbari and begun to fry something for lunch. Sometimes she had bruises on her face, but more often she walked or cooked awkwardly, some part of her battered from the night before.
The physical, emotional, or sexual abuse of a partner or wife, known as domestic violence, affects women throughout the world. But while it is a universal problem with deep underlying causes in family history and cultural traditions, many countries, through a combination of social, economic, and legal measures, have managed to reduce its prevalence. Iran is not among them. The government limits citizens’ access to statistics about domestic violence and inhibits debate about the issue in the media and books.
Iranians are left knowing, as I did in my grandfather’s house, and even before, as a young girl, that domestic abuse happens all around them. But they have little way of knowing to what extent or understanding how their country measures up in a regional context. The quiet in Iran is in sharp contrast to the crescendo of public outrage in neighbouring countries like Turkey, where people’s dismay at high levels of family violence is leading to important change.
What is clear in Iran is that a wide web of factors combine to perpetuate domestic violence. Shahla Ezazi, a professor at Alamah Tabatabai University who has worked extensively on the issue, sees the culture of patriarchy as chiefly to blame, but says that the law enables violence in families. “One simple way to [address the problem] is to make the punishment for perpetrators of violence more severe, and to offer more support for victims,” she says.
But rather than taking this simple route, the government actively promotes a culture of violence that ends up aggravating abuse in the home, Ezazi says. From a new parliamentary bill proposing new restrictions on women’s travel, to authorities often violent treatment of women on the street over dress codes, to the surge in public executions, the state has made violence a causal aspect of daily life. Ezazi says: “The state, instead of portraying violence as something heinous, uses violence to advance its own interests. This ends up exacerbating violence in society.”
If the state makes things worse, it’s doing so in a social context where lack of family support and taboos against divorce mean abused women have few places to turn. In a recent blog post called “Alone and Surrendered” a lawyer in Iran writes about an educated client from a traditional religious family whose husband abused her. The woman had decided against a divorce, as her father, a prominent cleric and judge, would never let her back into his house, and told her that a woman must cope and burn until the day of her death. “What most upset me today was the girl’s attitude toward herself,” writes the lawyer. “She was scared of a father who was supposed to be her ally, scared of a family and friends who spurned her because she had marital trouble, and most frightening of all, feared trampling the very religious beliefs that were meant to bring her peace.”
Taboos against divorce and the difficulty of securing financial independence are systemic problems that the lawyer Mehrangiz Kar, one of Iran’s foremost legal experts, has spoken of for years. Women must also confront, she says, religious traditions that justify spouse beating, discriminatory laws that could result in loss of child custody, and the challenge of simply reporting domestic violence. Unlike countries like Turkey, Indonesia, and even Saudi Arabia, Iran has refused to sign a key UN convention (the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, known as CEDAW) that requires states to classify physical domestic abuse as a separate legal category from generic violence. The Iranian legal code treats family violence generically, and as such authorities often demand proof and witnesses, which are difficult to secure.
The government of former President Mohammad Khatami attempted to take on the issue, setting up a number of safe houses for women and sponsoring a major, nation-wide study into regional variations and scope of family violence. The safe houses were a flop, never properly or broadly established. The study was ground-breaking at the time, but some of its more explosive findings – 66 percent of participants said they had suffered physical abuse at least once in their marriage – were criticized as too broad and likely inflated. The results are now reportedly classified, and the government hasn’t undertaken any further large-scale research.
While the legal climate in Iran makes it easier for violent men to abuse and harder for women to get help, the cultural beliefs that encourage violence follow Iranians wherever they go. I grew up in California, amongst the generation of Iranians who left around the revolution, and remember my mother’s friends sometimes taking refuge with us when they were “having problems at home,” a euphemism I only came to understand as a teenager.
I remember absorbing as a child that we held some men in our social circle in contempt, and being confused when one friend who’d taken refuge with us — who even had a restraining order against her husband — made up with her husband and went off to Las Vegas with him (this taught me that women also play an enabling role in abusive relationships, becoming dependent on the cycle of violence/reconciliation). When I talked to older relatives for this article, I was shocked by what I learned about their former husbands, about what I had forgotten, or perhaps like others, had chosen not to see.
Domestic violence was fairly common amongst first-generation Iranian immigrants, according to Nehzat Farnoody, a prominent psychotherapist who has practised in the Los Angeles Iranian community for decades. “Emigrants’ cultural software doesn’t change, they enter with the same meeras-e farhangi, only into a place with different laws,” she says.
Law enforcement soon made a difference, however, especially in the numerous families where domestic violence was not specifically linked to mental illness or substance abuse. “After a night or two in prison, and the opening of a legal file, many of those said ‘don’t provoke me, don’t make me see red (blood before my eyes) because I can’t control myself, were actually very able to control themselves.”
But for the majority of second-generation Iranians, Farnoody says, physical violence as a means of controlling a spouse or resolving conflict is a foreign concept. She has seen Iranian men and women themselves changing, with men seeking real partners rather than submissive wives, and women no longer willing to tolerate violence.
One enduring problem inside Iran itself is the lack of social education and media coverage about what constitutes abuse. Zahra Tizro, an academic at the University of Exeter, conducted research in Iran, and says main of her women interviewees, mainly peasant women, could not comprehend the word violence (khoshoonat, in Persian). She describes using different meanings for the same term to make her queries more understandable for them. “Many were exposed to brute forms of physical violence, and they viewed battering, but not beating, as violence,” she says. “They would say to me, ‘my child, so he slapped me and pushed me over, this is natural.’ It was only when a husband would attack them with a hammer that they considered it an act of violence.”
Even modern, urban women are sometimes unaware that emotional abuse, from controlling behavior to insults, and forced sex within intimate relationships, count as domestic violence. “I see this even in my own educated friends,” says Nargess Tavassolian, a doctoral student and activist based in London. “One engaged friend told me she didn’t know that forced sex with her fiance counted as rape.”
Many Iranian young people may not realize such things, and can understandably be confused by the government’s mixed messages about gender roles and ethics: women are pearls who must be protected, yet a man’s gheyrat is his very essence, to be protected at all costs. Look at the billboards you see around your city, and the images of how women and women are expected to be. Translated into real life, how can these messages not collide violently?
Despite all the social chaos Iranians endure at the hands of the state – from the casual street violence of the morality patrols to new bills promoting patriarchy – experts like Shahla Ezazi see society quietly progressing. “At the beginning of my career, women in Tehran would say violence was natural, ‘just a slap’; they would even ask me, ‘doesn’t your husband hit you?’” she says. “But today, I see a new awareness, where women consider hitting something negative.”
Nooshin, a counsellor working with Iran’s welfare organisation (Behzisti) in the city of Hamedan, also says she sees similar progress. “We’re seeing an increasing number of bruised men coming to us,” she says, pointing to the number of women taking martial arts classes, a trend that is picking up all around the country. “Do you think its haphazard that more women are taking karate and kung-fu classes? Women, especially young women, are learning about their rights and fighting back.”
This article by IranWire’s Azadeh Moaveni includes an expert opinion by Mehrangiz Kar.