Women in Iran

* Jila Baniyaghoob


I had gone to the Forensic Medical Centre in Tehran to do some research for a report, when I met a 20 year old girl from the tribal area of Charmahal-Bakhtiary province. Her name was Nasimah. She was sitting in the lobby of the Forensic Medical Centre, which was very busy. She had hidden her two months old son under her chador and was embarrassed feeding him. When she saw her elderly father approaching her, she forcefully removed her breast from her baby”s mouth and stood up. The child, who had not fed enough, searched for his mother”s breast. When he could not find it he started to cry loudly. The crying was so loud that it attracted everybody”s attention to them. I asked Nasimah why she had removed her breast by force from her son”s mouth but she felt unsafe to talk to a stranger and said that she was ashamed and afraid. I tried to find out the reason why she but she hung her head and refused to speak.

The weather was cold and both mother and son were very cold. I touched the baby”s delicate hands and feet and they were cold as well. The boy was beautiful with dark, beautiful eyes. The clothes he was wearing were dirty, old and thin. Maybe Nasimah”s mother had kept them in a closet for a long time. When I asked her why the baby was only wearing thin clothes in the cold weather, she replied that she did not have any other clothes for him because she did not have any income herself and no one in her family was prepared to buy clothes for her son. I again touched his tiny hands and feet and they still felt very cold. All of my body shivered and the cold of his hands reached my heart. I felt something start to cause me to suffer. I reached into my bag and got out some money and entreated one of my colleagues standing next to me to go and buy some warm clothes for Nasimah”s child whilst I was speaking to her. My colleague looked at me and then left. Nasimash now felt more relaxed with me and spoke to me in a more friendly way – maybe because I had wanted to buy some clothes for her son.

Nasimah explained that the baby she was holding was illegitimate and his father came from her neighbourhood. The father was now denying paternity. Nasimah”s family had taken him to court in their hometown and the judge had sent them to Tehran for DNA testing to identify the father because there were no local DNA testing facilities. Nasimah pointed out a young man in jeans and an American style coat who was sitting further away from her family. I asked Nasimah why the young man was denying paternity and she told me that he would lose face with his family and that he was afraid of losing his life as her family had tried to kill him. She confirmed that her family would kill him if the DNA results were positive. She said that she was very afraid. I slowly began to understand why Nasimah was ashamed to feed her child in front of her family. For people living in the countryside there is nothing more intolerable for a girl to have an illegitimate child and I realised why no one in her family was interested in buying clothes for the baby. Nobody was willing to tolerate this disgrace on their family.

Nasimah stood some paces away from her companions who had come with her to Tehran. In her tribe”s culture, it is forbidden for a woman to stand or sit close to her brothers or uncles. It is even more difficult to have an illegitimate child. I walked with Nasimah towards her father who appeared to be very old and wrinkled. His face showed that he had suffered a lot of pain in his life and his dirty, old clothes revealed his poverty.

Nasimah, in her black chador, hid behind me, as she did not want to stand face to face with her father. Her father, who had unhappy, angry eyes, first looked at Nasimah and then swallowing, at me. He said that it would have been better if he had died rather than be shamed like this. His daughter was unmarried but held a baby in her arms and he felt that there was not any greater disgrace than this for his family, their tribe and their village.

I asked if the result of the DNA test was positive, whether he would give permission for his daughter to marry the young man but he said never. This situation would be very shameful for his family and tribe if the young man became their daughter”s bridegroom. I inquired what he wanted to happen and Nasimah”s uncle replied instead of her father. This is because, in a tribe, the girl”s uncles and cousins have a special role in taking decisions for girls. Nasimah”s cousin said that they would give the baby to an orphanage but they would think what to do about Nasimah and the young man.

I saw my colleague far away and quickly walked towards him and grabbed the baby clothes from him. I tried to help Nasimah dress her child and he looked even more beautiful in his new pink clothes. I kissed his forehead and gave him back to his mother telling Nasimah not to let them do any harm to her baby. She said that her family would not hurt the child as they had given undertakings to the judge not to harm either the baby or Nasimah. If something happened to them then her family would have a problem with the court.

When Nasimah came out of the testing room, her baby was crying although I did not know whether it was because he was hungry or because of the pain of the syringe used by the doctor for the blood test. Nasimah rocked her child and tried to soothe him but when she saw her father, uncles and cousins looking at her, she hid her son under her chador. She came down the stairs with her relatives and did not say anything to me or even wave farewell. She looked as though she wanted to say goodbye to me.

On my way back home I thought about Nasimah and her beautiful son, who was without a name because his mother did not dare choose a name for him, as she was afraid of her father and uncles.

As I was passing the Tehran Public Prosecutor”s Office I saw the parents of Laila Fathi. They were protesting about the murderers of their daughter. Both of them were wearing shrouds and they said that they wanted justice and were prepared to die for justice.

Seven years ago, when she was only twelve years old, three men kidnapped Leila Fathi as she was going to school. All the men raped and beat her and she died due to her injuries. After seven years the murderers have not yet been punished. Although she is still in grief, Leila”s mother is looking forward to the day when her daughter”s murderers are punished. However the parents had just been contacted by the Public Prosecutor to inform them that if they wanted the murderers to be punished, then they must pay half of the blood money for the three men.

According to Iranian law, if a man murders a woman, the victim”s family must pay half of the blood money to the murderer”s family. In Iran this amounts to a lot of money. However, if a woman kills a man, not only will the woman be executed but her family will also have to pay half of the blood money to the victim”s family. (In Islamic Law a woman is considered half of the value of a man. This includes mental ability, opinion, life). Leila”s relatives have sold their house, car and all their other possessions to pay for their contribution to the blood money for the murderers of their daughter. The execution of the three men has not yet been carried out and no reason for this has been given.

Shirin Ebadi, an intellectual lawyer who has recently won the Nobel Peace Prize, has said that in this case, where a girl has been raped and killed, the court has not thought about the situation of the victim”s family and the requirement to pay blood money. She believes that the emotional stress and the damage to the victim”s family”s financial position means that the whole family will completely collapse.

One week later when I was sitting in my office, the telephone rang. It was one of my friends from the city where Nasimah came from. He told me that when Nasimah”s brothers and cousins returned home from Tehran, they tried to hang Nasimah but she escaped. Finally they poured petrol over her and set her alight. The following day Nasimah”s son was fatally poisoned. In order to escape punishment, Nasimah”s family has spread the rumour that she killed herself and that the baby died from hunger.

My friend continued to speak to me but I could not reply. He asked many times whether I was all right and was I still there but I was unable to answer him. The only sound that was in my mind was Nasimah”s voice saying that her family would not harm her or the baby because they had promised the judge not to do so.

I explained Nasimah”s situation to my friend Zahra, an intelligent and educated woman. I told her that the position of women in Iran is very poor but she said, looking directly in my eyes, that Nasimah”s situation was an exception and was not the rule for all women. Although I agreed with this, I said that if in one thousand women something like this happens, the situation is still terrifying. Zahra replied that I knew that the position of women was not as bad as I was making out. But I assured her angrily that even if it only happened to one woman in a million, it was still one too many and that there should be more supportive laws to protect women. Zahra smiled and said that all what I had told her was not the issue for all Iranian women as many of them are matriarchs.

Her opinion reminded me of the time, long ago, when I was only a child and I visited my grandparents with my mother. My grandmother, who was small, managed her house, controlled the family finances and she was obeyed by my grandfather even though he appeared to be a strong man. She was not the only woman who was very strict and matriarchal in our society – my aunt, my mother and some of the neighbouring women acted in the same way. They are still living in the same fashion.

When I was growing up I saw a lot of girls in high school and at university who participated in all arenas and sometimes they were higher achievers than the boys. The girls had a lot of freedom in their relationships and in their social activities. Every Friday they went climbing with their boyfriends without any restriction from their parents or brothers.

Thinking about these issues, I cannot forget Nasimah with her beautiful eyes and eyebrows nor can I forget her son. I was thinking about all of these things when my phone rang and it caught my attention. One of my relatives, who has lived in Europe for over twenty years, was on the line. He told me that he had been watching a film on French television about the situation of women in Iran and he felt that they are still in a bad position. He asked me whether I felt that I was in a poor situation and I replied that, as an Iranian woman, I personally did not consider that I was unlucky. I believe that many of my women colleagues are equal to the men that they work with and, in some sections of the community, there are more women than men. He was very sceptical about my answer and I pointed out to him that this does not mean that there is not any sexual discrimination towards women in Iran.

Sara, who has got a higher degree than her male colleagues, is forced to work in a subordinate position to a man who does not have such a high qualification. In her working environment, men still have a patriarchal system as defined by the director general of the company she is employed by.

In Iran there are hardly any women mangers accepted – only three in every thousand management positions are held by women. In recent years, despite all of the difficulties experienced by women, improvements have being made. In the last year fourteen hundred independent organisations have been established in areas such as environmental control and children”s rights. Most of the managers of these organisations are educated females.

Recently 65% of the students accepted for university are girls. In the first elections for town councils to be held in Iran, women won a quarter of the seats. However time is needed for women in Iran to gain equal rights to men and freedom to have an independent life. It will be a long, hard battle but I am confident that we will win it in the end.

*Iranian journalist in Tehran

Translated by :Bahram Ahmadi-Manchester

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