O you people sitting on the shore/Joyful and laughing"(1)... The law is written for men
Another visit to the family courts
Saturday 12 January 2008
By Maryam Malek
Translation: Roja Bandari
Dedicated to Mariam Hosseinkhuah and Jelveh Javaheri and every prisoner of discrimination.
Women around the world still face violence, this ugliest manifestation of discrimination and inequality of rights, in their daily lives. Violence against women is defined as any violent act based on gender which leads to physical, sexual, or mental harm or damage.
Violence against women can be seen in different forms:
1 Physical, bodily, or sexual violence that can happen at home, like beating or sexual abuse.
2 Violence carried out by governments; for example passing laws that result in brutality like forced sterilization or abortions.
3 Social violence, such as sexual harassment and abuse, harassment in the workplace, etc.
4 Cultural violence. Sometimes cultural traditions impose violence on women. For example local traditions that restrict widowed women.
Some consequences of violence that do not result in death are:
Physical harm: such as broken bones, damage to internal organs, swelling, infection, asthma, and headache. Suicide, homicide, and AIDS are among the deadly consequences of violence. Violence against women causes both personal and social problems.
Today if you visit the family courts, you will certainly witness examples of several forms of violence. You will meet women, weary of discrimination in the law and the recurrence of violence in their every-day lives, who clutch at a frayed thread of justice, a thread so worn that it will never save them. Violence has become a part of these women’s daily lives. I have seen them many times before, with sorrowful faces, exhausted from the cruel load they carry on their backs. You won’t believe me if I tell you that I have seen men beating their wives in the corridors of this so-called house of justice, and yet the officials do not stop them; and I have seen the same officials punish those women who raise their voices by banning them from entering the court corridors, lest these women set a bad example for the others; women whose lives have been spent in futile waiting in these courts and who all tell you, “the law is written for men.”
These are stories of a few among thousands of women:
I enter the court and her scream immediately grabs my attention. She is shouting “go away, go away…”before falling unconscious to the floor. Two women pick her up. When she regains consciousness, she begins screaming again. The court security has ordered an ambulance to take her to a hospital but she will not leave and is screaming nonstop. I can’t walk by without doing something. I go to her and soothe her and massage her shoulders and try to calm her down. All of a sudden an officer walks up angrily and shouts at her to stay quiet or he will throw her out of the court. But the woman is still unwell and keeps screaming. I ask her, “Why are you so agitated? You must try to stay calm.” Then she begins to sob and says, “I can’t bear it anymore. How many times must I come here? Every time, the judge only preaches at me. He will not grant me a divorce and just tells me to go back home and live my life. I’m exhausted. I cannot simply ignore my husband’s faults and continue living with him; he has more than one fault. He is unfaithful, he beats me, he drinks, and he doesn’t give me any financial support. Today I convinced him to come to the court so we can get a divorce with his consent; but he brought along his friend who snatched all of my documents in order to change my mind. The judge keeps telling me that my husband loves me and I should stay with him. I have developed heart problems. I can’t bear it anymore. I am giving up my Mehrieh (2) so I can keep my two children. This is all I’m asking for.”
I tell her, “You have persevered this long, just wait a bit longer and you will succeed.” We are speaking when her husband comes back with an empty form. The woman looks at him helplessly and says, “How could you just let your friend take away the documents so easily?” The man shakes his head with indifference and mutters, “He left on his own. It’s not my fault. I don’t want to get a divorce; you are forcing me to give consent. It’s not a big deal, we’ll fill another form.” But the woman knows that the form will not be filled again; otherwise, why would they try to snatch it in the first place? She shrugs and staggers toward the exit door.
I sit on a bench wanting to rest for a minute, but a young woman is sitting in front of me with tears coming down her face and I cannot remain indifferent. I ask her why she is crying. She has an innocent and beautiful face and looks 25 or younger. She says she is waiting for her husband to come and give his consent for a divorce. And as tears come down her face, she tells me her story; a familiar one that I have heard many times before. Her voice shakes and tears cover her small, slim face completely.
“I was only sixteen when my father made me marry my husband. I was a first child and my father didn’t even let me complete eighth grade. He said it was enough and that I must get married. I objected but he didn’t listen. Now, 9 years later, I can’t live with my husband anymore. I’m tired. In the beginning, when my husband went to work he would lock the door and disconnect the phone. He has never given me money for household expenses; he says whatever the man brings home is enough and there is no need to give money to the woman. He would buy me clothes once a year. I liked him at first but after seeing his behavior I lost my affection for him, until two years ago I finally set foot out of the house and went to look for work; I found a good job, now I work in an office, but he is against it and insults me and curses at me every day. I have finally convinced my family to agree to a divorce and they have left everything to me.
I ask her, “What does your father say now? Did your siblings marry at a young age as well?”
She responds, “No, my father passed away a few years ago and now there isn’t anyone to bully us. My sister and brothers are in college.”
I ask her if she has any children and she says that they can’t have children because her husband is infertile.
I ask surprised, “do you know that if you brought this up you could have separated easily?”
She replies, “Yes, but still the court has made me wait for a long time. I came to the court and brought up this issue and requested a divorce. They said if you want your Mehrieh you must deposit some money into an account so the court collects your Mehrieh. I don’t have any money to deposit and for 8 months I came here and told them I have no money. I realized that my life is going to waste so I went to my husband and convinced him to give consent to a divorce and instead give me a portion of my Mehrieh (one gold coin) every three months. But as you can see, he hasn’t shown up.”
There is only silence between us. She is helplessly waiting for a man who has stripped her of her youth and strength, and who can not bear to see her recent empowerment either. I am speechless, not knowing what to say to a woman who year after year has had the doors of justice shut in her face, and who is now trying to get consent from a man who objects to her very existence. I am gazing aimlessly, lost in my thoughts about what I have just heard from these women. When I come back to reality, I realize that I have been staring at two women sitting in front of me. There is an old woman with her daughter in law; and they look peculiar. They have traveled from the provinces to Tehran, the mother to help her daughter get a divorce. The old woman is wearing traditional dress and speaks Persian with difficulty.
I move closer to them. The conversation flows effortlessly and I’m not surprised since the old woman has the warm and sincere attitude of a villager. She says, “We don’t have a school in our town and it’s our tradition that daughters marry young. All of my children have been lucky but this last one has been unfortunate. Her husband is a thug; he has been to jail; he is a drug addict and he carries a knife around. She was 12 when we arranged for her to marry him, who was then 30. He was a relative and we didn’t do a lot of research on him. From the very first day he told my daughter to get a divorce or else she will regret it.”
She explains, “Because he was also forced into this marriage. In our region, anything the men say goes and we can’t argue with them. Men support us financially and they’re better at making decisions than us. I also married when I was 12 and I didn’t even know how to cook back then; I hadn’t seen my husband and my father chose him for me. We didn’t have a bad life. But this happened to my daughter.”
She closes her eyes and whispers, “who is doing anything to defend us women?”
And suddenly I remember all the women who have struggled to change these discriminatory laws and defend women’s rights but are now under serious pressures due to another set of unfair laws. It seems that this is a new round of violence against women.
I remember Delaram Ali who is sentenced to 2 years and 6 months in prison because of her participation in a peaceful gathering to demand a change in these laws and whose arm was broken by the police at the same gathering. I remember Maryam Hossein-khah and Jelveh Javaheri, who are spending their days in the general ward of the Evin prison and who never stop writing about women’s suffering and the violence imposed on women and condoned by these laws. They have continued this valuable struggle behind the bars of Evin prison.
And I remember Haana and Ronak, and all those women’s rights activists in Tehran and the provinces. These days are filled with bad news about arrests but the activists will not stop.
If only I had said all this to that old woman….
(1) Excerpt of a famous poem by Iranian poet Nima Yushij
(2) Mehrieh is the agreed-upon amount of money a woman is entitled to when she gets a divorce.