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World: Violence Against Women -- In Iran, Abuse Is Part Of The Culture (Part 2)

No woman is safe from domestic violence -- no matter what country or culture she lives in. According to a new UN report, one in three women will be raped, beaten, or abused during her lifetime. Part two of our four-part series on the occasion of today's world "Eliminate Violence Against Women Day" focuses on Iran, where abuse largely goes unreported and -- officially at least -- unrecognized.

Prague, 25 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Sedigheh is an Iranian woman, one of many who was for years subjected to her husband's physical and psychological abuse.

"I remember once he beat me up so hard that for a week I couldn't leave the house. There were bruises all over my face and I had pain all over my body. I couldn't go out. And also violence is not just physical, some forms of behavior and comments bring us more pain than physical beating," Sedigheh said.

Sedigheh finally left home. A step many Iranian women are still not willing to take.

According to an old Iranian saying: "Women should sacrifice themselves and tolerate." That's how many if not most women deal with domestic violence.

Shala Lahiji is the director of Roshangaran, a prominent publisher of women's books in Tehran. She is an active defender of women's rights and says in many cases, abuse of women is seen as normal.

"It happens in private life and a legal complaint can destroy the life of a woman. In Iran, I think this is one of the main points, and then [there is] the culture that makes some forms of violence legal, meaning part of the population thinks [abuse is in keeping with the] traditions of society and of love. Women, who are victim of domestic violence, think that that their husband's jealous reactions that turn violent are a sign of love and attention," Lahiji said.

Mehrangiz Kar, a prominent lawyer, writer, and human rights campaigner who lives in the United States, says some interpretations of religion contribute to this way of thinking.

"In the very traditional and religious setting in which [many in Iran] live, their understanding of religion and the interpretation given to them throughout the centuries is that a man can beat his wife. They say it's a religious command and so the commentators who have portrayed Islam in this light as a violent religion, also contribute to the growth of this culture," Kar said.

The police and judicial system are of little help. If a battered woman calls the police, it's unlikely they would intervene. The traditional attitude toward marital conflict in Iran inclines people to mediate between the couple. In many cases the woman is sent back to her violent home.

"In our judicial system there are no laws that prevent domestic violence. On the contrary, in the Islamic penal code there are many points that encourage violence against women in families. One is the issue of blood money. As you know, a woman gets only half the blood money a man gets. This directs the nature of society toward violence because it means that the life of a woman is not equal to the life of a man," Kar said.

Kar was referring to a law that says the family of a female murder victim is entitled to about half the compensation paid to the family of a male victim.

A researcher -- who declined to give her name -- from Human Rights Watch in New York says in Iran, marital rape is not a crime.

"Under the civil code a woman has the duty to submit to her husband and this is called 'tamkin' and that includes submitting to his sexual demands so effectively you have a marital rape exemption under the Iranian law," the researcher said.

Few women try to escape a violent home because they are economically dependant on their husbands. And while according to Iranian law men can divorce at will, for women it often requires a long legal battle. Men also have the right of the custody of the children after divorce.

Kar says men can use this right as a way of threatening their wives.

"The most effective violence against women is the threat to take the children away and because for women, with their motherly nature, having to endure being away from their children is the worst problem and violence, in many cases they give in. They refrain from discussing their problems with their families -- let alone the courts," Kar said.

Sedigheh, who experienced domestic violence herself for many years, says after her divorce, her husband took custody of their child and prevented her from seeing her child.

"[My husband] didn't even let [my daughter] go to school for some time so that I was not able to go there and meet her, and when he was forced to send the child to school he dropped her off and picked her up himself. He also told the principal not to let me see the child. During our life together, I allowed him to beat me if I knew it would stop him from torturing the child. And being away from my child was the worst torture for me. I still have nightmares about those days and nights," Sedigheh said.

Kar says in Iran women are also subjected to "state violence." As an example, she cites the Islamic dress code, according to which a woman should cover her hair and body.

"Any woman who appears unveiled in public -- before they would arrest her, insult her, and put her in prison and also they flogged her -- now the judge can choose between a jail term and a fine," Kar said.

The Human Rights Watch researcher says the compulsory Islamic dress code is a violation of women' rights: "You know you could speak of the 'hejab' as 'state violence' in the sense that it violates women's rights to moral integrity, to her freedom of conscience and to her liberty."

Kar says the laws need to be amended to give more protection to women. And she adds that shelters for battered women to go to if necessary should be built across the country. However, she adds the government is opposed to it.

"Iran's judicial and political system has not accepted this proposal so far. They think the dangers of these types of shelters outweigh the possible benefits. And maybe they think that that there will be an influx of women who are victims of violence and it will lead to a new crisis in the society. The regime is afraid of accepting safes shelters," Kar said.

Women's rights activists say the relatively high number of runaway girls and the rising number of women who commit suicide suggests domestic violence may be widespread in many families. Shirin Ebadi, Iran's Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and other activists say self-immolation by women is on the rise because of violence and discrimination.

Public awareness of the issue is growing. Workshops are being organized on domestic violence and newspapers are giving coverage to the issue.

Lahiji says some men are also becoming more aware of women's issues.

"We also have men who are sensitive to women's issues, men with higher education who are doing research on women's issues. I welcome it and I think it's a turning point. In the society, men and women should find out together where their shortcomings are. Until these shortcomings are recognized there will not be any progress. And the social and economic equality of women and men in the society is progress," Lahiji said.

The United Nations says prevailing gender inequality is the main source and breeding ground for the continuing scale of violence against women around the world.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.