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Humiliating. Period.
Divorce procedures -- for women

February 8, 2002
The Iranian

I had an email from my very good old friend who lives in England. It was an unusually short note of one sentence, but the tone was urgent: "You should write about my Islamic divorce. I am too angry to write I will call you and explain."

Never being one to be able to wait for a telephone call, I went to the phone, my pack of Marlboro lights in hand -- a good phone conversation is a great opportunity for a smoke for those of us unfortunate enough to still smoke occasionally. I dialed up London after a few screw-ups with the new code, which I never seem to want to remember. But before I tell you about the conversation, I will give you some background on my friend Shirin.

She is by far the most "together" of all my friends. She married a European and after twelve years and a couple of children she and her husband separated. I used the example of her divorce as a testament to the ability of people to be fair and reasonable, whenever discussing the subject with friends.

Her husband had been a real gentleman. He had moved out at her request but had been available to her and the children at all times. He had been hurt but he never disputed anything or denied her what she wanted. He was, in short, the very model of gentlemanly behavior.

I wondered if the very faux-aristocratic pompousness that so irritated me about him was not the cause of his dignified and noble behavior when my friend asked him to leave.

Anyway the guy was everything you would want in a husband that is just being told to pack it. He was devastated but civil. Rejected but supportive. I always used this man as an example of how men can be fair even when rejected.

And so Shirin had the easiest divorce that I have ever seen. No fights. No accusations. A few tears and lots of talking and that was it. I used to think "Boy these people are more graceful, poised and quiet about this than I was about my most insignificant breakup with a college boyfriend."

So everything went as smoothly and as easily as was possible in these situations with my friend's separation and eventual divorce. Until now when my Shirin's experience in obtaining her Islamic divorce made her feel, as she put it, "more humiliated than ever in my life."

Six years has passed since my friend's husband moved out. She had to obtain her Iranian divorce. She calls the Iranian consulate in London and they directed her to go to the Islamic Center of London and ask the resident hojatoleslam to grant her the divorce.

She called first. She told the cleric she had already obtained her divorce according to British law, but that she needed to obtain an Islamic divorce so that it would be acceptable according to laws in Iran.

For a good ten minutes the cleric went on lecturing her, ershaad--ing in the way peculiar to aakhoonds, about the wrongs of divorce. He was oblivious to her interruption and her explanations that it had been six years since their separation and that the husband wants to remarry and is living with someone else.

Finally, fed-up, she told the man, "Look if you do not perform the divorce I will have to call the embassy for someone else's name." So the man agreed to give her an appointment. The hojatoleslam also asked for her email so he could send the necessary forms for her to fill out and sign.

All her husband had to do besides signing and faxing a form was to call the hojatoleslam and verbally tell him on the phone that he wished to divorce my friend. No questions. No ershaad.

The day before her appointment Shirin called to see if all her forms had arrived and if she needed to bring anything else. The hojatoleslam asked her if she was having her "pereeyod". Shocked, she answered, no. He explained that if it was her period she could not have a divorce until she was "clean". She once again assured the turbaned stranger on the other side of the phone that she was indeed, one hundred percent not menstruating.

When she arrived he apologized for keeping her waiting. He explained that the police had been there. Apparently an English woman had become insanely angry when she found out that her husband had married another woman behind her back. So she had called the cops on the man who performed the wedding.

Amazon Honor SystemThe Hojatoleslam explained to my friend that he had only read a harmless sighye mehrabaani or a "kindness - concubinage pact" in the ears of the couple and that he just did not understand these English women. "Why is he telling me this?" my friend asked herself. "He should see that I am not wearing a hejab. Does he think I am on his side?"

After this little gem of a story of his, the cleric asked my friend again if she had her "pereeyod". "How can they be sure of my answer?" thought my friend. "Do they have a way to check?" Anyway she was given another form to fill where she had to list in one column all the days she was "clean" and in another column all the days she was "unclean" for the past three months.

The hojatoleslam went on to ask my friend -- a total of five times -- if she was sure she did not have her period. He probably got off on this stuff and she would not put it beyond him that is what she felt.

I have often felt an incredible sexual mood in the whole rapport of an aakhoond and a woman. The way they avoid the gaze and turn their eyes to the side or down always immediately sexualizes women -- you feel like you are naked and they have to avoid looking at you. As if a mere sight is enough to arouse them.

Then he went to the other room to read the sermon of divorce. She wondered why after all this he had to be in another room to say the surreh of talagh, or verses from the Koran relating to divorce. But she was happy to be let out of there quickly. So she patiently waited.

When he came back he told her that she was now a divorced woman. He then asked her if she wanted to be put on the center's singles list. She told him no thank you and left there in a hurry. He handed her a folder containing her papers and she thanked him, remembering not to shake hands and headed out the door.

Crying under her umbrella, Shirin walked the gray streets of London taking stock of her life. She was angry and deeply saddened about the little Islamic rite she had just gone through. A divorce is never easy she told me, and this humiliating farce made her feel more than ever like a helpless woman.

When she got home she saw an application for a dating service for the Islamic center, including a letter from a man. It was addressed to the hojatoleslam and went something like this, "I am [so and so], a Shiite from Saudi Arabia. I have a wife and six children. I am looking for a good Shiite wife from the UK. Can you help me in this matter?"

The next day she found her email box full of requests from other singles from the center and from all over the world.

"There is a whole global marriage network for Shiites," she told me in amazement. I told her well that is a positive. She laughed and told me that she wrote and asked to be omitted from the email list. Imagine having to obtain a divorce from the Saudi with six children who probably needed someone more like an au pair who would perform sex, than a second wife!

Trying to calm my friend I told her that she was being overly sensitive about the whole thing. The hojatoleslam was merely following ancient traditions. All these laws about menstruation served the function of clarifying who was the father of the child. In those days they did not have any DNA tests. They may have originally even been meant to protect women.

"Yes but they are humiliating in this day and age. Plus why should one not be pregnant and want a divorce?" I replied, "Are you kidding? This is the least of the injustices. Your husband could divorce you without much effort or your approval really. He does not even need to get a divorce. He can just marry someone else without even telling you. Think of that English woman who had sent the cops. Think about that. And think about those in Iran who cannot even get custody of their children even when their husbands dump them."

Remembering how apolitical she always was, I told her it is funny how we become angry when prejudice affects us directly and then try to analyze or brush it aside when it affects us only indirectly.

My friend was never much interested in politics. She is a scholar of literature and poetry, a soft-spoken Sufi of sorts, always meditating and doing yoga and going back to Iran on these long soul-searching trips.

But now that she had lived through a humiliating experience being a Shiite woman, she wanted someone to write about it. She felt intuitively that there was something more important than an interaction with an annoying aakhoond in the safety of London was at stake here. Political reality always has a way of spilling into personal reality.

I told her that I had this naive assumption that maybe the more people know about something being wrong the better chance that it will eventually be corrected. I thought of how I never have registered my marriage with the Iranian embassy partly because of laziness, but mostly because I believed the contract was inherently unjust.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Setareh Sabety

By Setareh Sabety

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