It was not yet quite dawn when the buzzing woke me up. First I thought it was the morning alarm, but then I noticed that it was the phone. When I saw the name “Fahimeh” on the phone’s screen, my heart began to beat faster. “It must be another quarrel with the husband,” I thought. “He must have thrown her out of the house and that is why she is trying to reach me so early in the morning.”

I was right. It was the distressed voice of Fahimeh, asking for my help. She wanted me to get to her house immediately. Her husband had been shouting at and hitting her since the night before.

I hurried to her house. She was disheveled, her eyes were bruised and I could see that he had used a belt to hit her; there were welts on her body. Sarina, her little girl, had taken refuge in a corner and was crying hard and hugging her doll.

Fahimeh asked me to drive her to her parents’ house. “Why do you continue this wretched life?” I asked her on the way, “When your husband’s only logic in an argument is to beat and curse you?”

Her problem is that she cannot leave without her daughter. “The last time we had a quarrel and he beat me like last night, I left for a while and stayed at my father’s,” she said. “Mutual friends mediated and had him sign a written promise, so I returned. Since then, however, he beats me every time we have an argument. ‘If you want to separate, that’s okay,’ he says, ‘but I would not let your child live with you even for one day.’ So I have to suffer and live with it. My daughter is my whole life. I can’t be away from her.”

“Head of the Family”

Fahimeh’s experience is shared by many Iranian women who live a life of pain and humiliation because they not want to leave their children.

The civil code of the Islamic Republic rules that man is the head of the family and, as a result, “the guardianship of children” is given to the father.

According to article 1180 of the civil code, a father can give the custody of the child to the mother, but the guardianship remains with the father or the grandfather. A mother must secure the father’s permission to open a bank account for their child or to withdraw money from his or her account.

The right of custody is one of the most worrisome issues for Iranian mothers mothers who, for whatever reason, cannot continue to live with their husbands. Many husbands have also used this power to hold the child for ransom.

There are variations in how custody laws and rights are applied. Historically, in many cases, “the mother can have custody of her son until he is two and her daughter until she is seven,” according to a lawyer who spoke to IranWire. “After that, the father has custody until puberty nine for girls and 15 for boys when the child can decide for herself or himself.”

Though there have been some changes to these laws in recent years, the original legislation was “based on the idea that it is good for the child to enjoy a mother’s love when the child needs it most,” according to the lawyer. But if a custody battle ensues, sometimes, even if it’s not necessarily underpinned in law any more, the father will often use the privilege he has traditionally enjoyed under law to take the child from the mother. “In many cases,” said the lawyer, this power “has become a way to abuse the mother’s love and emotions”.

Nasrin is one mother held hostage by custody laws. A few years ago, she divorced her husband, who was a drug addict. She forfeited her dowry to gain custody of their son, Hamid. But now that Hamid is nine years old, his father has taken him to live with him at his house, which Nasrin says is used as a hang-out for drug addicts and criminals.

She says that her ex-husband has demanded a large sum of money in exchange for custody of Hamid. In order for this to happen, third parties and legal authorities must become involved. While they wait for these legal formalities, Hamid remains with his father. His teacher contacts Nasrin every week, reporting that since he has returned to his father, her son has fallen behind in his studies.

Looking For a Way Out

Sitting in a courthouse that deals with family law, you can see many mothers desperately trying to find a way to keep custody of their children following divorce.

Reyhaneh divorced her husband who, she says, was a very aggressive and angry man. Since she did not have the necessary financial means, she left her nine-year-old son, Alireza, with his father. She was allowed to visit him for only a few hours a week. Now, however, she has found a job and inherited some money from her father. She wants to buy a little apartment on the outskirts of the city for herself and Alireza.

“Every time I see Alireza,” she says, “he complains about his father’s anger and my absence. His father works from morning to 7 p.m. and my son has to stay home alone or go to his grandmother’s house. There is nobody to help him with his homework, cook a hot meal for him or even hug him.”

He son, she says, is very eager to live with her but her ex-husband refused to grant her custody. So she is consulting the family court in the hope of finding a way to gain custody. Two hours after the scheduled time for her ex-husband to appear in court, however, there is no sign of him. The court will schedule another appearance and Reyhaneh must wait for the notice.

“When the conflicts within a family reach an impasse and a child is involved,” writes lawyer Shahnaz Sajjadi, “women generally decide to continue suffering for the sake of the child and don’t talk of divorce, especially if they know that after the separation the custody will be given to the father.”

“These laws come from the decrees of religious authorities,” she says when asked about the possibility of further custody law reform. “As a result, they can be changed to keep up with times, without going against religion or sharia.”

One of the biggest problems with the custody laws, says another lawyer, has been “Article 1170 of the civil code, which ruled that if the mother remarried when she had custody even if she had the permission and consent of the child her custodial rights were revoked’. This provision does not apply to men. “If the father remarried,” she adds, “his guardianship and custodial rights remain as before”.

This fear of losing children after marrying again, she says, created a range of problems for women. There were psychological pressures on one hand, and financial difficulties on the other, putting many women in a very tight spot.

Though some of aspects of custody laws have changed, there are still huge problems for many women. Fahimeh and mothers like her continue to put up with aggressive and violent husbands to remain near their children. The children live with anxiety and sometimes anguish on a daily basis, having to witness their parents’ arguments and often living in constant fear that they might lose one of them.

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