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Middle East Kavitha Dispatch

The Tragic Tale of Mahraz
April 29, 2000

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Kavi and Mahraz sitting in front of a beautiful spread that is part of the family lunch
You've probably noticed from our dispatches over the past few weeks that family and community play a very important role in life in Iran. As beautiful as it is to see the support that a large extended family brings, I have realized that not everyone benefits from such strong ties. Yesterday I learned about the hardships of having a strong family unit when Abeja and I visited a large family outside of Tehran for a special feast.

We entered the house to find relatives and close friends sitting around a beautiful meal: bowls of thick soup garnished with yogurt and dill, vegetable quiches decorated with fresh walnuts and fried onions, rice topped with cranberries and pistachios.

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Mahraz and mom
The food was wonderful, and the family was very kind, but the best part about the afternoon was meeting a new friend, Mahraz. Mahraz is our age, and speaks very good English. She's beautiful, smart, independent, and a really good cook! She has a loving family and a secure home. She's got it made, right? Wrong. Unfortunately, despite her beautiful smile, Mahraz's story isn't a very happy one.

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Some of the beautiful food prepared for the elaborate family meal
When she was 19 years old, Mahraz's parents arranged a marriage for her. Mahraz's family is Kurdish and although she had grown up in a modern suburb of Tehran, her father arranged her marriage to a boy from a traditional Kurdish village in western Iran. Before she was even able to finish school, she had to marry a boy she had just met and move far away from her home.

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"I did not want to get married yet, and I didn't like my husband," explains Mahraz. "He's crazy, and he treated me very badly." After a year together, they had a son. Mahraz loved her son very much, and he was the only joy in her new life. But soon she found that even her son didn't give her all the happiness she needed to build a new life. Her husband's family interfered all the time in taking care of her house and her child. For 3 years she struggled to live with them, and finally she was so depressed she realized she needed a radical change. She decided to get a divorce.

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Mahraz and Kavitha
Getting a divorce is never an easy process, but getting a divorce in a country like Iran is an almost impossible feat. Strong cultural traditions can be more intimidating than the law, but Mahraz found the courage within to tackle the cultural taboo on divorce. She left her husband and moved back to her own family's home. While her sisters and her mother tried to be supportive, her father was enraged and refused to allow her to get a legal divorce. Her husband's family was also enraged and wouldn't allow her to see her son for a long time. Can you imagine? There was absolutely nothing Mahraz could do. No court she could see on her own to get her divorce. No jury she could appeal to to be able to see her own child.

For years she did nothing but stay in her family's home. "My father is very prejudiced. He was embarrassed that I left my husband, so he wouldn't let me leave the house. My mother and sisters are good to me, but my father won't even talk to me." Finally after years of depression, Mahraz started taking control of her life again. She started working--even though her father discouraged her--and she has recently gone back to school to get her diploma.

"You are happy and safe aren't you? Do you have many worries or problems?" Mahraz asked us about life in America. "We do have worries, they are just different than the ones you have here," we tried to explain. "In America, kids usually don't stay with their parents once they've finished with school. They usually have to work and make money and pay for a place to live on their own."

Mahraz replied: "You work hard, yes? But it's good for the country. Your country moves forward while we stay the same."

"Maybe, but we lose a lot too. We do not spend as much time with our families. In general, we do not enjoy leisurely lunches and dinners with the whole family together like people do here in Iran. Often, people are too busy to even leave their offices for lunch!" we told her.

"I would like to live on my own, to be free, but I cannot. It just doesn't happen here in Iran. Women cannot live on their own," explained Mahraz. "In America, you don't have to get married if you don't want to, right?"

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Abeja and Kavitha with Mahraz and her younger sister Halalah
That is true too, I almost felt guilty admitting it. Because it is so difficult and restrictive for her to live with her family, Mahraz is hoping to find someone to marry again. Unfortunately, her father still won't allow her to get an official divorce, so it almost unfeasible for her to marry again in Iran. She has a boyfriend she has been dating for 3 years now, and even though they love each other, she knows she will never be able to marry him. "His family would not allow him to marry someone like me. I already have a child, and I left my last husband."

Even though we only spent a few hours together, Mahraz almost cried when it was time for us to leave. She rarely gets to talk to people like Abeja and I who do not judge her for divorcing her husband, and who are supportive of her and her dreams to have an education and a satisfying career. I too almost cried as we drove away. Although Mahraz was smiling and waving alongside her loving sisters, I couldn't help feeling sad.

What kind of future will she have? Will she ever have another choice to live with her parents? What will happen when her parents die? Will she find herself alone and old and unable to get a job she likes or find a husband who respects her?

radical - tending to make extreme changes in existence
feat - an act notable for its courage or skill
unfeasible - incapable of being done or carried out

There have been many times during this trek that I've been hit with the realization of how lucky I am to have grown up in America. Sometimes it's in the face of extreme poverty, remembering that I've never really been hungry or lacking a safe home to live in. Sometimes I realize how privileged I am to have safe drinking water and basic sanitation. Sometimes it has to do with how fortunate I am to be able to read and write and to have access to a good education. Then there are times when I realize how rare it is that my home is free of such life threatening diseases as malaria or leprosy. But today it's a realization of how limited the lives are of so many women all over the world. Today I realize how fortunate I am merely to have the freedom to choose what kind of work I will pursue, whether or not I will get married, who I want to live with. Making these life decisions without an entire culture judging me is a luxury.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Monica - The Man Behind the Picture: A Tour Through the History of Emam Khomeini
Brian - Taught to Fear, Told What to Think: Revelations in Iran
Abeja - Songs To Iran
Monica - Mindin' Your Own Business! A Story About Cross-Cultural Interactions

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