Maryam’s voice trembles as she tells what happened when her husband attacked her in public.
“People’s reaction was like it was normal to see a man beating his wife. There’s no law, there are no safe houses, and even the police can’t do much. Some families also act like they’re so modern and they say, ‘Oh it’s a private matter’.”
Her story is a rarely heard one in her home country of Iran, but since the creation of a new podcast, many more women like her are coming forward to share unflinching accounts of their experience of domestic violence.
They have been encouraged by Maryam (not her real name) to use the medium as a platform to break their silence, challenging traditional societal taboos.
“Become Scheherazade,” Maryam tells them – an allusion to the mythical Persian Queen who prevented her own death through her gift for storytelling, one of the main protagonists in the epic The One Thousand and One Nights.
But these stories are a world away from the trappings of ancient folklore, and rooted in a society that largely encourages women to keep quiet.
‘A family matter’
Maryam, 34, met her husband at university where she studied child psychology.
She defied her parents in Tehran to marry the man she loved, who she initially considered a liberal thinker and an advocate of workers’ rights.
But just days into the marriage, she realised something was not right. In the podcast she describes how “pride and a reluctance to admit defeat” prevented her from seeking help from her mother and father.
She endured physical and mental abuse throughout her marriage and, to make matters worse, was made to believe that it was her own fault.
After all, like many women in Iran, Maryam grew up with the familiar maxim: “A woman enters a man’s house in a white bridal dress and leaves only in a white shroud.”
Maryam says widely accepted social norms prevented her from getting out of the marriage sooner.
Iranians are traditionally deeply private people and family issues usually remain behind closed doors. Because of this, domestic abuse has become endemic and women are encouraged to remain loyal and be patient.
Maryam finally decided to leave after she ended up in a hospital bed after a sustained beating. In her semi-conscious state, unable to move because of her injuries, she says she asked herself: “Why am I here and why has this happened to me?”
Weeks later, she was discharged and filed for divorce. Fortunately her parents supported her decision – but not all victims are so lucky.
In each podcast, Maryam is joined by women who share their own experience of abuse at the hands of male members of the family.
As well as personal stories, the podcast also examines the issue of the systemic lack of protection for women suffering violence, particularly domestic abuse.
The only official statistics ever commissioned in Iran on the subject was 16 years ago, which found that two-thirds of Iranian women had experienced domestic abuse at least once.
The London-based human rights group Amnesty International said in a 2013 report on Iran that women in the country “faced discrimination in law and practice in relation to marriage and divorce, inheritance, child custody, nationality and international travel”.
The tragic murder of a teenage girl by her father in a so-called “honour killing” has prompted Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani to demand a speedy review of the bill on the protection of women from violence. This, almost a decade after it was drafted.
The bill – which will still need to be approved by the largely conservative parliament before it becomes law – offers the potential for the biggest change to women’s rights since the 1979 revolution.
It recognises physical violence towards women as a crime and, for the first time, also assigns punishment for harassment in public and on social media.
Five years since the end of her marriage, Maryam says she has never been happier. As well as podcasting, she also holds counselling sessions for victims of abuse, most of whom are women.
She hopes that giving people the freedom to speak out will help end the culture of secrecy that, she laments, “only emboldens your abuser.”
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