If you’re a young, modern Iranian chick with ambitions beyond cooking and cleaning or protesting for the rest of forever (or until you go to jail or die on the street while someone records your last breath with a cell phone and become a martyr), you might want to consider, contradictory as it seems, an arranged marriage. Marrying a man you’ve never met in a faraway country is actually pretty common for defectors in Iran looking for a way out of the country. It’s one of few ways to leave without being considered a traitor. But watch out for those older Iranian men who have left for countries that aren’t plagued by constant feuds and oppressive religious mullahs, because they’re using arranged marriages as a way to import hot young wives for them to boss around.
We talked to two women who know from personal experience: Anitha, a 25-year-old artist who’s currently on the run from her husband and his family, and Laleh, who’s now 40 and dead-set on helping girls who are forced into arranged marriages.
I was studying sculpture in college in Iran for five years and I had a promising future ahead of me. In Iran, you need to have a lot of connections in order to make it in any career. I did, and I worked for a lot of famous artists in galleries and I was successful. In order for me, and women in general in Iran, to gain respect in any career, you basically have to be a man. So I shaved my head and dressed like a boy. Mostly I had male friends who never fell for me, and I liked that. My mother didn’t support my art studies so I worked my way through university. That period of my life was so good: I had work, I was happy, and had lots of dreams.
I worked hard for three years and even got contracts with my art teachers. I became a respected member of the art community. I felt complete, and people started to recognize me. I was even offered to take part in the Art Biennale in Iran. I was so happy! But every day that letters about new career offers arrived, my mother would tear them up.
One day this man in his forties came to visit us for dinner. It was a friend of my mother’s boyfriend. I had some computer problems and he said he could fix them for me. That’s when everything in my life took an evil turn. He said he was divorced and was visiting family in Iran. The next day he told me he wanted to bring me back to Sweden in order to marry me.
I couldn’t believe it--just the thought of it made me sick. After a month he began to call my mum, convincing her to let him marry me. She gladly told me what a good man he was and how good my life would be. I kept on resisting. It didn’t help though. My uncle and mum started to put pressure on me. They said he had everything, lots of money, and that he would buy me so many things. The man even told me that he would buy me an apartment in Iran. The pressure from my family increased every day. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I tried to run away from my home, but my mother found me with help from the police. Eventually I gave up and thought to myself, “Maybe something good will happen to me,” and “Maybe he is a good man,” and I let down my guard.
The day when the civil marriage took place he had left power of attorney to his father. That meant that he wasn’t present, but that he would meet me at the airport.
When I arrived in Sweden I understood that every word my husband and his family had told me was a lie, and that’s when hell began. He didn’t even come to meet me at the airport. When I finally got to his house, he treated me like I was his dog. I didn’t have any winter shoes so we went to the store to get some. When we went up to the cashier he said, “Pay for them with your own money.” He didn’t allow me to buy cheese in the store that I liked and refused to give me any pocket money.
When it came to sex, I told him to give me some time so I could get to know him, since I didn’t want to disappoint him. After a week he turned crazy on me every night. He threatened to send me back. His parents put pressure on him to pressure me. After 13 days I had had enough and ran away; I couldn’t stand it anymore. I left Sweden and went to hide at some friends’ house in Denmark. Unfortunately, my family and my “husband” found me. So I ran away again and now I’m constantly on the run. His family promised me gold, my own place to live in Iran, and much more, but none of it happened. I only received shit! And the weirdest thing of all is that everyone feels sorry for him because he has MS. Fuck that! He destroyed my pride.
Out of everyone involved I hate my mum the most because she was so easily persuaded by his family. She blackmailed me and she made my life miserable until I married him. I miss my old life. The best time was when I got to travel from town to town to escape my mother and see so many beautiful places in Iran. I had no idea a lot of them even existed.
I never thought I would be married off to some stranger. I thought I would create my own destiny and make myself happy. This part of my life has made me hate men, and I haven’t trusted any man I have met since.
Iran has very antiquated ideas and traditions concerning women. We have no support and no respect from the government. When a woman gets married, she’s supposed to receive money from the husband’s family. But the men escape that by just signing a paper confirming that he will give money to the bride. When he doesn’t, he’s supposed to end up in jail—but there’s no room for them in jail! I’m so angry and disappointed at how the system works. In Iran you have to be very strong to oppose the pressure of arranged marriages.
I miss Iran every day but I can’t go back because of my uncle and father. I’m scared of what they will do to me. I feel trapped in Sweden. I don’t think that I will ever feel as content as I once was back home. At least I can still feel emotions, although I sometimes feel that I don’t want to continue this trip anymore. I know that my “husband” is still looking for me. But I’m more afraid of what my family will do to me if they find me.
In Iran there’s a saying: “If you build a house and the first stone isn’t straight, the whole house will lean.” That pretty much describes my marriage. I was in a situation where I didn’t want to be and I forced myself to try and love someone. It’s really strange to marry someone you haven’t seen in real life. He never hurt me, but I was never attracted to him. Girls from Iran believe that any way out of Iran is a way to paradise and an escape from a controlled and strict society. Reality isn’t quite so glittery. I was promised gold and got rice instead!
When I was 18 I applied to a University in Tehran. But before you are accepted into university, the government does a background check to see what you have contributed to the regime and your religion, meaning you have to prove that you are a true Muslim. I didn’t pass the religious section of the test. They told me, “You are not a true Muslim or a believer,” and I wasn’t accepted to the program. I was lucky they didn’t arrest me.
Instead I started to homeschool the neighbors’ children to earn some money. The mother of the child liked me a lot. She thought I was beautiful. Secretly she made me a candidate for marrying her brother who lived in Sweden. And so the day I always feared arrived. Her family asked mine for my hand in marriage and my parents accepted the offer. Even though I didn’t want to marry a stranger, I had no choice, but I did see it as an opportunity for freedom.
I was allowed to talk to my future husband on the phone and see a picture of him, and I even felt a little positive about the changes in my life. His brother had the power of attorney when we signed the marriage papers. [The photos in this story are of her wedding. –Ed.] Two weeks after the ceremony took place my family threw a huge goodbye party for me, and then I got on the plane all alone, not knowing I wouldn’t see my loved ones again.
My husband was supposed to meet and marry me in Switzerland since our marriage in Iran wasn’t recognized by the European countries. Unfortunately, he didn’t get a visa from Sweden, so he never showed up at the airport. I was stuck there alone for eight weeks while I tried to apply for a visa. My application was rejected. Eventually, I bought a one-way ticket to Sweden. I was lucky that they didn’t check my passport when I checked in. When I arrived, I was put into custody since I didn’t have a visa. Of course nobody at Arlanda airport believed my marriage story, but when they found out about my country’s political situation--that we were at war with Iraq--they finally gave me asylum.
I believed that anything would be better than living in a war-torn country without a work permit. But I soon realized that this was miserable too. I tried to build up my new life, but I cried every night for four months. There were so many cultural and climatic differences. My husband and I were like oil and water. I ended up being his maid because he was so lazy. After a while I didn’t feel like doing anything--I was like a prisoner in my home. Two years later I filed for divorce, but my husband threatened to commit suicide, so I stayed with him for a little while longer.
Finally I had enough. I packed my clothes in a bag and left him. My family back in Iran was very upset, but they accepted my choice. However, I don’t dare to go back to Iran. I don’t want to risk anything. In my husbands’ family’s eyes I was considered a whore and they threatened me on the phone. It was a very difficult divorce. I was exposed and alone, with no one to help me. But I have a strong will and that saved me. I decided to change and develop. I learned Swedish in three months and started to work as a translator. I eventually remarried someone of my own choosing and started my own business as an assimilation consultant.
(translated by Laleh Maghonaki)