Marriage among the mullahs

The directors of "Divorce Iranian Style" speak out about unhappy marriages, Islamic law and the rights of women.

Published December 16, 1998 1:51PM (EST)

The scene is a small courtroom in Tehran. The cast is a steady stream of veiled women who have come here in an attempt to change their lives. There's the 16-year-old girl who wants to leave her 38-year-old husband and go back to school; the mother of two grown children who wants to punish her husband of 30 years for beating her; the young mother who wants to leave her husband for another man but doesn't want to give up her children. Three very different circumstances, with seemingly one solution: divorce.

Or maybe not. As the captivating documentary "Divorce Iranian Style" shows, Islamic law makes it almost impossible for women who want a divorce to get one without the consent of their husbands. And because men risk losing their financial security if they divorce, they often choose to stay married -- even if their wives make their lives a living hell.

If, however, a woman can prove to the family courts that her husband is either impotent or insane, she stands a chance in the courts. It's this provision that makes "Divorce Iranian Style" a fascinating and often highly entertaining film, as we watch these women use a combination of histrionics and shrewd tactics to demand rights they don't have. One woman insists her husband is crazy because he won't let her use the phone, crying to the judge at one moment and cheekily grinning at the camera the next. Another whispers to the judge that her husband hasn't touched her since the wedding, and expresses her shame at having to admit this in public. There is a tragic dimension to each of their stories, though none of the women see themselves as victims. Nor do filmmakers Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini see them as victims, but rather as pioneers in a legal system caught between religious tradition and modern reality. Salon recently spoke with Longinotto and Mir-Hosseini at New York's Film Forum, where "Divorce Iranian Style" made its East Coast premiere.

Are most women aware, when they first marry, of their legal status and rights?

Mir-Hosseini: It's really difficult to generalize. In 1979, when the revolution happened, something like 68 percent of the population lived in villages. Now somewhere around 70 percent live in the city. So Iranian society has changed a lot.

But in my own marriage, my second marriage, I was 28, I had just finished my Ph.D. and I fell in love. I was very educated, and it was my choice to marry. But I wanted the right to divorce -- a woman can stipulate in the marriage contract to have the right to divorce. My husband said, "No, no, how can you think about divorce now when we are so much in love? If you want a divorce, do you think I am the kind of man to refuse you?" I trusted him. That's why I signed the marriage contract.

So many women like me start their life on the assumption that there is total equality and harmony. I thought, this law will not apply to us, we have a different understanding. But when the relationship broke down, he refused to give me a divorce -- he just wanted to keep me in a state of limbo. At the time of marriage, I thought that it was based on equality. But when it came to the divorce, I realized it wasn't there.

One of the most shocking moments in the film is when the judge orders a woman to win her husband back by making herself more attractive. It seems like such an absurd suggestion, and yet I'm sure her reply -- "Why should I make more compromises; I've been compromising for 30 years?" -- would resonate with plenty of Western women as well.

Mir-Hosseini: It's always that way, everywhere in the world. The more women compromise, the more the other side expects. And yet women are very much valued in Iranian society. It might sound very strange and bizarre, but they are. Especially if they are professional women, they are very much treated with respect. Women are very much loved and valued as daughters -- that is where they get their strength. After my mother died, and everything collapsed, I realized that she was the one who was holding everyone together.

In all the cases that we saw, the marriages broke down why? Because these men did not accept those strong women. They want to control them within the family. So these women [in the film] do not put up with that. When there is harmony and balance, I would say marriage in Iran is egalitarian in practice, though not in a legal sense. Women have different spheres of action, but they have a great deal of freedom within that. And that is where these women get their strength. There is a confidence, a soft and inner confidence, which comes from their religious belief, and from the way that the society sees them, and the way that they see their rights in Islam.

Why would a man want to stay in an unhappy marriage, when it's clear the women who have been denied a divorce are determined to make their lives difficult?

Mir-Hosseini: Often the men also want divorce, but if they take the initiative and petition for a divorce, then they have to pay. So in order not to pay, they make life so miserable for their wives that they initiate the divorce and give up everything. It's all about money and settlement.

If the wife takes the initiative to ask for a divorce, even if it is the husband's fault, then she's got to give up everything -- her children included. A man has the right to divorce, he can divorce whenever he wants, but a wife can only have access to divorce with her husband's consent. So that puts them into two different negotiating situations. So when they come to the court, they have their own strategies. Even if both sides want divorce, they are never straightforward about it in court.

The most heartbreaking moment in the film is watching Miriam try to convince the judge to let her keep one of her two daughters, even though she left her husband illegally. On the one hand, she is clearly trying to manipulate him with her tears -- on the other, she is truly distraught, understandably so.

Mir-Hosseini: If you are a woman, once you have children, you must stay in a marriage for the sake of children. You don't have the right to fall in love with another man and leave your husband. That is why the court secretary is so angry about Miriam. Miriam broke the ground rule. Her husband didn't want to divorce her -- she wanted the divorce because she didn't love him. But she wasn't abused, so according to the court's perception, she didn't have a terrible marriage. She should have stayed in a loveless marriage for her children. And if a woman does not put her children first, then the assumption is that whatever she does is for lust.

I suspect most parents feel they make sacrifices for their children, even if it's not legally mandated.

Longinotto: I was just saying that last night. My mum used to say, countless times, "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the children. I'd have left your dad years ago." That's what we grew up with, and I'm sure it was true. When we left home, they got separate rooms, and eventually separate flats.

That's one of the things that made shooting the film very hard, because you always look at these things through your own experience. I grew up in a very loveless marriage that was held together for the children, so I don't really rate families very much. To me, the family's a kind of suffocating, small unit. I always wanted to get out of my family as soon as I could.

But most people tend to see divorce as a bad thing. To me it means women have got more choice and more power. So if somebody says a society has a very low divorce rate, I usually assume it's because women haven't got any other options. Maybe that's just me -- I don't know what Ziba would say to that.

Mir-Hosseini: What we really wanted to show in our film is how this universal thing is dealt with in a very specific cultural context. Marriage is a difficult institution, and when it breaks down, it's painful. Different societies have different ways of dealing with it, but there is no ideal way, no ideal situation.

There are so many similarities and so many differences at the same time. I come from Iran so I come from a culture where divorce rates are low, where mothers keep the family together, and sometimes I think it's very good. But I chose not to have a child, because I saw how children tie women. I knew that my first husband wanted a child in order to keep me under control, and I also knew I would never desert that child.

I couldn't make up my mind about the divorce court judge. At times he showed such sensitivity -- to both sides -- while at others he seemed completely unsympathetic.

Longinotto: Well, my feeling of him is that he's basically a good man -- he's got six kids and he's happily married. But it's a question of limitations. He can't really ... he finds it hard to visualize women's position in an unhappy marriage. Remember when the 16-year-old Ziba comes to court and says about her husband, "I can't live with him"? And he says to her, "Oh, you can live with him. He'll make you happy, he's a good man." He can't quite understand what women's positions are. I think he's trying his best, but at the same time he's limited by what he can do within the law.

Mir-Hosseini: Also, he's a very religious man, so he operates on certain assumptions underlying the legal rules. One of these assumptions is that every woman wants to stay in a marriage. And he cannot conceive that a woman would not want that. When, in the first case we filmed, he tells the woman, "You've got to beautify yourself to get him back," in fact, he's talking about a legal rule. Because whenever the husband asks for a divorce, this divorce is suspended for three months, during which time he's got the right to take the wife back. It is seen as a favor to women, because traditionally women have always been dependent on marriage. But that condition has changed, and so he's operating on certain assumptions that no longer correspond with the reality.

Also, because he is an Islamic judge, he does not see his role as making a decision. He sees his role as putting the two parties on the path of negotiation. He tells them what the law is, but he never comes out with a decision. He doesn't take positions like that.

Were you surprised to find that these women were willing to fight so aggressively for rights that they weren't afforded under Islamic law?

Mir-Hosseini: The sense I get from the women, particularly when I sit and watch the film again, is that they want the same things that everyone wants. They want love, they want happiness, they want to be able to work, to be out in the world. And what's happening is, as more of these women are educating themselves, the sheer ground swell of it coming from below is forcing a change. So it's not a question of the government making concessions to these women -- it's women forcing concessions from below. It's women like young Ziba saying, "I want to go back to college, I want to study." Or Miriam breaking all the rules and fighting for her children. The effect of all this is that laws are going to have to change to accommodate these women, because they're not going to put up with it. That's what's so fascinating to me.

By Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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