Parisa has a Ph.D in chemistry, and has been the head of her household for the last 15 years. She is one of many Iranian women who have lived abroad for years, but who travels back to her homeland regularly. Recently, during one of her trips to Iran, she was confronted with one of the country’s discriminatory laws against women — the law stipulating that women need their husband’s permission to travel.
Parisa says she will never forget what she had to go through — whole days spent in the passport office, the consular office, the court and police stations. She explained what happened before she came up against this legislation. “As the political and economic situation got worse in Iran, we left the country,” she said. “Immigration damaged our marriage. In the meantime, my mother got sick, so I renewed my passport to visit her in Iran. Then the ‘husband’s permission’ law stopped me from leaving the country.”
When Parisa arrived at the airport to travel back to the US, staff at the immigration stamped a travel ban in her passport. They told her to report to the passport office, where she was told that when her husband had filled out and signed the forms for her new passport, he only gave permission for one-time travel and not for multiple trips.
It was then that she realized her husband had tricked her.
He wanted to force Parisa to leave him without any dispute — and without demanding her rights. “I went to the consular office and back to the police station and talked to the immigration and passport officers,” she said. “I was shouting and distraught walking around those buildings, worrying about my children’s food and their schools. I kept telling my story to anyone I thought might be able to do something. I talked about my six-year-old daughter, who needs me to be with her, and about my two sons who need my care. I showed photographs of my home, my notebooks, family albums and whatever I had, but they kept telling me that there was no other way to leave the country but by asking for my husband’s permission.
Her husband didn’t answer her calls. “I called him from a number he didn’t know and he pretended not to hear me. He wanted to find an opportunity to take revenge, as he felt inferior during all these years he was faced with my strength. He enjoyed hearing me cry and beg him. For four months I ran between the offices and felt very worthless and humiliated. The rules helped him oppress me and kill my soul. I felt powerless, without any control over my life.”
After four hard months both for her and the children, for the sake of their young daughter, her husband finally granted travel permission and Parisa could go back home. She filed for a divorce soon after. But the unfairness and the humiliation of what happened to her haunted her, even years on from the incident. “I was a Ph.D student and my husband had a degree. Then I was the breadwinner. I could never understand why I was worthless in the eyes of the law. I’ll never forget this obvious injustice. Rules are created by humans to protect their rights, but in Iran those rules are created by people in power to protect their own superiority.”
The Importance of Prenups
“I have many female clients living with their well-integrated husbands who enjoy the western liberal lifestyle — but when it comes to divorce, these men use all the power Iranian laws give them,” says Sara Mahmoudi, an Iranian lawyer.
She refers to another client who traveled to Iran with her two children to visit her family and was banned by her husband from going back to where she lived. “They aren’t divorced based on Iranian laws, but have lived separately for years. And he banned her from traveling. She realized it at the airport as she tried to leave Iran.”
Mahmoudi has worked hard, sometimes for many months, on divorce cases for her clients. “Currently the only way to deal with this discrimination allowed by law is a prenuptial agreement included in the marriage contract. As a woman you should consider including the right to get divorced and the right to travel without your husband’s consent in these prenups so you won’t face such restrictions when leaving the country,” she says. According to Iranian marriage laws, women are not allowed to petition for a divorce, and, as Parisa’s story shows, they can only travel with their husbands' permission.
Sahar is one woman who included the condition in her marriage contract that she was able to travel freely and frequently without her husband's permission. But she still needed his permission to renew her passport, indicating that women may have to be very specific about what they outline in their contracts. “They told me, ‘you included the right to travel frequently in the marriage contract but you didn’t mention the right to renew your passport,” Sahar says. The officer checking passports told Sahar: “I will send your documents with your husband’s permission letter to the passport administration but I’m pretty sure that they won’t renew your passport, and that you will have to come back here again.”
Sahar was lucky. “I didn’t have enough time for that paperwork and had to travel back as soon as possible. I sent the form to my husband and he signed and sent it back via fax.”
Zahra Ravanaram, another Iranian lawyer IranWire spoke with, suggested there might be hope for change. “After so many female scholars and athletes were not able to leave the country to deal with [various matters], representatives in the parliament’s Women’s Committee sought to find a solution for the passport laws,” she told us.
Famous Husband-Initiated Travel Bans
Ravanaram points to the experience of Niloufar Ardalan, a footballer for the women’s national team who wasn’t able to leave Iran to play in the Asian Championship in 2015 because her husband wouldn’t allow her to renew her passport and travel. And she mentions Zahra Nemati, an Iranian Paralympic and Olympic archer who competed in Rio 2016, but before that was banned by her husband from leaving the country for the 2015 games.
“After the news of Zahra Nemati went viral, an amendment was proposed in the parliament by the Women's Committee called ‘Facilitating Travel for Iranian Women in Emergency Situations,’” Ravanaram says. “They campaigned for the law [including] on social media and stated that the proposal had been sent to the governing board of parliament. The amendment addresses Article 18 of the passport law. According to the article, women are not allowed to leave the country without their husband’s consent. Article 18 specifies that married women need permission from their spouses, or the local prosecutor in special cases, to travel abroad alone.”
However, the progress of the amendment remains ambiguous. “They once said the proposal was voted through by the National Security Committee and is waiting for the paperwork,” Ravanaram says. “But it seems as if has been completely left behind. This proposal could be a solution for famous women only, [women] who want to take part in academic or sports events and whose husbands won’t allow them. They could leave the country by saying their situation is an emergency.”
Impossible for Foreign Officials to Help
Another person IranWire spoke with is Nahid, who lives in California. She got divorced under US laws and has lived alone for the last six years. However, she says she won’t travel to Iran because of the passport laws, despite the fact that she misses her family a great deal. “After our divorce was registered in the US, I went several times to the Islamic Republic Iran’s consulate in Washington and asked for the registration of my divorce according to Iranian Law. I told them that I had been divorced for six years and that I didn’t even know where my ex-husband lives. They told me I have to hire a lawyer in Iran and get a divorce in an Iranian court and then they will register it in Iran so they’ll be able to register it here as well.”
Nahid sent her ex-husband massages through mutual friends to get him sign the forms that proved there was a mutual intent for divorce. “During the divorce procedure, he asked me to renounce the alimony for my kids and I didn’t agree. Now he doesn’t want to cooperate. I feel his power over me even after six years. I can’t even travel to Iran to see my mother.”
To see for myself about what it was like for women in Nahid’s situation, I called the consulate in Washington, saying I was an applicant. I told them: my husband doesn’t agree with divorce; but we have lived separately the last six years. A man in the legal department who introduced himself as Mr. Nikkhah told me: “You should hire a lawyer and process the divorce on your side. Your lawyer should consider looking at one of the 12 circumstances on which a woman can ask for divorce. When you register your divorce in Iran, we can help you to register it here.” He didn’t tell me what would happen if my case didn't fit within those 12 circumstances. What if I can’t afford a lawyer or I couldn’t find one? What would happen to my case then? I explained to him that in order to secure a divorce in Iran, the husband had to be present and be active in making sure proceedings go ahead. In many cases, it can take years and sometimes divorces don't even go through. But the man I spoke to said, "There is no other way."
Afsaneh is another woman living in the US who has been forced to deal with the strange rules of the Islamic Republic consulate. “When I called the consulate, they asked me If our marriage was registered in Iran only. I answered no, and he told me we should register the divorce first in America and then they will register it in Iran.”
But ultimately, Afsaneh’s husband abused the situation.
“My husband was wealthy. According to American law, half of his wealth belongs to me after divorce. My husband asked me to waive my rights, and only then would he process the divorce in an Iranian court,” she said.
Afsaneh agreed. But even though they registered the divorce in the US as agreed, her husband didn’t deliver his promise. He wouldn’t sign the forms. It took Afsaneh six months to convince him, through talking to mutual friends, to process the Iranian divorce.
These stories give only a glimpse of what it is like for many Iranian women trying to secure some of their most basic rights, whether they are based in Iran or not.