Friday, September 07, 2007

Books I've Read: Not Without My Daughter

A friend of mine has been saying for years now that she will not allow her daughter to leave for college without reading Not Without My Daughter. Never having read it or seen the movie myself, I checked it out of the library recently. How I missed this powerful tale of oppression and adventure, I’m not sure, but I think I’ll follow my friend’s lead and have my daughter read it before she leaves home.

For those of you not familiar with the story, in 1977, Betty Mahmoody had married an Iranian doctor practicing medicine in the United States. He was loving and kind during their courtship and even during the early part of their marriage. He was also apparently not a devout Muslim.

Then the revolution overturned the shah’s rule in Iran. Suddenly, Moody, as she called him, became increasingly interested in Iranian-American politics and critical of the United States of which he almost became a citizen. His interest in and practice of Islam increased wildly.

A few years later in 1984, one of Moody’s relations arrived for an extended visit. Shortly after his departure, Moody decided that they needed to go on a two week visit to visit his family in Tehran. Moody swore on the Koran that they would come right back after their trip. The two weeks were miserable for Betty and her little girl, Mahtob. Moody’s family was unfriendly toward Betty and unsanitary. Betty and Mahtob counted down the days; soon it was time to leave. However, at that time, Moody and his family announced that they would not be returning to the United States after all. Thus Betty’s life was reduced to separation from her sons and aging parents in America, beatings, imprisonment, and separation from her daughter for a time as a punishment, all at the hands of her “loving” husband.

Some of Moody’s female relatives eventually felt bad about his treatment of Betty, but there was nothing they could do to intervene. No one would defend her when Moody beat her. No one would help her escape when he imprisoned her for various lengths of time. One relative said she was sorry about what she was going through but not to feel bad because all men were like that.

In addition, Betty met Ellen, another American woman to whom a similar thing had happened, but who had finally accepted her fate. Betty initially felt a kinship with Ellen upon meeting her at a class as they were from the same state in the U.S. Ellen’s husband had been an engineer in the U.S. and was very Americanized when they had met, but he changed drastically when they moved to Iran. He beat her into submission and imprisoned her for a year. Ellen finally converted to Islam and accepted her oppressed role. Betty never did.

Although Moody had beaten Betty at their daughter’s school in front of all the teachers and the principal, they would not go to the police for her. Even if she had gone to the police, there was little they would or could do. The Iranian constitution gave no real rights to her, a woman.

While the extremists argued that hyper-modesty would protect women, it somehow failed to prevent sexual abuses against them. Daily, girls and women were raped in Tehran, sometimes murdered. Not only did women have to completely cover themselves to avoid immodesty and inciting men to lust, but they couldn’t travel alone safely anymore in Tehran even when covered. To be alone was to be at risk. Betty herself was accosted twice but managed to get away both times. Funny but even a chador revealing only a small part of a woman’s face was not enough to quell the lust in some men’s hearts. Could it be that women’s modesty or lack thereof wasn’t the problem?

Betty did manage clandestinely to make contacts with people in the underground, who also wanted out of Iran. She snuck such meetings into her shopping schedule when she was able to move about. The Swiss Embassy and a few other people, both Iranian and American, wanted to assist her out of the country. Her escape could have been accomplished fairly easily if she had been willing to leave without her child, but she refused. Several times Helen of the Swiss Embassy strongly suggested she just forget about her daughter and they could get her out. Those of Iranian background, such as Helen, could not understand her refusal as in their worldview the children belonged to the man.

Under pressure from friends, Moody finally agreed to let Betty go back to visit her dying father but refused to allow their daughter to accompany her. First he told her that she would need to sell off all their assets in the States and send the money to him before she would be allowed to return, then he slipped his master plan to her that she would never see her daughter again. With the situation now more desperate than ever, one of her secret friends pulled all his favors to execute a dangerous cloak and dagger plan to hide Betty and her daughter and shepherd them out of the country.

Most striking to me in reading Not Without My Daughter was the consistent witness of the oppression of women in Islamic societies. Reading Lolita in Tehran and Infidel both corroborate Mahmoody’s tale. Reading Lolita in Tehran obviously focused on oppression in Iran following the revolution thereby confirming Mahmoody’s eyewitness account while Infidel demonstrated the dire circumstances of women’s lives in several countries. In Saudi Arabia in particular, the author related how every night she and her family would hear the cries of women beaten by their husbands in homes close to theirs. Everyone heard, and everyone could recognize the voices, but no one talked about it or did anything. Brutality against women was just a fact of daily life.

Certainly violence against women occurs in the United States as well. I’ve known many women who have shared details of their nightmarish lives before their escapes with me. Yet the law was on their side, and the culture as a whole backed them in their desire to live free from familial harm. Such violence is not brushed off as "just part of life" or "all men are like that". Spousal abuse is deviant behavior.

Therefore, it is a mystery to me how a religion of peace can brush off this kind of oppression against women. It is a mystery to me how Westernized men can so quickly return to brutality against women they supposedly loved, once they return home. It is a mystery to me how people anywhere can witness violence and oppression and not intervene and how “law” can side with the guilty. And it is a mystery to me how anyone claiming a faith in God can justify to himself violence against women and children. But no one seems to have any answers, and I remain mystified.

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At 9/07/2007 3:49 PM, Blogger John Burgess said...

If you'd like to learn what the Saudis--including Saudi women--are trying to do about this, I invite you to stop by Crossroads Arabia. I try to keep track of how Saudis are pushing for reforms on their own terms.

At 9/07/2007 6:29 PM, Anonymous Thomas said...

This is not the product of Islam, it's just most obvious in Muslim dominated countries, which tend to have a theocratically justified legal system. It is the product of monotheist power structures that, almost universally, paint god as masculine.

Violence against women was the standard case of affairs in the United States as little as a century ago and, in many communities, continues unabated. It's the result of the ideology that underlies all of the Abrahamian religions and we won't be rid of it until that ideology shifts.

At 9/07/2007 6:46 PM, Blogger Anna Venger said...

I disagree, Thomas.

I do think it is a worldwide problem, but it is not because of monotheism. Personally, I think it has deep roots in the harder lives of people long ago when a man's greater strength was crucial. Arabia did not treat women well when they were polytheistic before Islam, either, and they even had female deities. We see female infanticide in China because males are valued so much more highly. In India, widows were killed at their husbands' funerals. They certainly weren't monotheistic. I could go on, but, hopefully you get the point. I think your scope is too limited on this issue.

Now Jesus Christ earned my adoration when He came into the world and treated women with respect time and time again, regardless of whether they were "respectable" or not. That is the model that ought to be followed.

At 9/14/2007 5:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well Christianity wasn't nice to women either, or some followers of Christianity. What is forgotten or easily overseen is that there were muslims that helped Betty get herself and her daughter back to our country. Not every muslim is like this same as not every Christian is a nut-job.

I think you should be careful in telling someone's scope is too limited on any issue, you're not a theologian nor a cultural anthropologist, and it's rather arrogant.

I suspect you have a pretty myopic world view that is solely informed by Christianity. JC might have come into the world and treated women with respect (example Maria Magdalene) but Christianity in all its shapes an sizes have also committed and continue to commit similar crimes as radical/fanatical muslims do today.

Thomas is right, it's easy to look at Islam and point the finger, while forgetting about the stuff we do here in the name of Christ. If you don't know, look it up...

At 9/17/2007 2:55 AM, Blogger Anna Venger said...

Interesting....I comment back to Thomas that I don't think this is a problem with only monotheistic religions but is in fact a worldwide problem....and you go on a rant about Christianity and how myopic I am. I think you missed the entire point of my comment.

At 1/30/2008 4:23 AM, Anonymous Seyyed said...

I suggest you watch "Without My Daughter", the documentary film which is shown the story from another viewpoint. It is more just to listen to all of the narrators. You can find some more information about it here:

At 4/02/2008 8:21 AM, Anonymous Shalini Surendran said...

Yeah.. Every book lover should read this book.
"How anyone claiming a faith in God can justify to himself violence against women and children". Very well said.. It contains the message of the book!Cheers!!

At 7/11/2008 5:23 AM, Anonymous Iranian woman said...

I suggest you don't read just anything that is published on Iran. Iran bashing sells nowadays and did when the book you mentioned came out because of the hostage crisis. I was raised in Iran, have travelled extensively and have lived in the US for about ten years now. Trust me, I have seen more violence and ignorance in the US and in american media than anywhere else in the world.

I suggest you read a book with more substance and substantiated facts like Stephen Kinser's All the Shah's Men, or Elaine Sciolino's Persian Mirrors than some low level novel that is the product of imagination of an ignorant woman who obviously refused to understand another culture.

I am not saying this because I am muslim and I really believe that women should cover up or that men should be superior to women and have the right to beat women etc. In fact, I am not muslim and I don't think women should cover up, etc. And the point of my argument is that the traditions shown in the movie Not without my daughters are mostly made up, or highly exaggerated.

Obviously Betty didn't write this book for the age of technology, because thanks to the internet, nowadays it's pretty easy to check things. Just go to youtube and put in Iranian or persian women, cinema, etc and you'll get numerous videos of how women live and work in Iran.

At 7/12/2008 10:18 AM, Blogger Anna Venger said...

I doubt videos produced now would reflect life 30 years ago.

"Reading Lolita in Tehran" was written by a well-educated Iranian female professor who lived through that time period. Her take on the culture of Iran seems more in keeping with Betty's interpretation of that time period.

At 7/22/2008 1:47 AM, Anonymous qurat ul ain said...

I'm looking for this book. I'm from Pakistan and I think I understand the workings of a society that perpetuates this kind of abuse. Although, women have a few rights in Pakistan, it is nearly impossible to enjoy them because of the kind of social fabric Pakistan is. It's really sad- especially when they consider themselves morally superior to everyone else.

At 8/10/2008 5:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I suggest you read a book with more substance and substantiated facts like Stephen Kinser's All the Shah's Men, or Elaine Sciolino's Persian Mirrors than some low level novel that is the product of imagination of an ignorant woman who obviously refused to understand another culture."

Blimey, your comments above says all and is quite venemous.

My father lived in Saudi for 7 years working for the Saudi government and would not allow me to date a Kuwaiti (I attended college in South Shields, England which was where Iranians and Iraqis mainly trained in Electrical Engineering). The guy in question was lovely but he saw firsthand how women were treated. Although he enjoyed life over there, he said that women were treated with total disrespect.

My father is dead now but some of the stories that he told me are imprinted on my brain. My daughter will also read this book before she leaves home.

On another note, my best friend married an Iraqi aged 17 and has been married for 20 years. He is a great guy and a great husband but he is keen for my friend and the children to move to one of the middle eastern states. I hope she never goes.

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