‘You are here for the rest of your life. Do you understand? You are not leaving Iran. You are here until you die.‘
Imagine if these shocking lines were thrown at you: how would you take it?
For Betty Mahmoody, an American woman who married Dr. Sayyad Bozorg Mahmoody (who she refers to in the book as Moody), an Iranian man, these lines were the least of all abuses. In her book Not without my Daughter, Betty Mahmoody chronicles her time in Iran. Travelling to the country under the impression that they were visiting for a short while, Betty, her daughter Mahtob accompany her husband Moody. While in Iran, Betty encounters a very difficult reality: ranging from being forced to eat grains of rice with insects running about, to suffering brutal domestic violence at the hands of her husband while his family turned a deaf ear. The backdrop to Betty’s story is not very far displaced: for the culture of patriarchy that builds antagonism against women in Iran proves to be a breeding ground for personal stories of violence and attacks against women and their rights.
Moody is a doctor in the US, after having studied there. He appears to be a rather dignified and kind human being, until circumstances force him out of his employment, leaving him depressed and angry. Meanwhile, the Shah of Iran gets deposed, and the Ayatollah takes over – and it is a time for change in the country’s political landscape. Moody takes on a heavy political overtone in pursuit of much patriotism for his motherland, and soon decides to take his wife and five year old daughter, Mahtob, back to Iran. The plan, as he tells his wife, is to stay there for two weeks.
But before she knows it, Betty finds herself smack centre in a culture that is foreign, no doubt, but hostile and unwelcoming. Mahtob and she are subjected to much violence at Moody’s hands, and the antagonism to her status as a woman, and as an American at that is heavily palpable. Mahtob is forced into a school that inculcates an institutionalised sense of radical fervour against the United States. Betty finds herself nearly being arrested for wearing a pair of socks with one too many wrinkles: fallen socks could mean exposed skin, enough to be “haram”. Moody wants to make a religious, subservient and god-fearing wife out of Betty, and does everything he can in pursuit of that: he beats her, tortures her, threatens and abuses her, and separates her from her daughter.
By Iranian Law, a woman marrying an Iranian becomes an Iranian – and that disentitles Betty from her citizenship of the United States. The torment at the hands of her husband and her in laws mounts with time, and Mahtob also becomes a target for Moody’s violence. Betty must escape her fate, and escape to her freedom. A lot of people originally offer to help her out of Iran, but at the cost of Mahtob – and Betty decides to hold out until someone comes in to smuggle the both of them out of Iran. What follows the arduous 18 months of violence of every brutal kind, Betty gets out of Iran with Mahtob in tow to her freedom.
What the memoir tells the world may not be true of every family story in Iran, which is definitely a point to keep in mind, because no literature or fiction can be considered as a representation of a whole. But, that said, it is important to understand the cultural issues that Betty’s memoir represents: the prevalence of patriarchy, the underlying notion that a woman is not more than property in a man’s hands, that a woman has and should enjoy no rights – these are issues that set a whole trend of dominoes falling.