No Escape for American Wife Trapped in Iran : Mother, Daughter Kept Imprisoned in Patriarchal Middle-Eastern Society

From "Not Without My Daughter" by Betty Mahmoody With William Hoffer. Copyright 1987, Betty Mahmoody and William Hoffer. Reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press Inc

Nearly a month had passed since Moody had made hostages of us, and the longer we remained in Iran, the more he succumbed to the unfathomable pull of his native culture. Something was horribly askew in Moody's personality. I had to get my daughter and myself out of this nightmare before he killed us both.

A few days later, during the lazy afternoon hours when Moody was gone, I determined to make a desperate run for freedom. I slipped a supply of Iranian rials out of their hiding place, grabbed Mahtob and quietly left the house. If I could not make contact with the embassy over the telephone, I would somehow find my way there.

Wrapped up in my montoe and roosarie , I hoped that I was unrecognizable as a foreigner. I had no desire to explain my actions to anyone. I kept my roosarie pulled securely over my face, so as not to attract the attention of the pasdar , the ubiquitous and frightening secret police.

"Where are we going, Mommy?" Mahtob asked.

"I'll tell you in a minute. Hurry." I did not want to raise her hopes until I felt we were safe.

We walked quickly, intimidated by the hubbub of the bustling city, not knowing which direction to go. My heart pounded with fear. We were committed. I could not gauge the ferocity of Moody's reaction once he realized that we had fled, but I had no intention of returning. I allowed myself the faintest sigh of relief over the joyous fact that we would never see him again.

Road to Freedom

Finally, we found a building displaying a sign that read, in English, TAXI. We went inside to request a taxi and within five minutes we were on our way to freedom.

"Where are we going, Mommy?" Mahtob repeated.

"We are going to the embassy," I said, able to breathe more easily now that we were on our way. "We will be safe there. We'll be able to go home from there."

Mahtob shrieked delightedly.

I paid the taxi driver and pushed the button on an intercom box at the gate. An electronic buzzer unlocked the gate and Mahtob and I rushed inside onto Swiss--not Iranian--soil. An austere but friendly Armenian-Iranian woman named Helen Balassanian listened quietly as I blurted out the story of our monthlong imprisonment.

"Give us refuge here," I pleaded. "Then find some way to get us home."

"What are you talking about?" Helen responded. "You cannot stay here!"

"We can't go back to his house."

"You are an Iranian citizen," Helen said softly.

"No, I'm an American citizen."

"You are Iranian," she repeated, "and you have to abide by Iranian law."

Iranian Citizens

Not unkindly, but firmly, she explained that from the moment I married an Iranian I became a citizen under Iranian law. Legally, both Mahtob and I were, indeed, Iranian.

A cold chill settled over me. "I don't want to be Iranian," I said. "I was born an American. I want to be an American citizen."

Helen shook her head. "No," she said softly. "You have to go back to him."

"He'll beat me," I cried. I pointed to Mahtob. "He'll beat us!" Helen empathized, but she was simply powerless to help. "We're being held in this house," I said, trying again as large tears rolled down my cheeks. "We just managed to escape out the front door because everybody is sleeping. We can't go back. He'll lock us up. I'm really afraid what will happen to us."

"I do not understand why American women do this," Helen muttered. "I can get you clothes. I can mail some letters for you. I can contact your family and tell them you are all right. I can do these kinds of things for you, but I cannot do anything else."

The simple chilling fact was that Mahtob and I were totally subject to the laws of this fanatical patriarchy.

I spent the next hour at the embassy in shock. We accomplished what we could. I called America. "I'm trying to find a way to come home," I cried to my mother thousands of miles away. "See what you can do from there."

"I've already contacted the State Department," Mom said, her voice cracking. "We're doing what we can."

Letter to U.S. Government

Helen helped me compose a letter to the U.S. State Department that would be forwarded through Switzerland. It stated that I was being held in Iran against my will and that I did not want my husband to be able to remove our assets from the United States.

Having done what she could, Helen finally delivered the dreaded ultimatum. "You have to go back now," she said quietly. "We will do all we can do. Be patient."

She called a cab for us and gave him an address a short distance from Ameh Bozorg's (Moody's sister) house. We would walk the last few blocks so that Moody would not see us arrive by taxi.

My stomach churned when Mahtob and I were on the streets of Tehran, with nowhere to go but a husband and a father who had assumed the role of our jailer.

'Can't Tell Daddy'

Trying to think straight even though my head was pounding, I spoke carefully to Mahtob. "We can't tell Daddy, or anyone, where we were. I'm going to tell him we went for a walk and got lost. If he asks, don't say anything."

Mahtob nodded.

Moody was waiting for us when we finally arrived. "Where were you?" he growled.

"We went for a walk," I lied. "We got lost. We just walked farther than we expected. There are so many things to see."

Moody considered my explanation for a moment, and then rejected it. His eyes glaring with the righteous menace of a Muslim man crossed by a woman, he grabbed me, one hand digging into my arm, the other pulling at my hair. He dragged me in front of the family members who were lounging in the hall, about 10 in all. "She is not allowed to leave this house!" he commanded.

And to me he said: "If you try to leave this house again, I will kill you!"

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