Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 5, 1999
Captive in body, but not in spirit
Woman relied on God's grace to make escape from Iran
By JOAN HINZ
Special to the WCR
A two-week vacation in Iran turned Betty Mahmoody and her four-year-old daughter into hostages. Mahmoody, a 39-year-old Michigan woman, had been married to an Iranian-born doctor for seven years.
In 1984 he insisted Betty and their daughter Mahtob accompany him to visit his family in Iran. But as Betty was packing for the trip home, her husband told her she would never see America again. "You're in Iran until you die."
Mahmoody's struggle to obtain freedom for herself and her daughter are described in her Pulitzer-nominated book, Not Without My Daughter. The story is continued in her latest book, For the Love of a Child.
In a talk at the Winspear Centre March 24, she described how her husband became influenced by his Shiite Muslim family. When Mahmoody resisted the idea of staying in Iran her husband responded with beatings and abuse.
There was "No freedom of speech, no freedom to remain silent when you were told to speak." His family treated her with hostility. She didn't speak their language and did not know their customs. There was a lot of mistrust.
"Kids were asked at school what their parents drank and read and wore at home," described Mahmoody. "Freedoms that we take for granted in a free country were non-existent."
Iran and Iraq were at war. Border fighting was moving inward. "The air was filled with gunpowder and the smell of burning flesh," says Mahmoody. There were hardships in obtaining food. Water and electricity were turned off every day. There was a shortage of fuel.
But most difficult to deal with were the separations from Mahtob, her daughter. At one point she was locked up and interrogated for two weeks. They were both told they would never see each other again.
After a few months Betty convinced her husband she would stop resisting him. She managed a visit to the American Embassy. It was a great disappointment to learn they could not help. She was considered an Iranian citizen through her marriage.
As Mahmoody gained small freedoms from her husband, she took every opportunity to beg strangers for help. "There were so many people who tried to help," said Mahmoody. They did not want her to think all Iranians were like her husband. One person offered her $30,000, with no security to back the loan.
Mahmoody described how she and Mahtob would "whisper our prayers in English in the bathroom."
After 18 months of living in a foreign country against her will, Betty found a way to escape. "God opened the door for me. He gave me the courage to go through that door."
With the help of friends, they fled through the mountains of Turkey, walking, driving and on horseback. They had to climb the icy mountains when it became too steep for the horses. They crossed the border into Turkey during a civil war.
Now back in America, Betty Mahmoody is challenging people to change their lives.
In Tehran she met other women living in the same circumstances as herself, but observed, "I did not meet one other woman who was trying to get out." She told the audience we have choices how we are going to react to our situations. "We can sit back and complain or we can take steps to make it right."
She cited her faith as a factor in her survival. "Do I believe in miracles? Purely by the grace of God we made it back to America."
Mahtob is 19 now. Mahmoody described her as the real heroine. "She always said, 'When we escape from Iran, not if.'"
During the question and answer portion of the lecture, someone asked what advice she had for couples considering marrying someone from another culture.
Mahmoody suggested they go back to that person's country and see how they behave in their own environment. "When we had children, he wanted to go back to his roots."
Even if that person is not practising the religion in which they were raised, consider that many people return to their spiritual roots when they have children. She said you need to identify the roles of wife, mother and child in that culture.
When Betty returned to Michigan, her troubles were not over. She worked for almost six years to change legislation to make abduction a federal felony. Extradition is now possible amongst countries who have signed agreements.
She was also asked about forgiveness. "I have forgiven him," she replied. "I haven't forgotten. I had to do that to move on in my life. I grieved and I moved on."
Mahmoody and lawyer, Arnold Dunchock co-founded a non-profit organization to further the causes of children caught in intercultural disputes, One World: For Children.