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Racism, xenophobia, and misogyny: The endless suffering of Afghan women refugees in Iran

Atifah * is 25 years old and lives in Iran. She separated from her addicted husband four years ago and started life anew as a single woman who is the head of her family. Her new life had many problems, especially when it comes to matters related to work and finding a job. She says, “In most cases, when the employer found out that I am divorced and the head of my family, they either did not give me work or offered me work in exchange for sex.”

Atifah was born in Iran to parents who had fled Afghanistan. Though she spent her whole life in Iran, her legal status remains that of a refugee from Afghanistan. She spent 11 years with her husband in the hope that one day he would quit addiction. A year after their marriage, he , but when her husband joined Iran’s Fatemiyoun militia and spent most of their marriage in wartorn Syria. “I thought my husband would quit his addiction after joining this group, but he didn’t change anything and returned home once every six months,” she tells Zan Times. “This was unbearable for me and my son.”

Unable to obtain a formal divorce due to his membership in the militia, she tried another route: local community elders and mullahs. She was able to obtain a customary separation certificate but it does not mean that she is a free and unmarried woman in Iran. The process of obtaining an official divorce for women in Iran is a complex long process that usually takes about a year if both parties agree on the divorce and the woman gives up all her rights. Divorces can take years when the woman is Afghan and her husband does not consent. That difficulty means many Afghan women are in a state of limbo – in charge of their families, but often not legally free. 

Farzanah *, a legal expert and immigrant women’s rights activist in Iran, tells Zan Times that Afghan women who lead their families in Iran are subjected to injustices by society and face discriminatory treatment for three reasons: “First, we are women; second, we are refugees; and third, we do not have ‘a guardian.’”

Farzanah does not believe any law in Iran can support Afghan women refugees, explaining that laws about refugees are male-centric, and often exclude women. “For example, refugees are allowed to work in brick baking ovens, brick making, and poultry farming, which are all male jobs,” she states. “Refugee women are not allowed to get work permits for tailoring or hairdressing.”

For two years, Atifah tried to find a job or a home for herself and her only child in the city of Qom. Finally, she was forced to hand over custody of her son to her husband’s family: “Now that my son is with his father’s family, they have spoken so badly about me that my 9-year-old son hates me and does not speak to me.”

Finally, Atifah decided to travel to Mashhad with a group of other women to search for work. For the trip, they all needed work permits, but in Iran, that document requires the permission of a husband or an official divorce. When Atifah was unable to prove she was formally divorced, a government official responsible for issuing such travel documents offered to trade the certificate for sex. “The government agent told me that there is no problem,” Atifah recounts. “He gives me a letter, but I have to agree to give my home address as well.”

Atifah has found that single women in charge of their own homes are viewed negatively in Iran, especially for Afghan women: “If I were a man, I would punch him in the mouth. Nothing would happen. In the end, I would have been deported and could have lived in Afghanistan, but because I am a woman, the situation is different.”

Even Afghan women who have been in Iran for decades struggle with societal and governmental disapproval of women leading their own households. Zainab* is 65 years old and works 17 hours a day at three separate jobs to pay the expenses of her family of six. “I work in the agricultural fields, then I work as a cleaner in people’s houses for a few hours, and, at the end of the night, I weave carpets in my own house,” she tells Zan Times. She and her family left Afghanistan for Iran in 1990. She has led her family for 30 years. 

Despite all those years living in Iran, Zainab reports that the people and laws of Iran still discriminate against her because she’s a refugee woman who is the head of her family: “No help was given to us from any institution. If I had worked in another country for these 30 years, I would be retired by now.”

 While many Afghan women like Zainab grew old doing hard physical labour in Iran, a new generation of women refugees in Iran also lost all their property and rights in Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban. Iran’s Foreign Ministry has said that around five million Afghans live legally in Iran. In March 2023, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said that one million Afghans have entered Iran since the Taliban takeover of August 2021, though there are no public statistics on how many of those refugees are women who head their own households.

A recent refugee is 30-year-old Wahida, a single woman who used to own property in one of the central provinces of Afghanistan. She decided to divorce her husband in July 2022 when he remarried. Because Wahida’s husband was in contact with local Taliban in that province, he took custody of her three children, and all her property, including her hotel. “I tried hard to get custody of my children, or at least I want to get the hotel that I built with my own money, but my husband’s threats increased. I was alone and could not complain to the Taliban court. They were all complicit,” she tells Zan Times. 

Wahida says that her husband thought her desire to divorce him was an insult. He even threatened her with death. “I came to Iran to save myself lest my husband kill me after the divorce. But it is very difficult to find a job here,” she says, especially because, as a single woman, she has no “guardian” in Iran.  

Her visa is set to expire soon, and she has been unable to get an extension despite multiple visits to the local UNHCR office. With Iran starting a new campaign of pushing refugees who lack valid documents back across the border to Afghanistan, she is worried: “I am afraid, if my visa won’t be extended, I will be deported into the hands of my ex-husband.” 

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees and writer. Shakiba Rahyab is the pseudonym of an Afghan journalist in Iran.