Zarbibi was sixteen years old, and four months pregnant, when she murdered her husband by trying to decapitate him with a kitchen knife. On the day of the murder, she offered to give her husband a massage, binding his hands and feet to the bed before taking his life. “The next morning, even though I was at the police station, I felt happy that he didn’t live in the world anymore,” Zarbibi writes in the account that follows. “Free from him now for the first time, I felt as light as a balloon that could just fly away.”
Though her crime was sensational, Zarbibi’s life was otherwise in keeping with the norms of her Afghan community in Iran, says her lawyer, human rights attorney Hossein Raeesi. In Iran, increasing access to education has made child marriage less common. However, many Afghan migrants, excluded from Iranian citizenship and economic opportunity, continue the practice of marrying off their young daughters for the financial reward it brings—typically, the equivalent of four to five thousand dollars. As Zarbibi describes, her family supported her educational pursuits until both her father and brother—the family’s sole breadwinners—became unable to work. “Because we no longer had men to make money I had to get engaged to a guy I had never met before.” At the age of thirteen she was legally committed to a man of twenty-five, and at fifteen she was formally married, and forced to quit her family home and her studies. “With my first steps into my new house I felt like I had walked into my own grave,” she writes.
In addition to the limitations imposed by her gender and class, Zarbibi’s isolation made it all but impossible for her to reach out for help. At one crucial moment in the following narrative, she thinks to flee her husband. But, as Raeesi asks, “Where would she have gone? For her, the situation into which she was forced proved as much of a prison as the literal one where the legal system ultimately sent her.”
Raeesi first met Zarbibi in jail, after she had been sentenced to death, and encouraged her to write the diary printed here as “both as a kind of therapy as well as a way to explain her story to the public.” This unedited document captures the distress of a young woman who wanted the right to choose when and whom to marry, as well as the uncertainty of a young mother contemplating her daughter’s future. Though the arc of her narrative can be confusing at times, her writing demonstrates a talent for self-expression, one made all the more remarkable considering her limited learning and marginal cultural place. “While her crime is exceptional,” says Raeesi, “the intense feelings that seemed to have motivated it articulate the struggle of so many women in similar positions.”
According to Sharia law, the victim’s family can pardon, and thus acquit, a murderer of her or his crime. Following a lengthy defense, Zarbibi was pardoned by her husband’s family and released from her death sentence on the condition that she marry her late husband’s brother, with whom she he has since had two more children. Her freedom remains highly restricted and her daughter, born in prison, is not allowed to attend school. Out of concern for her safety and privacy, we are withholding Zarbibi’s full name.
—Katherine Rowland with Hossein Raeesi for Guernica
My little sister Havva was the first one of us girls to become a mother, though she still didn’t look like one. A child herself, only eleven years old, she had been married off to a man fifteen years older than her and from a much different world. Though very young, I knew about the pain my little sister endured, both physically and mentally. When she used to cry to come home, my father would bribe her with popcorn and cookies to stay with her husband. How could he do that? I swear to God I wouldn’t even give away a single strand of my own precious daughter’s hair against her will.
After poor Havva it was my sister Negar’s turn to marry. Negar was the third child in my family, the youngest. Since she married the brother of Havva’s husband, they both became sisters-in-law as well as actual sisters. Why is my family cursed in this way? My mother thought that she could “save” her daughters from loneliness by marrying them off at such a young age. She had no idea how bad this other life could be.
It killed me to see both of my sisters suffering. The thought that I might have to endure the same fate became my worst nightmare, something that terrified me since I was a very small girl. For me, the word “husband” meant “monster.” My heart broke when Negar moved out of our childhood home, and her heart broke too. She had been so attached to our family that she became severely depressed when living with her new husband. Her depression got even worse when she became pregnant with twins. One day we were playing together and all of a sudden she started screaming and shrieking and pulling out her hair. It scared me so much I almost peed myself. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?) her babies died in labor. At least she was lucky enough to endure the pain of childbirth at the age of fourteen or fifteen, a few years later than Havva.
Because we no longer had men to make money I had to get engaged to a guy I had never met before. One day when I was coming home from school I saw one of my relatives look at me in a strange way. I could tell something was wrong. When I got home I found my father crying. I knew he loved me a lot. He used to tell people, “I would not marry my little Zarbibi off till her hair turns as white as her teeth.” Wow. How quickly my hair must have turned the color of my teeth! Later that night, when I told the family that I would refuse to go through with it, my mother lashed me so hard that my skin started crying for me. A pool of blood formed on my back, soon hardening into a dried cake. I ran away from my mother and future husband to the bathroom, quickly locking the door behind me. I just didn’t want to sleep with him. To me it seemed like the worst thing imaginable. The ground felt so cold that my feet started trembling. My mother threatened that she wouldn’t let me go to school if I didn’t come out of the bathroom. I loved school and studying so much that I would do anything for the chance to attend. I told her that I would come out of the bathroom if she would not make me go to him. There was no response.
When they dragged me out of there they nearly beat me to death. I don’t know why my new husband wouldn’t try to stop it, since I now belonged to him. You’d think he’d want to protect me from harm. The next day my mother took me to school and told the principal that she didn’t want her daughter in classes anymore because she was misbehaving at home. The principal, who didn’t know anything about my situation, asked me not to misbehave so that my mother would let me return to my studies. I was too shy to tell the truth.
Immediately in my marriage to him I longed for my father so much that I felt like I’d explode. I wanted to call out to someone, anyone, who could save me, but there was no one except God. And I guess God was wearing earplugs. I can never forget the horror of being forced together with this man. I was only thirteen years old and had been married to someone much older, at the height of his masculine power, free to treat his wife however he chose without any regard for me. His cologne made me vomit.
Two weeks after my marriage we went to my mother’s cousin’s wedding and we were planning to stay at this relative’s house for the night. I played with my relatives’ daughters all day long, having a great time. For one moment I felt free again, like a child. Out of nowhere my mother called me and said that I should gather all my siblings and go to my own home. I was very upset, and didn’t know why she’d intervene like this. Then my sixth sense told me that my husband had probably come over to my family’s house, insisting that my mother make me return. I begged her to let me stay at my aunt’s house, but she refused.
It felt like my body was burning from the inside and that nothing would put out the fire. I was sure I would die.
Sure enough, as soon as I took my younger relatives to my childhood home I saw him there. Convinced now that he was the cause, I slammed the door on him and went to the kitchen. I sat there for a little while. Then, I saw some detergent on the counter. I grabbed the bottle and swallowed at least a glass full. I got so sick that I filled the whole kitchen with vomit. My mother came in frantically because of my screaming, and when she saw me so sick she started yelling for help and ran out of the house. Oh my God, it felt like my body was burning from the inside and that nothing would put out the fire. I was sure I would die. I wish I did! Had I died then, my family and my child would not suffer for what I ended up doing.
After I got engaged, one of my sisters and her children moved back with us to escape her awful husband. The shame it brought to our family actually saved me from my fiancé for a while. I knew she upset everyone for escaping her marriage, but I’m glad she did it. At that time my brother got into some trouble with drug dealing and had to run away. My father was away in Afghanistan, and the police detained my mother in his place. Then my sister took what little money we had left to go look for my brother to help us, leaving just us kids—me, my baby sister, and my other sister’s children—without men to protect us. I lived in terror that if my brother-in-law found out he would come take his kids away forever.
Despite the fear of abandonment, I was happy that my fiancé couldn’t come over to our house anymore, grateful to find myself so independent. One evening he came and knocked at the door. I stayed frozen, telling him that I couldn’t open the door for anyone as long as my mother was away. My shocked little sister just stared at me. After half an hour of trying to get me to unlock the door, he got tired and left. That day, at least, it seemed as if God had given me two wings to fly away. I forgot all of my sorrow. All I could think of was the joy of not being with him at that moment. I bet no one would believe me, but even one second with him became like a thousand hours for me.
Around that time we lived in the same building as a grocery store beside an alley. My sister, brother, and nephew all had worked there once in a while. Thank God that we didn’t starve to death. We would have all died of poverty if it weren’t for the owner at the store who employed us. To this day I pray for him to get everything he wants in life. He knew about our situation and helped us tremendously.
I never thought I could fall so quickly from my father’s strong shoulders and onto the cold hard ground.
I used to lie awake nights, longing for the time when I was very little and my father would take care of us. He liked me more than any of his other children. I was quite spoiled. I never thought I could fall so quickly from my father’s strong shoulders and onto the cold hard ground. My uncles didn’t even come to see us at this time out of shame because my sister had separated from her husband. The only person who came to see us was Haji Jalal, my mother’s cousin. Even he just visited for a few minutes, visibly upset over the shame my sister brought to us, as he quickly went back to his house.
At nights I was scared to death alone in the house. I would usually prop up a blanket in front of the window, so that if someone was looking in from outside they would think that it was an adult asleep near the children. I would then go and sleep in the middle of the room. When the kids would come back home from work, they were always careful not to wake me. They would sleep in their wet clothes, since it was too cold to change. To this day I don’t understand how during this time none of the kids complained. After such a harsh life, I really hope they’ve all come to realize their greatest dreams as they’ve grown older.
Despite the fear of being alone, I remember being so happy that my future husband couldn’t touch me. When I’d leave home to go to school, he used to chase me through the neighborhood. I’d try to escape from him as best I could.
Then suddenly, when my father returned from Afghanistan, my fiancé came with his father to take me away. My father talked to me and said that it wasn’t right for me to just stay engaged, and since my mother was not around I should go to my new husband’s house. At first I refused to go, and that worked for a little while. Soon, however, my father-in-law insisted that my family deliver me to his home. Nobody—not my father, mother, or sisters—even asked me if I was ready. At times I wonder whether they considered me a human being or a lamb to sacrifice for their own good. I had worked so hard to give to my family, and I loved them very much. I would never have abandoned them under any circumstances. Within the safe confines of my family, I felt independent, able to be a daughter and sister. I could also never have imagined myself forced to become somebody’s wife.
Besides, school had just started! Whenever I saw my cousin going to school, I’d get so excited and jealous. I dreamt of going to school too, and I couldn’t understand how some kids in my neighborhood didn’t like to study. I’ll never forget the first day I finally went to school. I felt like I could fly down the road to the schoolhouse. Every year I would get so nervous during registration time, terrified they wouldn’t let me return to my studies.
Anyway, on the twenty-eighth day of Ramadan it happened. I couldn’t believe it. I kept waiting for God to help me. My sisters and a lot of other relatives and friends showed up at our house. All of a sudden my sister burst out crying so loud that she made all the others cry. I was still too shocked to show any emotion.
I don’t know when I finally fell asleep, but once I did I felt something cold on my hand. When I opened my eyes, they were putting henna on my palms. To me, it felt like an oppressive shroud. I hope no one ever has to go through this experience. It might not seem like a big deal, but it was to me.
The next day I kept waiting for a miracle so I wouldn’t have to go. Nothing happened. I cried so much I couldn’t even walk. My misery had just begun. I was hopeless. With my first steps into my new house I felt like I had walked into my own grave.
My husband’s house was next to a garden I used to pass by when I played as a child. Strange, but I had always been afraid of that garden, sensing some danger there. I now realize why I feared it. Stepping now into his yard, I felt like I started to choke. My sister came with me the first time I went to my husband’s house. (She knew what would happen if she didn’t.) I actually couldn’t breathe. I wish my sister hadn’t come that day, so I could have killed myself. She stayed with me for just one night, returning to her home in Shiraz the next day.
They thought that I was a grown-up, just because I was tall. They didn’t know how much I felt like a child.
I had only been in my husband’s home for a week when I had an excuse to return to my neighborhood for a party. When I went back to my family home, the first thing I did was to go to my old school to see my friends. They all asked me why I hadn’t been going to school. I was too embarrassed to tell them the truth. When I told my family I really wanted to go back to school, they all laughed at me. They said, “Young lady, you won’t be staying with us long enough to go back to school.” I can’t believe that my greatest dream went down the drain. They thought that I was a grown-up, just because I was tall. They didn’t know how much I felt like a child. I just liked playing with kids, going to the park, and attending school. I never felt ready to have a husband and become a housewife.
After our first few months together my husband had become really upset with me. I didn’t want him to be angry, but it was his fault I felt so miserable. During the day I’d do what I could to keep far away from him, but at night I had to sleep next to him. Our room was next to my father-in-law’s room. When we fought, I’d fear that he would hear us, so I tried not to say anything.
When he beat me I’d cry, not so much because of the pain, but because I had to sleep next to him. I’d tell myself that I should be sleeping next to my parents and my adorable little brother. My husband would first try to talk with me, then we’d argue, and then he’d start getting physical. I wanted to die, just so he couldn’t touch me anymore. When he put his hands on me, I was just a piece of meat for him to devour as he wished.
When he’d call my name, I’d cover my ears so that I would not hear him. My feet and hands ached in bed because I always stayed curled up.
Around this time we were picking some sour oranges from a tree in the neighborhood. All of a sudden I felt sick to my stomach and threw up. One of the older female relatives started laughing and seemed really happy. I couldn’t believe it: I was pregnant. It had been a month since I saw my parents. Like a crazy person in jail, I drew a line on a wall to count each day that I had not seen them. I figured out it had been exactly thirty days. Then, in the early evening, my mother came to take me home. My husband at first refused to let me go with her because we had just fought the night before, but my kind father-in-law, who pretended not to know what was going on, assured his son that it was all right to let me leave. I went to a gynecologist the next day.
Ever since I found out I was pregnant I didn’t have any patience with anything anymore.
All this time I had hoped that I could somehow escape my marriage. Meanwhile, everyone in my family thought that I would change after a while and just accept it like the other girls. So many girls were in worse marriages than mine, but after a while they’d surrender to the inevitable.
I don’t know why I couldn’t change and become like the others. So many times I’d try to talk to myself, saying to just live with it, but nothing worked. When I found out that my sweetie Nazzi was in my stomach, I would tell myself that she would one day become another girl married off just like me. We were destined to share the same future. She’d be better off not coming into this world. She’d be better off dead.
Once I got pregnant, I insisted that I wouldn’t go back to my husband’s house. I told those around me that I wanted a divorce, but nobody took me seriously. I went to a bus station to get a ticket for Zahedan, near the border. I thought I’d first just get away, then I’d decide what to do next.
But when I got ready to go, I couldn’t leave the house. I was too scared, so I just sat on the stairs and started crying. When my sister came in and saw my bag and my ticket, we watched our mother go into the kitchen, pick up a knife, and try to kill herself over the shame I was bringing her. We struggled to take the knife from her. I saw that her body was badly bruised from beating herself up.
I kissed the walls of my home, and there was so much crying among us that I almost fainted.
I then realized that my family couldn’t help me at all. I had been married already for eight months, and I was now four months pregnant. I felt horrible this last time I was at my mother’s house. I kissed the walls of my home, and there was so much crying among us that I almost fainted. My husband came to take me home around Friday afternoon. Usually it took me forever to finally agree to go home with him. This time, however, was different. I just decided to go. A few minutes before we left, I went to the kitchen and grabbed a knife. I decided to take it with me. I don’t even know why I took a knife from my family’s house when we had a knife at his house too.
Every mean word he said and every little way he acted out in anger now made me more determined to take action. I felt in that moment like a strange energy had come over my body. Even though I kept telling myself that he is young and has hopes for the future as well as parents and a sister who love him, I would suddenly forget about all that. I couldn’t talk myself out of it, and finally that evil night came to pass. I had suddenly become a murderer, a person who had taken somebody else’s life for her own selfish happiness.
I never wanted to have my life story turn out like this. I blame myself, but also I blame them for it. I don’t know if whoever reads my story will hate me or not, but it doesn’t matter because it’s the truth. I couldn’t believe after it was over that I no longer belonged to someone else. The next morning, even though I was at the police station, I felt happy that he didn’t live in the world anymore. I really wanted to experience breathing my own breath someday outside of the court and the jail without being scared of him or having people talk about me as a married woman. I wish I could go back to a time when nobody even mentioned his name. Even so, free from him now for the first time, I felt as light as a balloon that could just fly away.
The first five months in jail I didn’t know the difference between being imprisoned and being free. It hadn’t changed much for me. On the 20th of December, late in the evening, I gave birth to my darling Nazzi. I was sixteen. I didn’t think she would live. I told myself that if she did she would definitely become disabled. But God gave me a healthy little girl. It was then that I realized what life was all about. Her innocent face made me cry just to look at her. My sweetie was just three months old when I was sent to court. It was very cold and dark at the precinct where I stayed before my trial. Thank God I had taken a blanket with me for my little girl. The court quickly finished and I was convicted.
I started making artificial flowers and little dolls to raise money. My family would sometimes help me financially and would bring things for my sweetie, from clothes to toys and so much more. My husband’s family didn’t even bother to bring a pair of socks for her. It was a difficult time. To raise an innocent girl among these people who had their own problems wasn’t easy.
But my sweetie was becoming more beautiful and energetic day by day. She was very smart and clever and in spite of her young age she was aware of everything. She quickly knew where we were and why we were there. I wanted her to know my version of things before somebody else told her a different story. In spite of all these hardships, she grew up very quickly. Then one horrible day they called me to go to family court. That day my nightmare of her being taken away from me began. Each time my in-laws came I would make up an excuse for them not to take my daughter away from me and they would leave. The last few times my in-laws came I kissed their feet and begged them so much not to take my child away from me that I was exhausted. Each time they came to take her, all the inmates were in mourning. My poor little child would cry so much that she didn’t have any energy any more either.
I haven’t talked to my own daughter even once since they took her from me. I hope she is happy and well wherever she is.
When my in-laws’ lawyer came and saw my daughter, he too was very upset that this was happening. He’d say, “I really don’t want to separate you from your daughter, but nothing can prevent this.” I knew I had to be punished for what I had done. I had deprived a mother from seeing her own child, and now my mother-in-law wanted revenge. I hated myself for being so powerless, both inside the prison and outside of it. When I was outside I couldn’t decide for myself and now I couldn’t decide for my daughter in jail. I then realized that my existence didn’t matter at all.
I haven’t talked to my own daughter even once since they took her from me. I hope she is happy and well wherever she is.
I don’t know what whoever reads this journal will think of me. Please believe me that I was in such a situation that I couldn’t use my brain. I tried very hard to work on myself and live with my husband. I really did. But I just couldn’t make it work. I was only sixteen and had no life experience.
I beg you to pull me out of this trap if you can. I haven’t lived that long, and I am just now noticing the meaning of life. I don’t think sixteen years of living is enough to see the world. I lived in an inferno for five years and five months. Only God knows how much I suffered then. I hope that God and my husband’s family have forgiven me. I do know that Nazzi’s father must have forgiven me because he alone witnessed how much I was suffering.
Please take my hand and save me from this gradual death. I ask God to take my body as soon as possible if I am supposed to be here for another few years.
Hossein Raeesi is an attorney with considerable expertise in Iran’s justice system. Born and raised in Iran, Raeesi has practiced both criminal and civil law, but his main focus remains on human rights. For over twenty years he has defended hundreds of clients, more than fifty on death row. Formerly a part of the board of directors of the Bar Association, where he was active in training young lawyers, he founded the Nedayeh Edalat Association (Voice of Justice) and worked with numerous other NGOs in conducting workshops for the community in partnership with domestic and international organizations. His private practice in Shiraz, Iran, served as a safe haven for political, religious, and ethnic minorities at legal risk for incarceration. Due to political persecution by the Islamic Republic of Iran, Raeesi was forced to relocate to Toronto, Canada, in 2012, where he currently resides with his wife and two children. He is currently writing a memoir of his human rights work in Iran, which will include the diaries of female prisoners he defended. For more information visit www.hosseinraeesi.com.
Roger Sedarat, an Iranian-American writer and translator, is the author of two poetry collections: Dear Regime: Letters to the Islamic Republic and Ghazal Games: Poems. His translations of classical and modern Persian verse have appeared in World Literature Today, Arroyo, and Drunken Boat. Current projects include the translation of Hossein Raeesi’s memoir and the diaries of the imprisoned women he represented. Sedarat teaches poetry and literary translation at Queens College, City University of New York.