This is for You

Working Class and Female in Iran


This is for You
by Setareh Sabety

To mark international women's day I decided I should write about three Iranian women whom I came to know well when living in Iran just before Ahmadinejad's first term. The three of them worked for me as housekeepers/babysitters and my knowledge of their lives is limited to our employer/employee relationship and class differences. But we spent a lot of time together and often our talks and interactions were more intimate than those I had with women I knew socially. For whatever it is worth I thought that I should expose the lives of three very ordinary Iranian women from different backgrounds and different sensibilities. This is for them.

Shahin khanoom was a portly and feisty woman in her forties who loved to eat and talk. She lived in Karaj with her husband and two children. Her husband who used to be employed in a factory was now too old and sick to work. Shahin khanoom was a good cook and experienced housekeeper. She was literate and looked forward to her Koran classes. She wore a black chador which was always dirty, was an active member of her mosque and was devoted to the Mahdi whom she swore to every other sentence. Shahin khanoom was not overly devout, at least around us, never really proselytizing and more concerned about making a living than the nuances of Shiite Islam. She was very friendly and managed to charm any guest in our house into giving her a good tip. Shahin khanoom knew everyone in our neighborhood of high rise apartments and was the one everyone came to when looking for help. She found jobs for many of her friends and relatives. She feigned love for my children the way only Iranian nannies do with shameless conspicuousness that may be partially fake but is comforting nonetheless.

Shahin khanoom came to me in tears one day. Her daughter had just finished her high school and was taking English and a computer literacy course. She had found a good suitor, a rich boy from the neighborhood but did not have enough money for a dowry and could not possibly agree to the match for fear of losing face that the lack of a proper dowry would surely cause. So, I set out to collect money from friends and family to add to my own contribution and gave it to her. She told me she would buy a fridge and other household musts for her beloved daughter. I told her I would love to attend the ceremony. She promised to invite us all, to the delight of my own eight year old daughter.

When several weeks passed, I asked Shahin khanoom about her daughter's wedding plans and was told that the suitor had reneged. I was very upset for the poor girl and assured Shahin khanoom that another prospective husbabd would soon surface. A few days later her daughter came to pick her up and I ran into her in the lobby and noticed that she had had a nose job! I soon realized that the dowry money was really meant to be used for a nose job. I was going to bring it up to let her know that I had discovered her lie but decided not to when the next day Shahin khanoom came to me crying. Her husband had become angry when she, coming home from work, had cooked a dish that he hated and her son loved. He had thrown the dish at her and hit their son before storming off. Whether or not the story was meant to deter my anger at her or not I decided to comfort her and forgive her the lie about the dowry. A nose job, after all, was fast becoming as important prerequisite for marriage as a dowry in Iran.

Shahin achieved her dream of opening a hairdressing salon after two years of working for us. Only to close the salon just six months later because she was losing money. When she left to open her salon Shahin khanoom introduced her sister in law to replace her.

Fatemeh was in her early thirties, illiterate with the accent of her native Kerman. Her husband, Shahin khanoom's brother, was an opium addict who ate opium because it was cheaper than smoking it. He worked in a shoe store belonging to another relative but did not make enough to support his habit far less his four year old son and wife. So they had decided that he should stay home and take care of their four year old son who was still too young to attend public school. Fatemeh khanoom had no experience as a house keeper but was hard working and proud. She lived in the outskirts of Karaj further from the capital than Shahin khanoom in a rented house whose toilet was a shack at the bottom of the yard. She left her home early in the morning walking down an often muddy road and taking two buses to get to our house. She never missed a single day's work and was, unlike Shahin khanoom, very honest with a work ethic that seemed to belong more to New England than Kerman.

One day she came to work with her young and incredibly precocious son. She told me that her husband had been unable to score opium the day before because she had refused to give him money. Going through withdrawal the addict husband, one of many thousands in Iran, had taken it out on the boy and beaten him. I told Fatemeh Khanoom she could bring the boy to work every day if she wanted. Once a month I would ask the husband who was skinny and frail to come and wash windows or do some other job so that I could pay him something too. Fatemeh khanoom never again refused to pay for his opium. He was not a bad man, we had come to agree, but he was an addict who like many could not quit. When I asked Fatemeh khanoom why she did not divorce him for he was useless and abusive to boot, she told me that she would lose face in her village if she went back for her yearly Nowrouz (Iranian New Year) visit without her husband. When I asked her was it better to have an addict for a husband than none at all she told me the men in her family all smoked opium (Kerman produces the best quality of opium in the world and Kermanis are known to have a penchant for smoking it). But even if her relatives where not opium smokers it was better to keep one's husband even if he was a murderer than walk around with the stigma of divorce. When I told her then I should probably never visit her village she told me having money changed everything and I would quickly be forgiven and have many suitors! While in Iran I often saw how money could by the most regid of religious and traditional strictures.

Roya was the first woman I employed when I returned to Iran after twenty some years in 2002. Roya khanoom was in her early twenties, a student in the last year of accounting at Tehran Azad University. Her father had been the driver of a friend's dad before the revolution. A pretty, energetic and smart girl, she was the eldest of four sisters. She performed her prayers and fasted during Ramadan but did not believe in the hejab which she took off the minute she got inside the house regardless of the presence of unrelated men. Her father who was a fast-talking north Tehrani from Gholhak was a kind of jack of all trades who broke his fast with a shot of iced vodka that I would give him when he came around sometimes for iftar (breaking of fast after sun down). Her sister was studying English at the University in Rasht and was in love with a boy that she was secretly dating but whom she could not marry, according to tradition, until her older sister, Roya, had married.

Roya and I became very close since I was going through a difficult second marriage and she was always having boyfriend problems. She was very open-minded and hated the mullahs in power. She was, like the rest of us, very disappointed with Khatami and watched satellite Iranian television broadcasts from Los Angeles and Dubai. Like most young people I met when I lived in Iran her biggest dream was to leave. She loved clothes and makeup and spent the part of her salary which she did not give to her father on grooming. She was hard working and dedicated, a veritable manager who was running my household the second week on the job. Roya was extremely articulate and a great debater making me joke that she should study Fegh (religious law) in Qom.

She had a fiancé whom she loved. They had been dating for two years. He was a college graduate and worked for the Ministry of Commerce. It was important for Roya that her husband be at least as well educated as her. She had turned down a rich bazaari suitor for that very reason. She argued with me that a husband who is not as educated as his wife would end up resenting her. A husband feeling intellectually inferior to a wife was fatal to a marriage according to the wise beyond her years Roya. The pragmatism of women that I met in Iran, young and old, never ceased to shock me.

Finally a date had been set for her wedding after much bickering between the two families regarding the number of guests and responsibility for costs. A wedding in Iran is a serious business transaction. The price of the Mehr (or bride price) is of utmost importance. As Roya's dad explained to me, "I have to ask for a high Mehr because if the boy turns out to be rotten who do I go to get my daughter's reputation back?" The Mehr,(which can be cashed any time after the wedding) which I initially abhorred as putting a price tag on the woman in a marriage, actually saved Roya from the fate of Fatemeh khanoom.

The morning of the wedding Roya and her family went to the notary to sign the wedding contract but her fiancé did not show up. A few days later a distraught Roya came to me in tears. The fiancé who had managed to hide his heroin addiction had had an overdose and had been taken to the hospital a few days before. The boy's father, afraid that the marriage would not last long and that the high bride-price would be demanded once the bride and her family found out, forced him to leave Roya waiting. If it had not been for the Mehr she would have been married to an addict which was surely worse than the pain and humiliation she had to endure for being stood up.
When Ahmadinejad got elected I moved from Iran leaving behind my own bad marriage. I have tried to keep in touch with the three women. Fatemeh works for my mother now and her husband is still at home although her son goes to school and gets straight A's. Since I have moved she has been forced out of her rented houses five times. With the high price of rent she still does not have a place with a bath or shower. With the high price of goods she can only feed her family as much meat as my mom buys for her. Her husband still eats opium and sleeps most of the day. Shahin khanoom's husband passed away, she married a rich Haji and is an active supporter of Ahmadinejad at her mosque according to her sister in law. Roya went on to get a job at a company after she graduated. She makes half of what she made as a babysitter and housekeeper but it was better position to have for her reputation and for finding a husband. More than seven years on she is still not married. On the phone recently Roya told me that she had never recupperated from being stood up. In her neighborhood, amongst family and friends she had lost face. She asked me if I could get her a visa and help her to leave: "this hell."


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Setareh Sabety

khejalat meedeen

by Setareh Sabety on

thank you very much for the enthusiastic and encouraging comment. I truly appreciate it.


Insightful and as always Magnificent

by mehdi2009 on

Dear Ms. Sabety,

I am running out of accolades and superlative adjectives to describe another of your excellent essays. As always your Marvelous writings are to the point and insightful.

I have also been successful in tuning my wife into reading your essays, and we both marvel at how accurate are the stories about these three women in Iran.

I have mentioned before that while in Iran a few months ago, I found that the new generation of Iranian women to be amongst the most Intelligent and highly informed in the history of our land. The tragedy of the last 31 years has developed into a positive thing for them, as they have found ways to express and educate themselves beyond the crap that Mullah's Murderous Regime feeds them on a daily basis.

The other problem which I noticed to be eroding everyday is the fact that Iran is still an extremely Chauvinistic society, and men's own insecurity (I myself am secure enough to know I am insecure) in dealing with a gigantic number of intelligent and highly educated women is very problematic for this violently Anti-Women Regime. The Murderous Regime can't stand that 60% of the University Educated Population are women, and their BS about men's superior intellect will not wash any more when proof is there for every one to see everyday.

Thanks again, and keep on writing.

Salutations to All the TRUE Sons and Daughters of IRAN. 


Setareh Sabety

Sepaas everyone!

by Setareh Sabety on

Thank you all for reading my piece and for the generous comments! You make me want to write more and that is invaluable to me!

Red Wine


by Red Wine on

Great article ... Thank you so much for sharing with us .


Thanks Setareh jan

by Souri on

It is always a delight to read your articles and stories. I admire your writing skill, flawless and intriguing.

More power to all the Iranian women of the working class.


This was Just awsome

by KouroshS on

Great story.  Thank you setareh khanoom. yet another good article.

I think i was so deep into it that i lost track of time. So sad to see that even in this day and age, there should be those who be it in iran or elsewhere, should remain in the most desparate of conditions, without so much as having a private bathroom..

Mashalah be shahin khanoom for having the strenght of character to carry on... Dorood be roya and i hope she will find the means and the way to get a visa and Get out of that hell.

Anahid Hojjati

Dear Setareh, thanks for sharing story of three women

by Anahid Hojjati on


Setareh jan, I have not been to Iran for more than 25 years but growing up I knew of women who lived in conditions similar to Shahin Khanom and Fateme khanom. That is why your stories resonated so much with me. You also did a great job explaining each woman's challenges and what happened to them after 7 years.


Thank you, Setareh jaan.

by Princess on

There are countless Shahins, Fatemehs and Royas in Iran and around the world. Thanks for putting the spotlight on them even if it is for a few minutes.



Thank you

by HollyUSA on

Great article. More women like the three you wrote about deserve to have their stories told. It certainly brings home the reality of their lives to those of us who are so far removed from 'that hell'.



Iranian Women Take the

by vildemose on

Iranian Women Take the Lead, and the World Must Follow: International Women’s Day 2010




Very touching. You should

by vildemose on

Very touching. You should develope these characters and write a whole book about your experiences in Iran.

Flying Solo


by Flying Solo on

Read it first thing this a.m. on Huff Post and so glad to see it here.

Humanizing the demise of the Iranian woman is the greatest gift that a great writer such as yourself can give readers - Iranian and otherwise.

 Thank you Setareh Jan.