The Plight of the Iranian Jewish Divorcée

A hundred years ago in Iran, my great-grandmother, Tavoos Khanum (later known as Mrs. Peacock), made history by becoming the first Jewish woman ever known to have left her husband. She had married him when she was 9 years old; he was two decades older. He was handsome and wealthy, and he was good to her, but he was also good to a great many other women — which was understandable, given that men have natural urges that must be satisfied — but Mrs. Peacock was an odd and troublesome kind of wife. She lasted a little over 10 years and then gave her husband an ultimatum, and when he ignored it, she packed up her bundle of clothes and her four small children and walked out on him, into the life of poverty and hardship she knew awaited her beyond the doors of her husband’s house. The laws of the land and the traditions of the community being what they were, a married woman was at best a “guest” in her husband’s house — allowed to enjoy the facilities while she was on the grounds, but not entitled to anything from the moment she left, not even if she had helped create it.

A whole lot has changed in our world since Mrs. Peacock left Solomon the Man. In the United States, most Iranian Jewish women have rights and freedoms they couldn’t dream of in Iran. And yet, in the wealthy neighborhoods and million-dollar homes of Great Neck and Beverly Hills, when it comes to ownership of property or wealth made or acquired during the course of a marriage, most Iranian Jewish men still see their wives as “guests.”

Take the daggers out if you must, Gentlemen, and blame me for being the messenger with the too-loud voice, but I believe this is a story whose time has come: A girl is raised (in Beverly Hills or Manhattan, Sherman Oaks or Roslyn) with the ultimate aim of finding a good husband. She marries in her early 20s, lives in a beautiful house, drives a great car, competes with other married women over whose kid goes to the most expensive school and whose husband makes the most money, and it’s all fine and dandy; she can reign over her empire of sand as long as she remains married to the same man. But if either one of them decides to call it quits, she will end up pretty much where Mrs. Peacock did after she left Solomon the Man — on the street or in her father’s house, poor or dependent and besieged by not only the former husband, but also her own relatives; not just by the men, but often even more so by the women, all of them telling her she should have made the marriage work at any cost because look at her now — middle-aged, with no skills and no work experience. And it isn’t as if the husband’s about to give her a dime — he’d rather spend all his money on the lawyers if he has to, it’s a matter of principle, you see, we can’t let one woman get away with a big settlement because that would embolden all the others who’re unhappy and champing at the bit, before you know it they’ll all be filing for divorce and taking their husbands to the cleaners.

Yes, I know we have “community property” and “alimony” and “child support” in this country. But we also have men who have made an art of skirting those laws, who have created a support system of family members, friends and paid agents, all with the singular purpose of making sure that every woman who dares dream of divorce understands just what she’s getting in the bargain. The million-dollar house she lives in with her husband belongs, on paper, to his father; the three apartment buildings and two businesses and seven cars bought during the life of the marriage actually belong to his brothers and uncles and nephews. He can’t pay alimony because he’s living, on paper anyway, below the poverty line — the Ferrari parked outside notwithstanding.

There are, of course, some exceptions — men who deal fairly, even generously, in a divorce settlement, but the fact that those are exceptions rather than the norm in this culture should tell us something. And, of course there are American and European men, too, who have been known to play dirty in a divorce; that’s why we have the $800 per hour attorneys’ fees. But to say that evil exists everywhere does not justify its existence in the first place, and let’s face it, guys, we have people in this town who make a living by standing in, on escrow and title documents, for husbands in divorce proceedings: For a fee, they will sign sworn affidavits claiming that they, not the husband, really own the properties in dispute. Divorce attorneys know this, and so, by now, do many judges working in family courts in this country. But there’s only so much the law can do in the face of an entire establishment that has planned and guarded against a possible divorce even before the marriage began (the eleventh hour quit-claim papers are just the beginning); there’s only so much a woman can do against all the forces that conspire to keep her submissive and silent (her own fears, her family’s wishes, her children’s fate, her husband’s promise to make sure she goes to her grave barefoot and hungry, all those Hermes bags he bought her during the marriage can go to hell).

Mrs. Peacock worked day and night to raise her children alone, and in time built a small fortune and a remarkable legacy. One of her daughters founded the first battered women’s shelter in Iran. Still, at the end of her life when she tallied her gains and losses, she declared that for a woman, any bad marriage is better than the poverty of divorce. Today, I know many women my own age and younger who have reached the same conclusion; I know others who have taken the very brave step Mrs. Peacock once took and who are paying the price. But I don’t know many men who decry the mindset and actions of dead-beat husbands, and I don’t see any of our community leaders — our rabbis, especially, who are so good at telling us just how to be good Jews — so much as broaching this subject.

That leaves us — the women.

I’d say it’s time we taught our daughters to become financially independent before they get married, and taught our sons to treat their wives as they would like their sisters and daughters to be treated in a marriage. That we lent moral and financial support to our friends who are raising their children without the aid of their fathers, actually condemned those fathers’ actions instead of accepting them as a permanent truth.

We’ve become very good at organizing for Hadassah and JNF and a hundred other Jewish causes. Those are all safe and easy. Maybe it’s time we took on a bigger challenge, looked inward and tended to our own, as well as to others.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.