Iran’s Runaway Girls Challenge the Old Rules
A short version of this article appeared in ISIM Newsletter 9, Jan 2002, p.23.
Runaway, a documentary film directed by Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-
Hosseini, was shot in late 2000 in Tehran, and is set in Rayhaneh House, a
shelter for runaway girls. Following the stories of five teenagers, the film
explores their longing for freedom, their hopes for a brighter future, and their
experiences of society‟s double rules and standards when it comes to gender
rights. Each of them shows courage and resourcefulness in leaving a domestic
situation that has become intolerable to them. The shelter is run by the
dynamic and charismatic Mrs Shirazi, who, together with a team of
counsellors, protects the girls from their families and helps them to
renegotiate their relationships. Like their earlier Divorce Iranian Style,
Runaway shows how Iranian women are learning to challenge the old rules,
and how rapidly their country is changing.
The film presents us with portraits of the courage and resourcefulness of the
rebellious new generation of Iranian women. It opens with Monireh, a teenage
girl who has run away from home - as she tells us - “maybe twenty, thirty
times”. She is not new to Rayhaneh nor are her grievances unique: they are shared by many teenage girls in contemporary Iran who feel that they have
little freedom to do what they want in life, that their parents do not understand
them. Monireh wants to choose what to wear, how to live her own life, but
she cannot. She asks, “don‟t I have any rights in life?” She resents being
constantly criticized and told what to do. “They can criticize, but they
shouldn‟t interfere with everything I do. I want to live apart from them for a
while. But I have nowhere to go,” she says.
Then come the stories of the film‟s five main characters. Maryam, a
boisterous and skinny 12-year-old, comes from Doroud, a small town in the
west, far from Tehran - “102 stops on the train,” as she tells Mrs Shirazi. She
wears her scarf tight round her head, to cover the fact that it was shaved when
she arrived at Rayhaneh to get rid of the lice. She ran away from her abusive
brother. “We have a thick cable and he beats me with it,” she says. “If anyone
beat you with it, you‟d be in bed for three days and nights.” Setareh‟s family
broke up after her mother‟s death; her father became a drug addict and dealer and prostituted her to feed his addiction. After he disappeared (most likely arrested for drug dealing), Setareh became homeless and was eventually picked up by the police. After some time in prison, a judge sends her to Rayhaneh to help her to rebuild her life. At the shelter, 19-year-old Setareh starts to reinvent herself, and becomes a source of strength and comfort to other girls. A close friendship develops between her and 17-year old Parisa, who, the counsellors suspect, is not revealing her true identity. Indeed, it turns out that, far from being without a family as she first claimed, Parisa is engaged to be married. She ran away because she failed her exams and was frightened that her father would beat her. Supported by Setareh, she is reconciled with her family and her fiancé. Atena, already twice divorced at 18, was first married off at the age of 12 by her mother, who no longer wanted her at home. Her first husband kept her chained up, but Atena managed to get a divorce and returned to her mother. When her step-father tried to rape her, she escaped, but she had no other option than marrying again. Her second husband turned out to be a drug addict; she got another divorce, and this time ended up in Rayhaneh. Despite all this, she is desperate to go back to her mother and sisters. The film ends with a second Parisa, an 18-year-old, who ran away from her abusive father and brother - both drug addicts who deprived her of her very basic rights and took out their anger and frustration on her. After a week on her own in the park - surrounded by „wolves‟ - Parisa
turns herself in to the police. She is sent to Rayhaneh, where she is offered a chance to continue her studies and start an independent life. But Parisa decides to go back to her family, who desperately need her despite having abused her. At the end of the film, when her family comes to take her from the Centre, and as the drama of her dysfunctional family unfolds in front of the camera, we come to understand the reasons for her decision to go back. We even come to feel for her macho brother. We all know the ties that bind.
Facing Up to Reality: The Creation of Rayhaneh
The problem of girls suffering abuse at home and running away from intolerable situations is neither new in Iran nor confined to particular sections of Iranian society. It is an age-old and deep-rooted phenomenon and until recently was shrouded in secrecy and silence and ignored by the authorities. But the creation of Rayhaneh House in October 1999 as a temporary shelter
for runaway girls, and the media attention that this Centre has received, are
1transforming the issue from a taboo subject into a pressing social problem.
Two factors are at the root of this transformation. First, a new generation of girls recognize that they have rights and are no longer prepared to put up with domestic abuse. By running away from home, these girls both register a protest and seek to change their situation. Secondly, the unexpected victory of Mohammad Khatami in the 1997 presidential election, and the birth of a reformist movement, also brought a less ideological approach to social problems, which has gradually opened a space for a public debate on many taboo subjects.
Rayhaneh House opened its doors to runaway girls in October 1999. It had its origin in a 1998 project funded by Tehran municipality (dominated by the reformists) to deal with the problem of street children. It was discovered that many of these children were runaways, and a number of them were girls. Two Centres were created in 1998: Green House for boys and Rayhaneh for girls between the ages of 12 and 19. It was also found that the most likely early destination of runaways was either a bus or a train terminal, so offices staffed by social workers were set up in all the Tehran terminals to identify runaway children as they either tried to leave Tehran or arrived from the provinces. In its first year of activity, Rayhaneh dealt with 497 runaway girls; 334 of them were referred through the social workers located at terminals, 42 came through the social worker at Ayatollah Khomeini‟s shrine, 31 were picked up in parks and streets, 69 were referred by the judiciary, and finally 21 girls came to Rayhaneh of their own accord. Of these 497 girls, 394 were returned to their families, 218 directly from the terminals, after counselling, and 175 girls after a stay at Rayhaneh, usually lasting between a few days and few weeks, during which their families were contacted. Of the remaining 103 girls who could not be reconciled with their families, 47 were referred to the social services, 21 came under the protection of charity institutions, 14 were handed to the police, and two ran away from Rayhaneh.
The very existence of Rayhaneh, its philosophy and its strategy for dealing with the problem of runaway girls run parallel to the history of the reformist
1. There are no precise statistics of runaway girls in Iran. According to an official in the
Social Services Organization, in the year 2000 there were between 5000 and 6000 in the
country, 900 of whom were identified in Tehran.
movement which found a voice in the structure of power after the election of
President Mohammed Khatami in 1997. Since then the reformists, who enjoy
massive popular support (as shown in the four further elections conducted
since), have been locked in a fierce political battle with their opponents, who
have so far managed to block most of their legislative moves. At the heart of
the battle lies one of the main ideological conflicts that is now being fought in
Iran - over the very notion of „rights‟. The early discourse of the Islamic
Republic, premised on the notion of duty (taklif) as understood and
constructed in Islamic jurisprudence, is now challenged by a reformist
discourse premised on the notion of right (haqq) as advocated by modern
Runaway gives us a glimpse of how this wider ideological struggle is playing
itself out in the lives of individuals. It is the story of a struggle for dignity,
respect and human rights. As each story unfolds in front of the camera, we
learn about the gender biases, contradictions and double standards of the
patriarchal culture in which these young girls live. We come to appreciate
how strong and resourceful they are, how much they are needed by their
families, and yet how, in the name of preserving the „family honour‟ and
„fulfilling their duties‟, they are deprived of very basic human rights. We also
learn about the Centre, its counsellors and their conflicting judgments and
decisions about the girls; we learn about the world outside the Centre, which
both girls and counsellors refer to as „full of wolves‟. It is a world that is
changing fast: old rules and boundaries are breaking down and the new ones
are hazy and fragile. In this world, women still have no place and few rights
outside the family; men still see themselves as „watchdogs‟ vis-à-vis their
own sisters and as „wolves‟ vis-à-vis other girls; the legal system continues to be regulated by the mandates of pre-modern shari„a, which puts men in control of women. Where can girls seek refuge from abusive families in a
society where there is no law to protect them?
The lucky ones who make their way to Rayhaneh find shelter, and some kind
of protection, and other women who can negotiate for them with their families
and the authorities. But Rayhaneh can offer them only temporary solutions. It
sees itself as a „station‟, as a point of respite for the girls; and its main objective is to facilitate the girls‟ return to their families through counselling
of the girls and of their families. Rayhaneh also tries to mediate between them.
Counsellors try to bring the girls to their senses, to make them realize the
futility of running away from their families. They tell them there is nowhere to go and they have little choice but to accept their situation: the world outside their home is „full of wolves‟. They tell the parents that the young girls have
rights, and that they must treat them with respect. In a society where family honour is defined through the behaviour of its women, reconciliation is possible only when the girls are still „intact‟ (salem), i.e. virgin. Every girl
undergoes a virginity test before being sent to Rayhaneh either by the police or by the court. The unlucky ones who fail the test are treated as „offenders‟ whose loss of virginity is taken as proof that they committed the crime of zina
(illicit sex). If they are over 18, they are liable to receive the fixed punishment (hadd) of 100 lashes. If they are under 18, their fate is in the hands of the
judges, who might send them to the Centre for Correction of Juvenile Delinquents or to Rayhaneh. If they reach Rayhaneh, the counsellors try to find a solution to their problem, which can mean either negotiating with their family to accept them back or tracing the person responsible for the loss of virginity and persuading him to marry her. In no way do the staff of the Centre address the issue of the complicity between the state and the Iranian family, first in having institutionalized virginity tests, and secondly in maintaining the ideology, the supreme importance of the criterion of „intactness‟. They do not question why „loss of virginity‟ should be regarded as such a threat to the family and the state.
Making Connections: Shooting Runaway
By 2000 there were 22 centres for runaway girls nation-wide. Rayhaneh is the only one that allows media access. The rest, mostly run by the Social Services Organization, impose a strict ban. Aware of the important role of media, Rayhaneh is keen to have its philosophy and the plight of the runaway girls publicized. But it has also had to deal with the harmful impact of media attention on the girls. Concerned about the possibly intrusive effect of a film crew on the girls, the Director, Mrs Shirazi, at first agreed to let us film only for a few days. But the girls accepted us almost immediately; as they began to trust us with their stories, we - the three women in the film crew (Kim Longinotto as director and camera, myself as co-director and Mary Milton as sound) - soon became part of the healing process. It was only then that Mrs Shirazi gave us a free hand and let us stay until we had completed our shoot. We tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, but we never filmed without the
consent of the girls or their families. We filmed at Rayhaneh over a period of four weeks in November and December 2000. At the time, there were 15 girls who had been in the shelter for some time, but we sought stories structured by arrivals and departures, following the stories in between. Our decision was largely based on the fact that the emotional drama was high; and we wanted our stories to have resolutions. Once we had chosen our characters, we kept close to them and followed what was happening to them as closely as we could. When editing the film, we were concerned to place the focus on the girls and their individual stories, rather than on Rayhaneh as a Centre or on the world outside.
As in „Divorce‟, we were aware that we were dealing with a universal issue; the problem of runaway girls is not peculiar to Iran. We wanted our film to give a voice to these girls, to let them tell their own stories, and through their stories to show Rayhaneh, the counsellors and the dynamic and powerful Director, Mrs Shirazi. We wanted the film to show their consensus approach to the problems, and how they set up delicate „reconciliations‟ between the runaway girls and their families. We see these women disagreeing with each other, and giving differing advice to girls, we see them exasperated by the lack of legal support for their organization. At one point, we hear Mrs Shirazi telling Parisa‟s father that, if he fails to keep to his guarantee and starts to
maltreat Parisa or she runs away again, she will take him to the International Court in The Hague. Perhaps it is an empty threat, certainly it is a bluff - but it tells of the extent to which Human Rights discourse has made its impact in reformist Iran. Similarly, the fact that, unlike in the case of „Divorce‟, we did not have to go through an ordeal to get our permit to film tells something of the ways in which the reformist government of Khatami has been successful in creating a more open society in Iran. This time our main negotiation was with Rayhaneh and Mrs Shirazi, whose principal concern was to protect the girls from the film crew.
Ziba Mir-Hosseini is a Research Associate at the Centre of Near and Middle Eastern Studies, SOAS, University of London. She is the author of Marriage on Trial (second
edition, I B Tauris, 2000) and Islam and Gender (Princeton University Press 1999).
Runaway is her second film as co-director with Kim Longinotto; she wrote about the first
(Divorce Iranian Style) in ISIM Newsletter 2. She can be contacted on