by John C. Kouch and Daniel McCarthy; edited by John Clark
Samar Aryani-Sabet is currently a research editor for Temple Law Review. Her Comment, “Battered Iranian Immigrant Women and the Ineffectiveness of the U.S. Antiviolence Remedies,” was published in our winter issue. In this interview, Samar discusses her Comment, her original research for it, and her conclusions.
TLR: Can you give us some background on the content of your Comment?
SAS: My Comment generally focuses on whether U.S.-created antiviolence remedies for noncitizen women protect Iranian victims of domestic violence who immigrate to the U.S. It first discusses domestic violence in Iran, focusing on (1) domestic violence under the Islamic Penal Code and judicial system in Iran; (2) domestic violence in marriage, divorce, and custody in Iran; and (3) the lack of resources to assist victims of violence in Iran. It then explores what happens to Iranian victims when they move or immigrate to the U.S. with their abusive partners, the antiviolence remedies available to victims in the U.S., and whether these remedies are reaching this specific population of women. Because there is no real research on this issue, I had to conduct my own research. I interviewed numerous organizations across the U.S. that assist victims with the U Visa and VAWA self-petition process and that also offer services in Farsi. From there, I created my own base research. The Comment walks through why the current U Visa and VAWA self-petition remedies are not very effective for the Iranian population in the U.S. and ends with proposals to address this problem.
TLR: And what first drew you to that topic, to delve so deeply into that area?
SAS: This is something that I have actually been thinking about for a while. I’ve done some work with victims of violence in the U.S. throughout my law school career and before law school, and Iranian women have specifically been of interest to me because I have—through individual experiences with family members and with others—learned firsthand what happens in the Iranian community, and I’ve seen it play out even in the U.S. itself. When I first witnessed what happened when an Iranian woman turned to her family to seek refuge from her abuser, it was shocking to me as to what was going on and how the matter was dealt with. As I talk about in my Comment, domestic violence is very much dealt with in the private realm, instead of using the resources that clearly exist to help women. Because of this and similar experiences, I started to explore what kind of research was available on this matter. When I saw that there was absolutely nothing it was kind of my inspiration, my jump off point: why has no one researched this matter before? What happens to battered Iranian women who immigrate to the U.S. with their abusive partners? Because there are no laws against domestic violence in Iran, it’s very much tolerated; it’s a way of “educating women,” as they say. And when families move to the U.S., do Iranian women know of the legal resources available to protect them from abuse? Are the legal antiviolence resources in the U.S. reaching these victims?
TLR: What is your personal connection to Iran?
SAS: My personal connection to Iran is my family. I have never been to Iran and cannot go because of religious persecution. Some of my family came here under asylum from religious persecution and others came as refugees. So I’ve never been to Iran and probably won’t ever be able to go there because I could be killed for my religion. I think that was part of why this was a little bit easier for me to write because I don’t have any connection to Iran as a country. I could be a little more objective in the things I was looking at and the research I was doing.
TLR: Throughout your Comment, there were a lot of shocking statistics and facts and an underlying condition of not being able to help Iranian victims of abuse because these individuals don’t recognize that they have remedies available to them. After you spent that time interviewing and researching these organizations, what was the most shocking fact to you?
SAS: I think the most shocking thing for me was seeing how this ingrained culture of domestic violence translated when individuals and families moved to the U.S. When my family came to the U.S., they saw it as a second chance, a place of freedom where they had real rights and liberties—a safe place for themselves and their children. To learn that it could be a place where domestic violence remains ingrained in the family and in the culture was very scary for me because it meant that there is no difference here. In the U.S., we have this antiviolence culture, we have so many resources, we have so many awareness campaigns and organizations that are working with victims, yet we have this population of women—and I know that it extends to other immigrant populations as well—who are not getting help. Well what’s the difference then between them living here as opposed to living in Iran? I think that was the most shocking thing for me—that that culture can still exist in such an antiviolence culture that we have in the U.S.
TLR: When you first reached out to these organizations and asked these questions about the various populations they helped with the U Visa and VAWA self-petition, ultimately there was no representative population for Iranian women. How did these organizations respond when you started asking them questions about that? Were they aware up front or did they have to do research on their own to identify that?
SAS: Very interesting, because I received two sets of answers. There was one group that was very much like, “We absolutely know this is an issue with Iranians in our community. We’ve even tried to reach out, but it became very dangerous for not only the people reaching out to individuals, but women and families would also literally push us away.” There was a fear of ostracization or just what the culture would say if someone was talking about domestic violence. And then I had another group of organizations that were like, “Now that you mention it, no we’ve never served an Iranian individual.” And they would go and look in their research databases, and they’d share that they’ve never served an Iranian victim before. And those were the two kinds of responses. And there were actually some organizations that responded adamantly saying this is research that needs to be done because it has been an issue for a very long time. We don’t have any statistics that back up anything because women are not talking about it, so we can’t tell what percentage of the population are abused. But we know that there are a large number of Iranian victims. One organization actually has clinics that they hold with hundreds of people in attendance, and of those people, there were so many women that they could identify, but none of them were willing to even talk about the idea of pursuing these remedies.
TLR: And given that disparity, for you, what would be the ideal reaction or response to your Comment? Who is the ideal audience? Is it these organizations realizing this disparity?
SAS: It would be great if this Comment could create some sort of awareness about this issue especially for perpetrators of violence to know that this is no longer a silent issue. This isn’t something that we are just going to let happen as a community. And second of all, there needs to be awareness for victims to see there are remedies out there to help and to show victims how these remedies work. Because most of the time, individuals just don’t know. The third thing is I would really like for organizations to be more aware—especially in their efforts to target different populations that aren’t being reached. I specifically filtered my research to organizations that offered services in Farsi and did VAWA and U Visa work. And of these organizations, I was shocked to learn that many had not even helped one Iranian victim. Finally, I really hope there will be changes to the U Visa and VAWA self-petition process as discussed in my Comment. For instance, the cap on the U Visa needs to be increased. It’s so small: 10,000 a year. It runs out before the month is even over.
TLR: And that’s for any noncitizens. Not just Iranian women.
SAS: Yes. And also, one of the biggest changes would be for statistics to actually be published showing who is receiving these resources. The excuse that I got from USCIS was that it’s anonymous because it’s a sensitive issue. But if you’re telling us it’s an Iranian woman, or it’s a Dominican woman, that’s not revealing; that’s not an identifying factor. If anything we need those statistics to know who these resources are reaching and who they aren’t reaching.
TLR: Can you discuss the interview process? There’s a turning point within your Comment where you go from the Overview to the Discussion and you start basing a lot of your propositions and theories on the responses from these organizations. So how did you first reach out to them? Were there any obstacles? We know that you reached out to thirty-one random organizations, and eleven responded. So how did that work?
SAS: So, I found these two databases online. One of them was the National Immigration Legal Services Directory, and that’s compiled by the Immigration Advocates Network. And the second directory that I found was the Directory of Domestic Violence Programs Serving Asians, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders, and that’s compiled by the Asian Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence. These are two huge databases that contain a lot of information about the organizations. The way that I filtered it was by only searching for organizations that prepared or filed U Visas or the VAWA self-petition, and that also had services in Farsi. The ability to speak Farsi is very important because if you don’t speak Farsi, you’re eliminating a large section of the population of Iranian women. I used all of those organizations that I found to make a larger list. Some of the organizations I spoke to provided me with information for other organizations that they thought might be helpful. From there, I reached out to thirty-one total organizations (via email, telephone call, or both) and eleven responded.
TLR: And the responses they gave you are within the Comment.
SAS: Correct. Some of the responses were very in-depth and others were as simple as saying that the organization had never helped an Iranian person. The latter, while simple, was still a telling finding. Some of the in-depth responses actually came from Iranian women who worked at some of these organizations. There was one woman I spoke to from an organization in California who was tremendously helpful because she was not only an Iranian woman, but the organization was specifically for Iranian individuals. To hear that an organization working solely with Iranian individuals had never completed the U Visa or VAWA self-petition process with an Iranian victim was a huge finding in and of itself.
TLR: Were there any obstacles you commonly encountered during the organizational interview process? How willing were they to be helpful to you?
SAS: The organizations that responded were willing to help for sure. That was really interesting to me because I thought I was going to run into a lot of roadblocks. Early on in the process, I remember my note/comment editor asking if this was something I could really do and my only reaction at that point was: “I don’t know; let’s just try it out.” It was pretty hard at first because I would call the general number for an organization and typically it would take a few tries before I was able to connect with the right person. A number of organizations did not respond but the fact that I could get eleven pretty solid answers was encouraging. The information really helped to prepare my Comment and hopefully, to inspire others to take a deeper look at the problem.
TLR: You noted in your Comment that one of the primary factors preventing Iranian women from seeking assistance was a desire to protect cultural identity. Would awareness in the Iranian community on how gender roles play out in the U.S. have an effect on that population?
SAS: I don’t think so. The reason I say that is because, while I think Iranians are happy to come to places like the U.S., where there is more freedom, they are very, very adamant about keeping their culture tight. My English professor in eleventh grade said it perfectly when she said, “You come to school and you’re in this different world and you go home and you’re essentially walking into a little Iran.” That’s really what it is. Iranian communities, at least from my experience, like to be very close-knit. They like to keep their cultural traditions; they teach their children a very specific way of living, dressing, and acting so anything that would push against that they tend to not be very okay with. Maybe for the future generations, the children of these families, I think absolutely—but not necessarily the families who are coming here because it’s so ingrained in Iran: the judicial system, the legal system, and police enforcement are not things that help victims. In fact, they are things that help the society to tolerate the violence.
TLR: One solution you proposed for increasing awareness of the U Visa and the VAWA amongst Iranian women, which seemed simple and easy to institute, was providing information regarding these programs online in Farsi. Why hasn’t that been done already?
SAS: I think a big reason why it hasn’t been done is because there isn’t awareness that this is even an issue. There’s no real research on it. No statistics are published on it. It kind of shows that this is a silent problem, especially since the community is not willing to talk about it and they don’t really define it as a problem. It’s something that people don’t know. So if the problem isn’t defined, how is the solution going to be defined? I think it’s a very easy part to a larger solution and could be very effective in combination with some of the other proposals in my Comment. But yes, I think it’s because of the lack of awareness and not necessarily a lack of initiative.