Untiring in the Struggle against Powerlessness

Behjat Moaali is an unusual woman. As a courageous lawyer she defended women who had no rights in Iran after Khomeini came to power. Today she is the director of "Refugio" in Germany - a center for refugees who are victims of terror and violence.

Behjat Moaali is an unusual woman. As a courageous lawyer she defended women who had no rights in Iran after Khomeini came to power. Her commitment was life-threatening, later forcing her to flee to Germany. Today she is the director of Refugio, a center in Kiel for refugees who are victims of terror and violence. A portrait by Petra Tabeling.

Behjat Moaali

​​When asked how her compatriots get along in exile, Behjat Moaali answered: “Iranian women are very strong and intelligent; they can get settled in foreign surroundings very quickly.” Moaali’s response was assertive and yet somehow modest. It isn’t really her style to speak of herself that way. But she has been living in Germany since August 1989 and is one of those very strong and intelligent Iranian women. Ultimately, that is what made it impossible for her to continue living in Iran.

Behjat Moaali was born in 1949 as the third of nine children in the family of an affluent and unusually liberal factory owner. She studied law, became one of the first female lawyers in Iran, and was an activist especially for the rights of Iranian women. She worked pro bono defending incarcerated women such as Tara, who had been sentenced to death in a Teheran women’s prison. Tara was young and good-looking; a mother, widowed, poor, and illiterate, and she refused to remarry. She wanted to take care of herself, but her self-confidence was irksome to the villagers. One day she was accused of having killed the children of a supposed rival, though there was no evidence whatsoever.

Tara’s Story

It was this encounter and this case that took hold of Behjat Moaali as a lawyer and humanitarian. They wouldn’t let go of her and have become part of her story. Moaali spent years fighting the death sentence and finally won. But when Khomeini came to power and the guardians of the revolution started telling people how to live, Tara was executed after all. Moaali was embittered. She was not able to save Tara. With arbitrary restrictions of freedom, the situation worsened in Iran. Moaali hid friends who were critical of the regime and became active with the democratic women’s movement. But then it got too dangerous for her as well; she fled with one of her sons to Kiel, in Germany.

​​Moaali wrote a book about Tara’s fate and her encounter with her: “Zerreiße den Schleier der Ohnmacht” (“Tear Off the Veil of Powerlessness”) was released a few months ago by the Krüger publishing company in Frankfurt. It is a document of the times about the life of women in Iran, about such different lives as Tara’s and Behjat Moaali’s, but with a common goal: independence, freedom, self-determination.

Care for Refugees in Germany

Moaali continued to dream about Tara often. And today? After so many years in Germany? “I still dream about her, but in a different way,” said Moaali, “whenever I am sad, when there is something I cannot do.”

Behjat Moaali has done a lot, but it is part of her personality always to want to do even more. In Germany she has again devoted herself totally to people’s fates. The phone rings off the hook at Refugio, an organization founded in 1997 in Kiel for refugees who have been victims of violence.

The work of the organization is supported by the European Refugee Fund and is highly respected throughout Germany. Moaali works there with three other staff members whose positions are financed by the European Union. The office work takes a lot of time, too much to be able to dedicate sufficient time to the extensive casework, she complains. “That is how I am. I want to be able to give so many people care and security.” That is what Refugio offers to women, men, and children who were forced to leave their home countries, especially refugees from Kurdistan, the Balkans, the CIS countries (especially Chechnya), Iraq, and Afghanistan. Women and men receive the same services. “The statistics change every day,” Moaali reported. “There are countries from which more women get out and some from which primarily men escape,” such as Iraq. Women rarely manage to get out of Iraq; single women almost never.

Return? Information and Nobel Peace Prize Offer Hope

And what about Iran? What has changed over the last few years? Women are trying slowly but surely to regain their rights. They do not let anything keep them from informing themselves, as shown by statistics regarding Iranian universities: 60 percent of the student body are women. And women regained permission to be judges in 1997, albeit only for family law.

The fact that Shirin Ebadi, a former co-activist of Moaali in Iran, won the Nobel Peace Prize is also a positive signal. But 12-year-old girls are still being forced into marriages and old misogynist tribal traditions are maintained. Moaali stays informed of the situation in Iran through the Internet. She views the fact that the subject is even written about as another sign of democratic progress in Iran. On the other hand, there are still too many people in prison. Does Behjat Moaali have the feeling that the surveillance apparatus is still observing her? Yes, she assumes it is, she says. “As long as the secret service and the Ministry of Intelligence continue to exist, I cannot go back.”

Today she feels very secure in exile in Germany, where she lives with her children and her German husband in Kiel. And if she had the option of working as a lawyer again in Iran? “I cannot start from scratch again, not at my age. I have changed and the people there have too,” said the 54-year-old firmly. But if she were to return, she does have a wish: to return to Tara’s village and meet her children. It is a wish that has become an inextricable part of Moaali’s own story.

Petra Tabeling © Qantara.de 2003

Translated from German by Allison Brown