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Thursday, November 29, 2018

Maria Rashidi: Beauty from the ashes

Maria is a true survivor. She endured the humiliating scars of an acid attack and rose up from the ashes of her suffering. Her powerful story will be featured in my new book, "Dear God, please bring freedom to Iran."

Part One – Day of the accident:

             I CLIMBED out of my ex-husband’s car, gave my daughter a quick hug, and then began walking home.

            Suddenly I was seized with an ominous feeling. I stopped walking and turned around. I sensed someone was following me! And I was right! Gripped with fear, I began to walk faster…and I could hear the footsteps closing in behind me! My heart pounding in my chest, I quickly glanced down at my watch. It was 9:45 pm.

            In what seemed like the flash of a moment, the twinkling of an eye, suddenly the skin of my face felt like it was on fire and pierced with a thousand needles all at once. The pain was unbearable!
            I screamed and began running. My whole face was on fire! I screamed louder!
            In the distance, I could hear my daughter running toward me and shouting,

            “Mum! Mum! What happened?”

            Seconds later, I could feel someone frantically dragging me into a car. The last thing I remember seeing, gazing out from my burning eyes, was the sight of my daughter’s panic-stricken face, astonished by the horrible burns covering my face. She couldn’t control her emotions, but screamed in horror.

            I was in the hospital for three or four days, being treated for an acid attack that covered my face with ugly burns. I could hardly see out of my eyes. My world had been devastated and changed forever by the evil schemes of a madman!


            On September 19, 1997, I was invited to a friend’s house for a party. My conversation was interrupted by the annoying ringing of my mobile phone. When I answered, I recognized the voice on the other end as my ex-husband’s.
            “Maria. I’d love to see you,” He said with an excited tone in his voice. “Let’s meet for at least a half hour. I promise I won’t hurt you.”
            “I’m afraid I can’t make it,” I replied, anxious to end the conversation. “Don’t you remember, you wanted to kidnap me and take me back to Iran three weeks ago by making me take sleeping drugs and I was unconscious for 15 hours? Have you suddenly forgotten what you did to me?” I don’t want to ever see you again or hear your sickening voice!”
            I immediately hung up in anger. Leaning back in my chair, I took a deep breath and tried to relax. A few seconds later, my mobile phone rang again. I grabbed it in anger, enraged that my ex would try to call me again. However, this time it was my older daughter.
            “Mum, please come,” she said with a pleading voice, “Dad says you have to come or I won’t get to see you anymore. I promise this time I will leave with you.”
            I took a frustrating deep breath. I couldn’t say no to my daughter.
            A few minutes later, I reluctantly got inside my ex-husband’s car and we headed toward the restaurant. Turning his head toward me, he looked deep into my eyes with that innocent look of manipulation.
            “Dear Maria. I really want you back. I can’t live without you anymore. Please give me a second chance! Come back to us and we’ll go together on a trip to Spain and just forget about the past.”
            I stared intently into his eyes and realized how cruel he really was to me. He had already taken my children from me. Now my son had turned his back on me. Whenever he saw me on the street, he quickly looked the other way. This kind of shunning was very painful for me to bear. When I looked intently into his eyes, I saw nothing but deception and hatred.
            “Why the hell can’t you understand?” I shouted back at him, “I hate you. How on earth can I live with you again?”
            Suddenly that innocent, pleading look on his face melted into an expression of rage.
            “Is this you last word?”
            “Yes!” I firmly replied.
            He took an angry deep breath and then sharply looked back into my eyes.
            “You will have to pay the price!”
            “What do you mean?” I snapped back, interrupting him, “You want to kill me? Well, come on,” I challenged him, leaning forward in my chair, “I’m not afraid of you!”
            He stood up unexpectedly and walked furiously out of the restaurant. A few minutes later, he returned.
            “Let’s go!” he motioned toward me, grabbing his jacket from off the back of the chair.
            All the way home, there was an eerie silence in the car. When we finally arrived home at my place, he flung open my door, anxious for me to get out. I embraced my daughter and then looked back at my ex. His eyes were bulging in anger.
            “Just Go! Goodbye!”


            Part Two…… The Past

      I was eight years old when the Air Force provided us with a newly built state house in the city of Khouzestan. My father was an avid gardener and planted beautiful trees and flowers in our little garden. I have such sweet memories of those days and how happy our life was together. My mother graciously accepted her role as a housewife. She was a very supportive woman and a huge emotional support for our family. However, my father was the complete opposite. We referred to him as, “Daddy dictator!” He treated us all like soldiers in the military. We weren’t allowed to sleep past 5 am and our day began with our assigned tasks. He paid painstaking attention to order and discipline. My childhood memories of my father were filled with fear of not measuring up to his standards.

            It seemed like after my childhood, that all I can remember about my adult years was one tragedy after another. Before I graduated from high school, my father was in an accident and my mother had to go each day to the hospital to assist in his recovery. Exhausted from being a housewife and now a nurse, my mother grew very ill. She contracted a virus with a high fever and within five days she was no longer with us. We were devastated. I couldn’t believe that my mother was dead. She had been so healthy and now she was dead!

            After my mother’s death, my father sank into a deep, dark depression and tried to commit suicide several times. A young boy who lived near our house took pity on our situation and would come to visit me and my father. As time went on, we became close and one day he proposed to me. My relatives, concerned about my father’s future, helped him remarry and ironically, just a week after my father remarried, I got married!

            At the time of my marriage, Iran and Iraq were still at war with each other. Early on in my marriage, I realized that my husband was a nervous, hot-tempered man who when he became angry would throw things at people. I began to notice that he would follow me wherever I went and keep me under surveillance. He always made sure that I was an obedient Muslim and was wearing my hijab correctly. He inspected my clothes and would chastise me if they were not according to Islamic standards. He would yell at me and say, “Your clothes are not ok, go get changed!”

            I vividly remember, just eleven days before I gave birth to our first child, we were having a family cookout in the garden. Suddenly he got mad at me and threw one of the skews he was making kebab on, and hit me directly in the knee. I suffered a deep cut and was in tremendous pain. That incident was our first real physical conflict. After the birth of my child, his anger and physical abuse continued every day. The Iran/Iraq war was getting worse and many of the surrounding villages were being destroyed by enemy bombardment. I contacted my relatives in Sweden and through a series of complex circumstances, I took my newborn

 child and immigrated to Sweden. It was agreed upon that once my residency was approved, that I would contact my husband and he would join us.


Part Three…
From Immigration to life in Sweden and divorce.

      When I finally arrived in Sweden and had the opportunity to evaluate their culture and society, I had hope for the first time in my wife. I saw men and women sitting together. In Iran, the government segregated the sexes and forced women to comply with the Islamic dress code by wearing the hijab. However, it was the complete opposite in Sweden. Women were given complete freedom and independence and were allowed to take control of their own lives by pursuing the jobs and careers of their own choices. Women were given the freedom to choose! I could not believe my eyes! I was used to a misogynistic system where men were in complete control of the destinies of women, but here in Sweden for the first time in my life, I could breathe the fresh air of Sweden and it smelt so wonderful!

            Within a few months, I had successfully passed my Swedish language course and was ready to pursue my studies, when suddenly everything drastically changed! My life had been wonderful until December 18, 1988, when my husband finally arrived. When I met him at the airport, he was shocked to see me wearing a short skirt. I also was shocked by his appearance. He had a thick, heavy black beard, wearing a suit without a tie and had the offensive odor of a perfume that I hated so much. It reminded me of the smell of what Mullahs would wear, and suddenly I felt catapulted back to Iran! I instantly knew that this was the beginning of a hellish life once again. Misery was on its way again!

            At first, however, my husband seemed to be filled with great sadness and remorse. He would go to our bedroom and sleep most of the day, as if he were suffering from depression. The more that I would brag about my new life in Sweden, the angrier he got. He would constantly complain about the cold weather and was outraged that here women were allowed to make their own decisions for themselves. When he witnessed me taking classes, having a bank account registered in my own name, he was devastated! He had lost all control of my life and his masculinity and pride were crushed! I explained to him that in Iran I was oppressed and lived under a male-dominated society of laws that made women inferior, second class citizens.

            Within a few weeks, my husband could no longer tolerate my new-found freedom! He began to take control again by trying to choose my friends. He warned me to not associate with divorced women because they would poison my thinking with false ideas about men. He began arguing and throwing stuff again. In a rage he would pick up the tv remote and throw at me and one time he hit my leg with the wand of a vacuum cleaner. I was in so much pain and my leg became swollen. I demanded a divorce. I wanted nothing more to do with him. I had a new life now and I was determined to never again let any man control me! When I threatened him, he would immediately begin manipulating me with false apologies and then his friends would try to convince me to continue our relationship.

            Instead of giving into his shallow pleas, I filed for a divorce and asked the social center to assist me. Finally, he went back to Iran for awhile and when he returned, he was shocked to see that I had rented a new condominium. In our custody battle, I gave him back all of my furniture and then packed up my younger daughter’s clothes and escaped from my dwelling. I refused to allow any more “hell on earth behavior” from him to ruin my new life.

Part Three: The present time.
Life after the acid attack for Maria.

      I kept asking myself, “Why? Why would any man do such a horrible thing by throwing acid in my face? Why? I had never done anything cruel to any man!”

            After 99 different surgeries to attempt to repair my disfigured face, the one surgery that I’ve needed the most was the surgery to heal the deep scars and wounds inside of my soul. As I lay on my hospital bed trying to forget this nightmare past, it is still beyond belief to me that my controlling, weak husband would stoop so low as to hire a man to throw acid in my face! My new life of happiness and freedom disturbed him so much that he could no longer bear the thought that I was in control of my own life.
            I made a decision that I had to be a voice for women, especially those that have suffered so deeply at the hands of evil men. I took some time to think deeply and reflect on my life and published my story in a book entitled, “Burned Freedom.” I began a speaking tour with the women’s rights movement revealing the painful facts of what life was like in Iran, that it was a misogynistic culture that oppressed women.
            After a thorough investigation, the police had to let my husband go, because they had only circumstantial evidence and not enough proof. I will never forget the day when I leaned that my husband was killed in a car accident after suffering a heart attack, that day in 2009, was the first day that I felt finally free from his evil schemes and suffocating control!
            At 62 years of age, I feel like a true survivor! I’m very proud of myself! It is the passion of my life to be a voice for suffering women in the Middle East. I want to live the rest of my life encouraging women and standing up for their rights and freedom.


            *Editor’s note.

               Writing Maria’s story has been such a privilege and honor for me. I have spent the last several years of my life, writing the painful stories of oppressed women in Iran. My heart breaks for the suffering that Maria has had to endure for so many years. But I am so impressed by her courage and survival skills. She is a very tough lady and has learned to take control of her life and teach other women that they can do it too!
            When I think about the physical and spiritual trauma that survivors of acid attacks endure, I am reminded by the precious promise of God in the book of Psalms.
            “The Lord is close to the broken hearted. He saves the crushed in spirit.”
                                                                                                                            (Psalm 34:18)

            God promises to be a very present help in our time of trouble. He can bring healing and restoration to the wounded and crushed in spirit. Acid attack survivors are not only humiliated by the disfigurement of their faces, but they suffer daily with the deep wounds and scars that no one else can see. Yet God promises to bring beauty out of the ashes of their suffering. He can emotionally heal and restore these precious women. He desires to save their crushed spirits and restore the dignity and beauty that was stolen by the evil act of a controlling man. It is my sincere prayer that the Lord would heal Maria and all other victims and bring beauty and dignity back into their lives.