Helene Fisher and Elizabeth Lane Miller, Specific Religious Persecution specialists for Open Doors International
As we observe International Women’s Day, we recognize the women around the world whose worth, equal value and contributions to society are often not acknowledged. Open Doors draws attention to the Christian women and girls of the persecuted church, making visible the complex nature of specific religious persecution that they experience. In our latest annual gender-specific religious persecution report, A Web of Forces, we focus on the experiences of Christian converts in the Middle East among research findings. Sahar, a convert from Iran, has invited us to share her story. This article is adapted from our 2023 gender report.
In nature, webs are spun and set with the sole purpose to capture prey. Intricate and cleverly constructed fine threads are interconnected, creating a complex network that traps. The harder the victim tries to escape, the further entangled they become.
Christian women, especially a convert in the Muslim world, can become trapped in a web of oppression. Her gender, her faith and the cultural and legal norms of her region are all factors that intertwine with one another, creating a dense and tangled mesh of vulnerabilities.
Sahar is one woman whose story is echoed in the lives of many others in her region, with much at stake for choosing her own faith.
Sahar’s story: The struggle of female converts in the Muslim world
Before Sahar converted to Christianity, she seemingly had everything: a loving husband, two beautiful children, and no financial concerns. By choosing to walk away from Islam, Sahar knew that she would face the same dangers many converts in the Muslim world encounter and was aware of all that she had to lose. The threats of losing her home, her husband, her children, her freedom, her stability and dignity, all reinforced by her lack of rights as a woman, would certainly take a heavy mental and emotional toll.
Sahar’s comfortable life still left her searching for meaning and identity, but she found them in Christian faith. As she grew in her faith and quietly became connected to other Christians in Iran, becoming active in various illegal church activities, she was eventually discovered by the state and arrested. She became a prisoner in one of Iran’s notorious jails and separated from her children.
This was not Sahar’s first experience of paying a high cost for her choice to follow Jesus. As a new-believing Christian woman in Iran, Sahar faced a web of pressures that threatened to overwhelm her determination to choose her own faith. In fact, Sahar first experienced persecution within her home.
Sahar’s lack of legal rights in her marriage meant that this was a means for her husband to pressure her to renounce Christianity. When he discovered her new religion, that web of pressures threatening her became a heart-breaking reality. He became furious and kicked her out. Sahar found herself crying in the taxi: “My pride was broken, I felt that everything was taken away from me. I didn’t do anything wrong; I wasn’t a criminal. I believed in Christ ….” Sahar returned to her parents’ home under a vast burden of shame. Worse than the shame for Sahar was the pain and anxiety over her children, whom she had had to leave behind with her husband.
“There was a realistic possibility of divorce,” she explains, “and surely my children would have been taken away because of me being an ex-Muslim. They would not let me even see them, because all my rights would have been taken away as a convert.” With the threat of divorce came the threat of losing her economic and social stability – as well as her sense of dignity within the community. And indeed, the threat of imprisonment.
This was no small risk. The threat of being thrown out of the house has more life-threatening implications for women than men. While for men it is accepted to live with a roommate, for women it is considered an anomaly and an immoral lifestyle not to live with your parents or husband.
Similar dynamics for new women believers are seen all over the majority Muslim world. Women and girls face attempts to control their marital status by families, communities and governments.
Sahar was unusually fortunate and when she was returned to her parents, although in shame, she was shielded by them as ones who valued her. Others are not so lucky. Controlling the movement of female Christians is a particular risk for those who have converted from Islam. Families use house arrest again as a punishment, often found alongside cases of physical domestic violence. It is also used to prevent women from meeting other Christians and bringing shame upon the family.
Thankfully, eventually, her husband invited her back home, and they slowly rebuilt their relationship despite tensions related to her new faith.
In Iran, converting to any religion other than Islam comes with dangers for both genders: the dangers of imprisonment or losing your job are common for men and women. However, because of the vulnerable status of women inside Iran, they are extra vulnerable to an additional web of religious persecution forces their gender. The interconnected filaments capture prey and then progressively stifle new believers to ultimately renounce their faith – or face harsh consequences.
After an initial imprisonment, Sahar, she was allowed a brief period of release. With the threat of a longer imprisonment looming, Sahar and her family fled to Turkey, where Sahar continues to work with Christian women from a Muslim background. Many of them are in even more difficult situations then she once was.
Gender-specific religious persecution in MENA
In the Middle East and North Africa, a myriad of factors shapes the Christian experience of gender-specific religious persecution. Christians with a Muslim background are particularly vulnerable.
Social conventions, familial expectations and legal restrictions in MENA are all spun around the lives of Christian women in a web of forces pressuring conformity to religious norms.
Understanding these webs of persecution help us to understand why it is important to support the kind of government legislation, such as that which CEDAW assesses and provides, as a means of protection for women around the globe.
On International Women’s Day, we encourage you to read A Web of Forces for further context and understanding of six years of reporting on religious persecution dynamics for the men, women, boys and girls of the global church.
The 2023 gender-specific religious persecution report by Open Doors International, A Web of Forces, was released on 1 March 2023. The report also features regional analyses, GSRP Country Rankings and recommendations.