In the end, the family was deported to Afghanistan over pink sneakers and platform sandals.
Zohrah, 17, and her sister Hasina, 15, sounded furious, in a teenager kind of way, when they talked about their arrest and how it led them, their father, and Zohrah’s boyfriend to a dusty reception center on the Afghan side of the Iran-Afghanistan border.
They were waiting for a bus to drive them across the arid land further into Afghanistan, a country neither girl had ever seen – Hasina was born in Iran, and their parents had settled in Iran when Zohrah was still an infant. But because their parents were Afghans, none of the family had Iranian citizenship. Dozens of other Afghans sat with them in the hangers of the reception center. Like Zohran and Hasina’s family, a number of them had papers showing they lived in Iran legally, but this didn’t stop Iranian officials from deporting them.
The girls had been arrested only three or four days earlier – that’s how long the entire deportation process took. They had traveled about 35 kilometers from their home to make a religious pilgrimage to Qom, a holy city for Shia Muslims. Zohrah wore high-heeled platform sandals, while Hasina wore pink sneakers. In Qom, a police officer stopped them, offended that they chose to wear bright shoes when visiting a holy city. He also criticized them for wearing makeup. The girls argued with the police officer, and he arrested them on charges of not sufficiently complying with Iran’s strict Islamic dress code for women.
Iran detains and deports hundreds of thousands of Afghans every year with without any legal proceedings or the opportunity to seek asylum, according to a new Human Rights Watch report, Unwelcome Guests. Members of the Iranian security forces have absolute power to deport Afghans. Afghans facing deportation are typically bused to Afghanistan within a couple of days of being detained without any opportunity to prove that they have a legal right to live in Iran or to lodge an asylum claim. These days, Afghans are systematically denied the opportunity to apply for refugee status when they first enter Iran, leaving them vulnerable to deportation at any moment. Some deportees are beaten during the deportation process, and all are charged exorbitant fees.
About 3 million Afghans live in Iran, having fled Afghanistan at many different points during the conflicts that have engulfed the country for the last 35 years. At first most were treated decently, by refugee standards. But that has changed, in part because of increasing economic pressures on Iranians. Yet Afghanistan is not a place many refugees should be returned to – a report from the UN refugee agency shows that not only do returned Afghans have trouble finding work and reclaiming their land, but they also face Afghanistan’s deteriorating security conditions.
After Zohrah and Hasina were detained and taken to the police station, Zohrah called her boyfriend, explained the situation, and asked for help. Her fiancé called their father, and the two men went to the station to try to secure the girls’ release. Instead, the men were promptly arrested as well. The police had realized that the whole family was Afghan and had decided to deport them – in spite of the fact that Zohrah, Hasina and their father were in Iran legally. Zohrah and Hasina’s mother was left behind, as well as the sisters’ younger siblings, ages 12, 8 and 3.
Zohrah and Hasina, unlike many Afghan women, spoke confidently, without deferring to their father, and made eye contact with a male interpreter. Most people don’t think of Iran as a bastion of freedom, but compared with women in Afghanistan, Iranian women are much better off. In Iran, 60 percent of university students are women, while only about half of Afghan girls go to primary school.
Sitting by the border talking about their next steps, the family looked shell-shocked. It was also obvious that the girls had no idea how much harder their lives would be in Afghanistan, where the expectations of women – and women’s ability to exercise their rights – is so different from in Iran.
But their father was the most distraught. He was tortured over the question of how he would reunite with his wife and children who had been left in Iran. He had worked as a day laborer in Iran for 15 or 16 years, and he knew what lay before them in Afghanistan. He was the person responsible for his family. Not only did he need to provide for the two girls, but for the rest of their family left behind in Iran – his wife and three younger children, as well as an aunt and aging grandparents.
“We don’t have any money in Afghanistan,” he said. “We don’t have any money to go back to Iran. My wife does not work, she’s uneducated. What will she do?”
“What will we do?” he said.