Your wedding day should be the best day of your life but for Kurdish women, when I was a growing up, it was often the worst day imaginable.
My earliest memory is of an arranged marriage between a bride, not more than fourteen or fifteen, and a groom twice her age. Ahmed was a huge man who used to work in my father’s bakery. He had pockmarks all over his face. Partially blind due to a childhood disease, he would scare all the children with his one glaring eye.
It was the 1960s. I was not more than four years old but I remember vividly the dazzling beauty of the bride in her red and gold wedding outfit. Rana had long, shiny, black hair, delicate features in her bronze-coloured face and enormous black eyes, lined with kohl, which made them shimmer. She also wore a look that I recognised as fear.
Like all Kurdish weddings at that time, the celebration lasted for three days. On the first day, which was like a hen night, Rana went to the hammam with her bridesmaids before having her hands and feet elaborately painted in henna. On the second day, the music began and the guests of the groom came together to dance. Three brothers, the Zizi brothers, who were well known in Saquez, the small city in the middle of Iranian Kurdistan where I lived, sang and beat a huge drum.
The music was joyful, rapid and loud, as everyone held hands in a circle. The younger guests began to show off and move faster and faster. I felt dizzy just watching them. The guests took turns in leading the dance and I felt proud as my handsome father held a glittery scarf, a chopi, aloft to lead the dancers round and round.
On the third day, the bride’s family brought Rana to the ceremony in a car through the city and her father handed her over to Ahmed, who was dressed in a traditional white shirt and dark blue trousers, known as a kava and pantol.
The dancing and singing continued into the night and then suddenly, as though the lights had gone out, the atmosphere changed.
My mother took my hand and we went into the dark and smoky bedroom. It was a messy room with the bedclothes all in disarray, with just one dimly lit lamp in the corner. I could see a long white piece of material lying on the mattress and a beautiful rug on the floor. In a corner sat the lovely Rana holding her knees and crying quietly. She was trying to cover herself with her long dress. Her long black hair tumbled all around her body.
Ahmed was standing towering above the bride, his expression cold as ice. He appeared completely unmoved by his new bride’s distress. Rana’s mother was also down on the floor, holding onto Ahmed’s legs and crying: “Please don’t send her back home, her father and brothers will kill her.”
Gripped with fear, I tried to hide myself behind my mother’s dress. Men all around me were shouting while the women were crying. Some were calling Rana names I had not heard before, like slut and whore, while others were more sympathetic and were muttering “poor girl” or “What has she done?” “She couldn't imagine this day,” one said. Imagine what? I wondered.
Although I couldn’t fully grasp what was happening, I sensed that this was a dangerous situation, a matter of life and death. Some of the wedding guests were clamouring to have the girl killed while others stood in stunned silence.
Into the midst of the crowd which was building up into an animal frenzy, my father stepped forward and in a loud, calm, voice proclaimed: “No one deserves to be treated like this. Accidents can happen to any girl.”
Turning to Ahmed, he said: “If you send this woman back to her family then you have to leave the city too. This matter is not more important than her life. You must accept her as your bride.”
With these words, the tension dissipated. Everyone fell silent. My father was a respected member of the community and he was also Ahmed’s boss. I don’t know how long we all waited in silence but eventually Ahmed said to my father: “I respect you and your words. I will accept her. I will not send her back to her family.”
The bride immediately began to sob loudly while her female relatives jumped up to thank my father. I could hear other guests muttering how lucky she was. After some discussion, the music started up again and the festivities resumed.
At this time, it was Kurdish tradition for the wedding to be consummated on the evening of the third night while the wedding guests waited in the next room. A representative from the bride’s family, usually an older woman known as a pakhasoo would stay behind the bedroom door and afterwards she would present the white material with blood spots to prove the virginity of the bride. This material would usually be carried ceremoniously on a tray for all the guests to cover it with money. It was a mark of happiness and pride in the bride’s virginity. With Rana there was no blood. Of course this can happen without intercourse having taken place, but this was not common knowledge in my city at that time.
Although her life was spared, Rana was forever treated like a slave by her husband because she had lost his respect on that day. However, she did go on to bear him four children and this brought her happiness. From that time, she always called my father her father and my mother became a second mother to her. They lived near by and I used to enjoy going to her house and playing with her make-up. She always seemed so glamorous.
The events of Rana’s wedding were to shape the entire course of my life. Although it was some while later before I fully understood what had happened, I started to question everything before me, starting with the meaning of virginity? Why is virginity so important that a woman can be killed for it? I worried that if I grew up without my virginity, I might also be killed.
But amid these fearful thoughts, I had the light of happiness in my heart because I knew that my father would not kill me. He alone had stepped forward to save Rana’s life.
From my father’s action, I saw that a community can be persuaded to change its mind. I learned in that moment that one brave person can change the world around them.