Iranian-born Anni Cyrus was married at 13 to a complete stranger in his middle 30s. When she didn’t do what he wanted her to, he beat her. Cyrus escaped to Turkey when she was 15 and made her way to the U.S. three years later. Now a U.S. citizen and human rights activist, she is speaking and writing to raise awareness and to help other girls and women like her.
Cyrus spoke recently at a private home, praising the Iranian women now involved in the uprising against the oppressive regime in her native land. She paid tribute to those who “bravely hold their hijabs on sticks and risk prison or death.” By speaking out against the regime, Cyrus, too, has risked death. A fatwa, a death sentence imposed by Muslim religious leaders, has been imposed on her. She moves frequently and speaks under heavy security.
Cyrus was born in the Islamic Republic of Iran after the 1979 Revolution, when the shah was overthrown and replaced by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. When Khomeini became supreme leader of Iran, he imposed sharia law, the legal code based on the Koran and other Islamic scripture. In his first speech upon his return to Iran, Khomeni decreed that the marriage age for women would change from 18 to 9.
“The first six years of my life were normal,” Cyrus recalled. “Then, when I turned 7, my mother and I had ‘the talk.’ I was to change my behavior and wear a hijab, even though there were only girls at my school. I was to prepare for when I would fulfill my destiny as a woman, learn to cook and clean and keep a household.”
When Cyrus turned 9, her parents received an invitation from her school for the Requirement Day Ceremony. “This celebrates the transition into Muslim womanhood,” Cyrus explained. “We all wore white burkas. The local imam congratulated us and said, ‘You are now adult women according to sharia.’ We recited a prayer and received framed certificates. On that day, every city in Iran held a similar ceremony for 9-year-old girls.” When a girl reaches the age of 9, a male guardian can decide when and whom she will marry.
Cyrus describes herself as “a bit of a rebel,” and she paid the price for it with numerous arrests and lashings. She was first arrested at the age of 11 for being at a party where there were boys present. Such gatherings are illegal, but many hold them in private homes hoping they will not be seen by or reported to the morality police. After her arrest Cyrus was put in prison—not a prison for juveniles, but a prison with adults—as was everyone at the party. Another time she arrested when some of her hair escaped from her hijab and was visible to others. She was once arrested as she left a party in a cab; she sat in the front seat next to the driver because the back seat was full with her friends. She did not move to the back seat after her friends had been dropped off, so she was arrested for sitting next to a man. The cab driver was also arrested. For this offense she was sentenced to 75 lashes, but her grandmother managed to pay off the police and her sentence was reduced to 25. At yet another party, everyone she was with was arrested for forbidden relations—females being with males—and sentenced to 35 lashes.
By the age of 14 she had been arrested 12 times and was subjected to 100 lashes. “The beatings covered my body from the neck to the ankle,” she explained. “Lashes were administered 15 to 25 at a time. I usually passed out after the fifth or sixth, so I never felt the entire process.”
“My father was very disappointed with me,” Cyrus recalled. He told her that her behavior was shameful. “The problem is my bubbly personality,” she said with a laugh. “Also, I’m not a believer. It didn’t make sense to me. If I didn’t pray I got kicked. I could tell when other kids were faking it, but it was too risky for us to share our feelings with each other.”
Shortly before she turned 14, her father informed her that she would be getting married. “This was not exceptional,” explained Cyrus. “He was able to do this because sharia law is the same as it was when Mohammed [the prophet, born circa 570 CE, who founded Islam] lived. It is part of the civil code. The beating of children is also from sharia. The Iranian Revolution took our society back 400 years.”
When told of her impending marriage, Cyrus cried and begged her father not to go through with it. “I didn’t know this man, but he could afford the $50 in American money and a month’s worth of opium that my father wanted.” There was no formal wedding. Cyrus was taken to a registry office for a short ceremony. “My father signed the document. My husband was about 35 or 36, I wasn’t sure. He took me very far from my home to a different city. We lived in a basement.”
Looking back, Cyrus explained, “It took me a couple of months to allow myself to even think about my situation. I was sad but also angry, and I rebelled.” Her husband beat her if she didn’t do what she was told. She hoped for a divorce and appealed to her father, who told her, “It’s your fault for your behavior. Do your duty; you’ll be fine.”
Cyrus was married just under a year-and-a-half when her grandmother, her mother’s mother, found a way to smuggle Cyrus out of Iran to Turkey. “My grandmother was in her late 40s when the revolution happened, so she knew what life was like before living under sharia law,” said Cyrus. “She was still tied to her humanity.” Her grandmother told Cyrus’s husband that she was ill and needed her granddaughter to help her. That night Cyrus was picked up by smugglers. “It took us three days and two nights to get into Turkey,” she recalled.
As a 15-year-old refugee in Turkey, Cyrus was not allowed to work or go to school. She took what jobs she could to support herself and traded housework for food with her roommates. “It was an unusual case to be a minor with no guardian,” said Cyrus. “I had to wait until I turned 18 to migrate to the U.S. as a social refugee.” Her next stop was Chicago, with the help of an immigration agency.
“I looked at this time as being the beginning of my life,” said Cyrus, who became an American citizen in 2010. Now a human rights activist, she has been disowned by her family, with whom she has no contact.
According to sharia law, the punishment for leaving Islam is death. Speaking out against the Iranian regime is equally risky. The current Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, wants to put Cyrus on trial. Since December 2015 she has moved 10 times. Once her address was leaked; she drove past her apartment and saw two men with guns. “I kept driving,” said Cyrus, who subsequently moved to another state.
Cyrus is in touch with the resistance in Iran and started her organization, Live Up To Freedom, in 2006 to facilitate rescues. Because of threats to her life, Cyrus spreads the word about her experiences and her goals mostly through social media, radio shows and small group meetings with heavy security. “Girls and women in Iran are trapped,” said Cyrus. “You have to obey the Koran, and the Koran says that your husband has the right to beat you. Right now in Iran there are no radicals, no reformers. All major Islamic organizations want me dead.” The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) tries to deny her venues to speak. The organization was unsuccessful in their attempts to shut down her recent appearance at an American Legion post in Newton.
“People need to be educated. And they need to get united. Those who seek to Islamize the U.S. know how to divide and conquer,” said Cyrus. “I believe that I went through what I did so that I can contribute to this education. The only way they can shut me up is to shoot me.”
“When I was celebrating my 16th birthday alone in Turkey, I thought, does anyone know I’m here?” she continued. “If I died tomorrow, who would know? I decided to make myself a gift by vowing to be that person for others.”
Cyrus’s experiences and her efforts to help other women are chronicled in numerous articles and videos on her website, liveuptofreedom.com.
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