Brooklyn-based filmmaker Melissa Hibbard comes from a long family lineage of Oklahoma evangelical preachers. Her family was deeply shocked when she married an Iranian Muslim, Hamid Rahmanian.
“I remember listening to preachers talk about Muslims as demon possessed and going to Hell. So when I decided to marry Hamid it was shocking to my family”, says Melissa. Her family had never met a Muslim before and at first they were quite hostile.
Thirteen years on Melissa says this conservative Christian family has come to love and accept Hamid, even though some still believe he is going to go to Hell. “I find that most people, given the chance, are willing to put aside their preconceived ideas and learn something new. This is the main theme of our work. We want people to explore the ‘unknown’ a little”.
Exploring the unknown Iran is what Melissa and Hamid have been doing as filmmakers since they got married. What Melissa discovered is a country often at odds with the way it’s portrayed in the U.S. media. She’s done something few outsiders get the chance to do. She has spent months following women and children living on the fringes of Iranian society: “we are talking about drug addicts, rape, incest, prostitution even human slavery” says Melissa.
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There is little welfare infrastructure in Iran. Women who fall into prostitution often end up in jail or even on death row. This is what makes Melissa’s story all the more amazing. She found the characters for her film at the House of Hope or Omid e Mehr, an avant-garde therapeutic day centre in Tehran where young girls are given new skills and encouraged to find their true voice. “The main focus is to teach young women that they have a voice in Iran…that they have a right to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, says Melissa.
THE STORY OF LEILA
Leila was the first girl Melissa met at the House of Hope. Sold into prostitution by her parents aged nine, condemned by an Iranian judge to hang at 18, Leila was saved by the intervention of human rights lawyer. By then Leila was 22 and had undergone a radical transformation. When she arrived she was illiterate and the only form of expression she knew was sexual advances towards others. Today she can read and write and is holding down a job.
“These transformations that we saw at the centre made us think that these stories had to be told and shared around the world”.
What really surprised Melissa is that the judge’s decision to execute Leila had been successfully challenged by a female human rights lawyer. “There are these incredible women’s groups that have been fighting for women’s and children’s rights”.
In fact behind the scenes women’s groups are constantly lobbying the Government. They gave birth to the concept of child protection in Iran and helped to draft new laws.
Nooshin and her sister Nazila defied every stereotype of what an Iranian girl should be, says Melissa. They wore military fatigues, they punched each other and cursed. And then there was their taste in music: rap and Hip Hop.
Nazila was the eldest of seven children. Thirteen when her mother left the family home, Nazila had to stop her schooling in order to care for her siblings. Ill treated by her father, she soon began getting into trouble with the police. When her father threw her out Nazila took a sword and smashed up the inside of a shop intentionally so she would be arrested and given a jail cell to sleep in.
Rap is mostly performed ‘underground’ in Iran: the authorities consider it “improper” and have been known to arrest rap musicians. But the House of Hope encouraged Nazila to use music to express herself. “She has learned to harness all that anger and funnel it all into her music and create something out of that,” explains Melissa. Thanks to them she now has a high school diploma and speaks English.
WATCH A TRAILER FROM THE GLASS HOUSE, MELISSA AND HAMID’S FILM ABOUT OMID E MEHR:
THE HOUSE OF HOPE
“As long as you are not negative about the Government, the Supreme Leader or religion, they leave you pretty well alone.”
Iran is full of contradictions, say Melissa. On the one hand a repressive regime forces women to wear the hijab or head covering and can sentence them to death for infidelity to their husbands. On the other, women have greater freedoms and rights than you might expect. “Most middle class women marry whom they choose, they can have an education and pursue careers,” says Melissa.
It’s the poor, uneducated women, who, unaware of their rights, suffer the most. They lead very traditional lives dictated usually by their fathers and husbands. The notion that they have a ‘voice’ is revolutionary, says Melissa. And that’s what the House of Hope is all about.
“They are not radicalising young women against the Government,” says Melissa. “They are just helping them to succeed within a framework that already exists.”
The Iranian authorities ‘tolerate’ this privately funded center. People in power have even expressed ‘admiration’ for its work. The Iranian police frequently refer street girls to the House of Hope. Individual Iranians, too, are deeply moved – through their donations they represent 15 percent of the center’s running costs and some offer their services as volunteers.
A PSYCHO-THERAPIST IN LONDON
The principal brains behind the scheme is Iranian born Marjaneh Halati, a London based psycho-therapist. She has recently opened a second centre in Tehran and is raising funds to help another 120 girls.
The House of Hope operates through three registered charities, one each in Iran, the UK and the U.S. In fact, the bulk of the fundraising – approximately 85 percent – happens in the U.S. and Europe. And not all from the Iranian diaspora. In the U.S. a quarter of donations come from non-Iranians, mostly women.