Content warning: discussion of domestic violence
I’ve spent the better part of three decades studying the religious right. I’ve seen some of the absolute worst the nation’s so-called moral guardians have had to offer, dating back to the Bill Clinton years. I even spent the first six months of my adult life in the very belly of the religious-right beast, when I fended off a hypercharismatic and cultish campus ministry’s effort to assimilate me into their collective. So it takes a lot of effort for religious-right outrage to faze me.
Well, that threshold has been more than met with the ordeal of Naghmeh Panahi, the ex-wife of disgraced pastor Saeed Abedini. In 2012, Abedini was thrown into an Iranian prison on trumped-up charges of endangering national security. In reality, he had joined a long list of Christians in Iran who learned that the mullahs don’t really care about the protected minority status granted to Christians under the Iranian Constitution. Panahi spent the better part of three years fighting for her husband’s release. Just months before his release, she dropped a bombshell. She told her followers that had recently realized that she had suffered ghastly physical and emotional abuse at his hands.
In the years since then, Panahi has been kicked in the teeth by some of the very people who should be lifting her up. For instance, she told Christian journalist Julie Roys that evangelist and Samaritan’s Purse CEO Franklin Graham, of all people, actually had the gall to suggest that she and her two kids shouldn't have moved back in with her parents in Boise. However, Panahi refused to even consider reconciling with Abedini until he came to a mature understanding of what he’d done to her. In what world can anyone even suggest that any woman, especially one with children, go back into an abusive environment? My own conversations with Panahi have revealed part of the answer—a world where divorce is still very much a scarlet letter.
Panahi’s story resonates with me a lot, since I’m a domestic violence survivor myself. Through numerous chats with Panahi via Twitter and Instagram direct message, I gained a little more insight around her ordeal. She told Roys that she felt compelled to attend a tense meeting in August 2016 with Graham and Abedini because she felt that she would be blamed for her marriage to Abedini falling apart if she didn’t do so.
From what Panahi told me about the abuse she endured, it’s hard to see how anyone could point the finger at her for her marriage to Abedini going south. She alleges that Abedini did everything to her from “name calling to isolating me to beating to the silent treatment.” She also claims that Abedini started mocking her looks and isolating her almost from the time they started dating. It started getting physical early on as well; what began as pushing and shoving escalated to full-on beatings after they were married.
Panahi refused to even consider joint counseling sessions with Abedini unless Abedini agreed to abuse counseling. It not only would have helped him come to a mature understanding of what he’d done to Panahi, but also help him heal as well. Panahi told me that Abedini was “horribly physically abused” by his dad. It turned out that Abedini’s dad beat his wife as well. I suspected from the beginning that Abedini was part of a long list of abused kids who grow up to be abusers themselves, and Panahi confirmed it.
However, he pleaded guilty to domestic assault in 2007 and received a three-month suspended sentence. If he had grown up believing what he’d seen as a kid was normal, that arrest should have been a pretty loud warning that it wasn’t normal. Pahani offered Abedini a chance to break the cycle by getting abuse counseling—and Abedini blew it eight ways to Sunday.
And yet, in the face of all of that, Panahi told me that she’s had a lot of people suggest that she shouldn’t try to marry again since she’s divorced. That floored me. How does a woman, especially one with children, essentially get punished for fleeing from an abusive situation?
Until very recently, I had assumed that only particularly hidebound elements of the evangelical world still considered divorce a scarlet letter. For instance, while I was still dating, one woman I talked to, who was raised in the United Pentecostal Church (the fringe Pentecostal sect that requires women to wear long skirts and not cut their hair) recalled that when she left her husband after years of verbal and physical abuse, her then-pastor actually told her she had no biblical grounds for doing so.
But when Panahi explained how she’d been told that she shouldn’t try to marry again, it brought me back to another time when I was still dating. A woman whom I’d taken out once told me that there was no way we could go forward because I was divorced. She even went as far as to tell me that despite knowing the three years of hell I’d endured in my first marriage, she still looked at me and thought, “Okay, this is someone’s husband.”
I have to wonder—despite Abedini being arrested at least once for abusing Panahi while they were still married, do people still think of her as Abedini’s wife? Even though, as she told Roys, he initially promised to go to abuse counseling—only to tell her he wanted a divorce via a text message. Do they still see Panahi as Abedini’s wife even though he has been arrested not once, but twice, for violating a restraining order? Abedini pleaded guilty in the first case, but Panahi told Roys that he skipped a court date for the second case. She told me that there’s been a warrant out for his arrest since March 2018.
Abedini essentially went dark for more than three years (he last tweeted in May 2018). He finally surfaced in an interview with Religion News Service earlier this month as part of a story about how few people believed his ex-wife. From an undisclosed location outside the United States, Abedini claims that he has been framed, and is working on a book that will clear his name. Again I ask—how can anyone listen to this and even think Panahi is to blame for this marriage falling apart? After all, Abedini’s behavior proves that he hasn’t even begun to come to a mature understanding of what he did.
Panahi told me that suggestions she shouldn’t marry again are rooted in a “wrong understanding of the Bible.” Episcopal priest and abuse expert Justin Holcomb agrees. Holcomb, who teaches ministers how to care for survivors, told RNS that so many ministers are fixated on keeping a marriage together that they forget about keeping victims safe. As he put it, abusers who aren’t willing to own up to what they did “have forfeited their right to remain married.”
Holcomb’s observation makes a lot of sense. For instance, evangelical author, psychologist, and founder of Focus on the Family James Dobson has been allowed to get away with telling a woman that divorce isn’t the answer to being horribly abused for 12 years. That sage advice has remained through four editions of his book Love Must Be Tough, with the last edition coming in 2010—well beyond any possible good-faith interpretation. How does this happen?
The answer to that question is simple. Dobson is speaking to a constituency where it is acceptable to blame a domestic violence survivor for their marriage falling apart. That constituency also believes it is acceptable to tell a domestic violence survivor that despite the hell he or she went through, they are still someone’s spouse.
To my mind, Panahi’s experience has proven this isn’t a bug with the religious right. It’s a feature—one that we cannot tolerate if we’re to have a real reckoning with how we respond to domestic violence. When a church or ministry shames people for getting divorced because they want out of abusive relationships, that church or ministry not only endangers the victims, but their loved ones—especially children. If anyone believes that constitutional protections of freedom of religion and free exercise of religion bar us from demanding accountability for such behavior, there’s a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you. And that applies even to the warped interpretations of those freedoms that the religious right favors.