When Michele heard Naseem speak at a luncheon about her work in Iran, she knew immediately that this was a woman we needed to meet. Naseem had the stories we longed to hear. Naseem was gracious to us, but from the beginning she had a difficult time with our interview. She confessed as much: "You must not speak against anyone's religion. It is not that I don't want to tell you the stories. But how can I be certain you will not put anyone at risk?"

Naseem has good reason to fear. A quick Internet survey on Iran finds extremism and conditions that raise concerns for women and girls—actually, for everyone who lives there. Police sweep through Tehran, looking for anyone who appears "too Western." Women must wear dark layers of loose-fitting clothes, and their hair must be entirely covered. Those who question or resist are arrested on the spot.

A peaceful gathering of women on International Women's Day was met with the brutal arrests of 30 women in a park. After 17 years in operation, Zanan, a popular women's magazine, was closed down because it was "corrupting the culture." And just a month before this writing, a 22-year-old woman was sentenced to five years in prison for participating in an event called "One Million Signatures," which supports greater rights for women. A female student who complained of sexual harassment by a senior male lecturer was also charged, despite the fact that YouTube postings show the woman's fellow students with an audio recording of the lecturer sexually propositioning her. "Publicizing certain crimes is worse than the crimes themselves," the local prosecutor claimed.

This is hard to understand from a Western viewpoint. But Iran is a theocratic republic, 98 percent Muslim, with a strict legal system based on sharia law. Sharia brings together elements from the Qur'an and the Hadith, a collection of the deeds and words of Muhammad, plus judges' rulings from Islam's first centuries. It also establishes such things as the inferior status of women. What Westerners are most familiar with is its penal code: the prescribed punishments for sexual offenses that include stoning; for theft that include amputation; for apostasy against Islam, for which the punishment is death.

It would seem that the sexual abuse and exploitation of girls is a huge contradiction in a culture that stones and hangs people for any hint of sexual impurity. "Not really," Naseem said. "Girls are considered second-class citizens. Exploitation and repression actually fit right together."

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But things are changing in Iran, Naseem told us. Many educated women are pushing for change—carefully, but pushing nevertheless. Then she told us of a far more amazing change: "Many are also turning to Christ."


The mother of Dorri [one of the women Naseem told us about] died when Dorri was quite young. Her father remarried, and her new stepmother … constantly hurled insults at her, beat her and generally made her life miserable. "At one point, her stepmother started a fire in the house intending to burn Dorri alive," Naseem said. "Dorri barely escaped." As she grew, Dorri knew for certain she could never be loved …. As soon as she reached adolescence, her family arranged a marriage for her, but that drove her only into deeper despair.

There was a nice park not far from her house, and for long hours Dorri sat there alone. One older woman who came often was Nahid, a widow who lived with her son. He greatly admired his mother for her kind ways. "Most women go out of the house with an empty basket, hoping to fill it with fruits and vegetables. But you, my mother, go out with a basket full of good things and are only happy when you share everything and the basket is empty."

Nahid's desire was to somehow share God's love with one person each day. She often fasted and prayed, asking God to show her creative ways to accomplish this. Some days she would ride several buses and leave literature in seat compartments. Other days she would walk through the park, praying that God would allow someone to cross her path who was willing to receive what she had to share.

One day Nahid had a great abundance of Christian literature in her basket, all carefully hidden under a layer of apples. How could she find a way to get these "messages of hope" to the most receptive people? When she arrived at the park, Nahid was amazed to see an extremely large gathering of women. Could it be that God had sent them all in answer to her prayer?

After an entire day of visiting with the women and handing out literature, Nahid was tired, so she sat down with her basket of apples. Suddenly the police started to arrest the women, who had actually gathered in the park to demonstrate for women's rights. When the police got to Nahid, they were especially aggressive.

"I am only sitting here eating apples," Nahid said calmly, despite her growing fear. They grabbed her basket and roughly dug down to the bottom. Panic rose in Nahid. Had she given away all the literature, or was there some still buried under the apples? She couldn't be certain. The police grabbed her basket and turned it upside down, then they grabbed her and shook out the flowing clothing that covered her from head to foot. Only when the police turned to walk away did Nahid dare to breathe.

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Another woman was alone in the park that day too. It was Dorri. In her safe place on the outskirts of the park, she picked up a wrinkled piece of literature and tucked it into the fold of her chador, then she went home.

In the safety of her house, Dorri took out the paper, smoothed it and read the words, "God is love." What a strange concept, Dorri thought. God is creator. God is judge. But God is love? Could that be true?

Could God love her? Dorri had to find out.

Not too long after, Dorri went with her husband on a business trip outside the country. They were invited to a gathering of Iranians who turned out to be Christians, and there she heard the amazing message again: "God is love. He loves every person he created. He sent his son to die for your sins." The pastor who spoke invited people to talk to him after his message.

Reluctantly Dorri and her husband made their way up to him. "We don't want to receive this message," Dorri's husband insisted. "But would you pray with us anyway?" In that moment, Dorri's life changed forever. As the couple prayed, she gladly received God's love in Christ. In time, her husband did the same.

"You would not believe the change in Dorri," Naseem told us. "Only God could change someone the way she was changed. She is confident and joyful, truly a bold minister of God's love in one of the largest churches, though I dare not tell you where."

It is no surprise to hear that the underground church in Iran endures many pressures. But we rejoice to hear about the many miracles it is experiencing too.

"Jesus is so attractive, especially to women," Naseem told us. "The way he received women, showing them respect and kindness, is something women here deeply desire. His treatment of the woman caught in adultery touches them. This is like no other religious teacher they've heard."

A growing number of Iranian Christian women are amazingly bold despite the repression. One talkative Christian woman, Sima, placed a telephone call to her friend Maria. Hardly taking a breath, she said, "I just wanted to tell you I was praying for your daughter who is so ill. God encouraged my heart, and I am certain she will be well! … Please don't cry …. Maria, why are you sobbing?"

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A man's voice broke into the conversation on the other end of the telephone line. "My wife cannot talk anymore. You have reached the wrong number. Goodbye."

Did I dial the wrong number? Sima thought in confusion. The person answered to Maria, and that certainly is not a common name in Iran.

The next day Sima received a call from the same man. "I had to call you back today," the man said. "We have never heard of anyone in our country with the same name as my wife. But your words gave her great comfort. Our teenage daughter is a drug addict. My wife had the best night of sleep she's had in years. We want to talk to you about some of the things you said. Could you and your husband meet us for tea?"

Taken from Forgotten Girls: Stories of Hope and Courage by Kay Marshall Strom and Michele Rickett. Copyright©2009 by Kay Marshall Strom and Michele Rickett. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.