For Mary Sherzia the abuse began even before she married her husband in Iran. "My husband hit me and beat me even before the wedding. And I told my mom but she said I must marry him because it's shameful for a woman to back out on a marriage."
While in public they appeared the happy couple, Mary Sherzia privately endured her husband's violent outbursts out of fear, intimidation and humiliation. Over the years they had three children and in 1999 moved to the Southern California region of the United States.
Perhaps because of the stress of adapting to a new country, the abuse got worse. Until one day, when Mary Sherzia went to work at this McDonald's restaurant, covered with bruises, and a co-worker confronted her.
Mary said she came up with an excuse, "I said, ‘I fell.’ She said, 'Hey, if you don't want to live this way, just say something and they will protect you.' "
Mary Sherzia did get help. She went to court. The judge issued a restraining order against her husband. She and her children moved into a shelter for battered women.
And there she met family therapist Shahla Zandbiglari who told her she was not alone. "Domestic abuse happens in all types of families, rich and poor. And the women and children are being hurt the most. It’s physical abuse, emotional abuse and financial abuse," said Ms. Zandbiglari.
The American Medical Association estimates that over four million women are victims of severe assaults by boyfriends and husbands each year. About one in four women is likely to be abused by a partner in her lifetime.
And according to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, 30 percent of women killed in the United States die at the hands of a husband or boyfriend. Shahla Zandbiglari says Iranian and other immigrant women are reluctant to report abuse because they don't know their rights. “They don't have knowledge about the law. They think here is like Iran and the father gets custody of the child. So out of fear of losing they stay and endure the situation.”
While the laws in the United States may protect the victims of abuse, when a case involves immigrants it can get complicated. When Merritt McKeon divorced her abusive Iranian husband, he was allowed to take their children back to Iran. "It took nine years to get my kids back but in that time I went to therapy, school and became attorney," said Ms. McKeon.
Ms. McKeon also co-wrote a book about domestic abuse in the United States and is today an advocate for battered women. She says more must be done within the legal system to protect the victims of abuse and give them the support necessary to rebuild their lives.
"We need to change the judges' minds, the attorneys' minds. This is very scary because the judges don't believe you." But nothing can be done until battered women, like Mary Sherzia, take action to stop the abuse.
(More in part 2)