Iranian woman says she's trapped in her marriage, 3 years after Canadian divorce

An Iranian woman living in B.C. says she's trapped in her Islamic marriage because her ex-husband refuses to co-operate with their separation — despite the fact they've been divorced under Canadian law for years.

Little more Canadian courts can do for Fariba Nasser, lawyer says

Fariba Nasser and Armin Kariminia before they separated as a couple in the fall of 2012. (Fariba Nasser)

An Iranian woman living in B.C. says she's trapped in her Islamic marriage because her ex-husband refuses to co-operate with their separation — even though they've been divorced under Canadian law for years. 

Without a divorce recognized in Iran, Fariba Nasser says she can't travel back home to visit her mother and sister for fear her ex-husband will block her from returning to Canada.

Under Sharia law in Iran, only men have the right to file for divorce and can control their wives' travel otherwise. Because Nasser is still technically married in Iran, her ex-husband would be within his rights to prevent her from leaving Iran.

"I'm not a free person," Nasser said in an interview at the Burnaby apartment she shares with her son and daughter, aged 12 and 14.

"After six years of my marriage being over, still someone has power and control over my life."

Fariba Nasser, 47, sits in her Burnaby, B.C. home on Aug. 29, 2018. (Rhianna Schmunk/CBC)

Lawyers who've encountered similar cases say Nasser is not the first Iranian woman in Canada to encounter problems obtaining a divorce in their homeland.

They say the case highlights the limit to what Canadian civil courts can do in marriages rooted in a different set of principles.

"When you're dealing with somebody ... and you got married to this person outside of this country, the law will only save you up to a certain point," said family lawyer Leena Yousefi.

"After that, we can't control him — we can't do anything on our end. Sometimes you're just literally stuck with the cards that you've been given."

Married 18 years

Nasser and Armin Kariminia married in Iran in 1994. The couple moved to B.C. after Kariminia was awarded a scholarship to the University of British Columbia in 2004.

"We were in love," Nasser said, seated on a black leather sofa in her living room.

She moved to the three-bedroom apartment after separating from her husband in 2012.

She claims Kariminia had an affair and was abusive in the last years of their marriage — punching and swearing at her, sometimes in front of their children.

Armin Kariminia and Fariba Nasser during a visit to Vancouver in 2011. (Fariba Nasser)

Kariminia was charged with assault and uttering threats on Sept. 20, 2012. He was acquitted the following year.

In a phone interview, Kariminia said he "never, ever" hit Nasser.

The couple was granted a divorce in B.C. in 2015.

'You shouldn't come here'

Shortly after the divorce, Nasser planned to go to Iran to see her ailing mother and sister, who has cerebral palsy.

But her lawyer in Iran warned her she could be stuck there if she travelled without ratifying her divorce in that country first.

"[My lawyer] told me, 'You shouldn't come here,'" she said.

Once a woman is married under Islamic law in Iran, she can't get divorced without her husband's permission unless there's evidence of abuse or adultery. 

Nasser complied and filed for divorce in Iran, but her application was rejected — as was a later appeal — because the court ruled her case didn't meet that threshold.

"It was really awful. I cried. For two, three days," she said.

Fariba Nasser and her mother during Nasser's most recent visit to Iran in 2012. Nasser says she hasn't seen her mother since. (Fariba Nasser)

Nasser turned to Canada's court system for help.

In May 2018, Nasser won a court order in B.C. to compel Kariminia to fill out Iranian divorce paperwork by the end of June.

Kariminia has not done so.

In a phone interview on Sept. 2, he listed a raft of reasons when asked why he hasn't filed, including a lack of financial resources and difficulty finding a lawyer.

Nasser says she doesn't know what else to do — or if Canada has any more tools to help her.

Cross-border divorce 

Yousefi says she's settled dozens of divorces between Iranian couples over 10 years as a family lawyer.

She said it's not uncommon for men to dig in their heels, but she said they usually relent under court orders. 

The lawyer said there's little more for the Canadian legal system to do for Nasser, aside from prosecuting Kariminia for contempt if he continues to refuse the order against him.

"You can't force a foreign government to do what you say they should do," she said.

'Abuse of power'

The difference between a Canadian marriage and an Iranian marriage is the principles in which they're rooted. A Canadian marriage is a civil contract and an Iranian one is entwined with religious morals and practices that need to be accommodated in order for a marriage or divorce to happen, said Yousefi.

"I think that's the logic behind the Iranian government sometimes not acknowledging the Canadian divorce — they say the religious aspects or requirements of the Iranian divorce are not met in a Canadian divorce," the lawyer said.

"If somebody wants to create problems and disallow their spouse from having freedom or rights in Iran ... this whole issue of the Iranian divorce is one of the biggest games that they can play," Yousefi continued. 

"It's literally the symbol of abuse of power to the highest extent."

Nasser says she feels for other women who feel trapped like she does.

"As far as I know, there [are] many, many Persian ladies [who] have the same problem as me," she said.

"I feel so sad ... it's too much for ladies to always be under control from men."

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About the Author

Rhianna Schmunk

@rhiannaschmunk

Rhianna Schmunk is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, B.C. Reach her at rhianna.schmunk@cbc.ca or through Twitter @rhiannaschmunk.