Inside An Inspiring School That's Empowering Girls In Iran

Photographed by Newsha Tavakolian/Magnum.
Farzaneh was 16 when she discovered she was pregnant.

Desolate after years of living with no mother and a neglectful father, the teen had tried to end her life by overdosing on tranquilizers. But she lived. And when she woke up, she learned that her brother-in-law raped her while she was unconscious. As a single pregnant minor, she was sent to live in a juvenile detention center.

“I would embrace my stomach as if I wanted to protect my child. It was a very strange feeling," she recalled. "On the one hand, I loved my child, and on the other hand, I didn’t want to show my love.”

The baby was taken away after birth. She was so scarred from the trauma that she was deemed psychotic.

Just two years later, Farzaneh's life had taken a major turn for the better. The A-student was set on going to university. The psychotic diagnosis turned out to be off base. An effort to win custody of her son, by then a toddler, was underway. Key to her transformation is Omid e-Mehr, a one-of-a-kind program aimed at educating and empowering disadvantaged young women in Iran.

“At Omid, you look forward to the future. Everything here is about the future," she said. "You believe your future is bright and everything can be achieved.”

Farzaneh, who shared her story in a video testimonial on Omid's website, is one of hundreds of women and girls who have been helped by the program since it opened its doors about a decade ago.

Omid's two centers in Tehran serve as a safe haven and springboard for young women who have faced unimaginable trauma — ranging from extreme economic hardship to harrowing sexual abuse.

"We see empowerment in changing the attitude of the girls who are mostly from very marginalized and disadvantaged backgrounds," Marjaneh Halati, Omid’s founder, told Refinery29. "We want to train them so they become self-sufficient, but, also more importantly, that they become agents of social change."

When Halati, an Iranian woman who moved to England at age 12, started Omid a decade ago, the program served just 15 girls. Today, attendance has swelled to roughly 200 girls each year.

Ahead, see inspiring images that take you inside Omid's effort to help transform these young women — and Iran.
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Photographed by Newsha Tavakolian/Magnum.
Most, if not all, of the students at Omid e-Mehr "have been survivors of some kind of trauma or another," Omid founder Marjaneh Halati said. "We believe that unless we intervene, through the educational program that we are providing, that the cycle might actually repeat. They might turn to prostitution, drugs, or drug dealing as a way of survival. So it’s also a way of breaking this cycle that goes from generation to generation."
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Photographed by Newsha Tavakolian/Magnum.
Each girl is assigned a social worker, a psychologist, and an educational coordinator, said Halati, who completed graduate work in domestic violence and the institution of marriage in Iran. "So there is a team working with each girl from the moment she walks through the door and is accepted, so there is a team that deals with her issues," she said.
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Photographed by Newsha Tavakolian/Magnum.
The students range in ages from 15 to 25. "There are girls who have graduated from high school, there are girls who have dropped out of regular school, and, especially for our Afghan girls, there are girls who haven’t been able to attend school past a certain age, because the laws are constantly changing for Afghans," Sherry Tehrani, Omid's program director, told Refinery29.
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Photographed by Newsha Tavakolian/Magnum.
Lessons cover a range of subjects, including English, computer science, and personal hygiene. During the last six months of the three-year program, the students attend specialized vocational classes that prepare them for careers in fields that include "accounting, IT, and secretarial works," according to Omid's website.
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Photographed by Newsha Tavakolian/Magnum.
For the most part, the educational system in Iran is focused on "rote learning; there’s no room for creativity," Halati said. Omid offers a more holistic, "strength-based approach" meant to create an energetic and supportive environment. "Every class, every activity is geared towards hearing the voices of the girls and their needs," she said.
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Photographed by Newsha Tavakolian/Magnum.
The school even has a mountain-climbing team. One trek took the students to Mount Damavan, which is the highest peak in Iran.
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Photographed by Newsha Tavakolian/Magnum.
"All of these things get lined up together and kind of weave into one another to create this beautiful carpet," Tehrani said. "Because within each one is various things that increase their self-esteem, their self-image, and then we identify their talents, we identify their skills, and then they identify it, and they can go on and push forward with those things."
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Photographed by Newsha Tavakolian/Magnum.
Some girls live at one of Omid's two centers in Tehran, while others attend classes just for the day and spend evenings at home. All the girls get meals and snacks on site each day.
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Photographed by Newsha Tavakolian/Magnum.
Omid believes that educating girls is key to expanding women's rights in Iran. "Holding banners and screaming for women’s rights" isn't going to result in real change "unless you really work at the root," Halati said. "There has to be a paradigm shift in terms of their outlook and perspective, and it has to come from within the girls," she said.
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Photographed by Newsha Tavakolian/Magnum.
The program is supported by foundations run by Halati. There are many ways to help Omid and its students — from making a donation to one of the foundations that supports its work, to volunteering. Learn more here.
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Photographed by Newsha Tavakolian/Magnum.
The school's leaders hope to inspire the students to give back to their communities. "We have a number of girls who say that they are here because they want to start other programs, they want to be like Marjaneh….The ones who are from Afghanistan, they say they want to go back to Afghanistan and do this there, because women need it. Some of them maybe want to get away and run away, but most of them, if they feel that sense of empowerment, they want to give it back — and I think that’s amazing," Tehrani said. "Ultimately, our hope is for them to be able to give it back wherever they are, but to be able to give it back to the community."
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