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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