Domestic abuse, national spotlight: Ex-Iran prisoner’s wife speaks out

For nearly four years, Naghmeh Abedini thrust herself into the public eye, telling anyone who would listen about the plight of her husband, Saeed, and how the Boise pastor was imprisoned for spreading Christianity in his native Iran.

Naghmeh traveled the nation to raise awareness and to enlist help from those who heard her speak about her husband, whom she married in Tehran in 2004. “Bring Home Saeed” and “Free Saeed” posters and T-shirts, bearing his image, became commonplace at rallies. During a highly publicized visit to Boise in early 2015, President Barack Obama told Naghmeh and her two young children that freeing Saeed, now 35, was a top priority for his administration.

Away from the glare of television lights and public attention, Naghmeh hid the trouble in her marriage — until last November. In an email to her supporters, she said that she had suffered physical, emotional and psychological abuse throughout her marriage.

In 2007, Saeed pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic assault in Ada County Magistrate Court. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail, which was suspended, and placed on probation for a year, according to online Idaho court records. The case file was not immediately available for review.

On Wednesday, in a post on her Facebook page, Naghmeh said she regretted having hid from the public what she had lived through. She had hoped that the “horrible situation” her husband went through would bring about a spiritual change in both of them and improve their marriage. But instead, she wrote, Saeed made demands about his public image she felt she couldn’t meet, and threatened that if she didn’t carry out his wishes, it would cause the end of their marriage and bring pain to their children.

Saeed, who could not be reached for comment, was released earlier this month as part of a prisoner swap. He spent five days at a North Carolina retreat center operated by the Rev. Franklin Graham, then flew to Boise on Tuesday, the same day Naghmeh filed a petition for legal separation in Ada County. He has not responded publicly to his wife’s allegations since the email first leaked last fall.

“Since Saeed’s freedom I have wanted nothing more than to run to him and welcome him home. It is something I dreamed about the last 3.5 years,” Naghmeh wrote in her Facebook post. “But unfortunately things did not work out that way and our family has to work through reconciliation.

“I want our reconciliation to be strictly based on God’s word. I want us to go through counseling, which must first deal with the abuse. Then we can deal with the changes my husband and I must both make moving forward in the process of healing our marriage.”

Complex situation made more difficult, more public

The Women’s and Children’s Alliance in Boise helps women who have been physically, mentally and sexually abused. The program finds the women a safe place to live while helping them reconnect with their sense of self, identity and strength at their core, said Bea Black, the alliance’s executive director.

“There’s a lot of shame, there’s a lot of guilt, there’s a lot of feelings that ‘it’s my fault,’ that ‘I should have tried harder, I could have been better,’ ” Black said. “Many times in an abusive relationship, whether it’s been due to violence or due to psychological or emotional abuse, they have been stripped of their sense of value and their sense of self.”

It takes a lot of strength and courage to leave an abusive relationship or to try to work through problems, Black said. Religious, family and societal pressures can all work against a woman struggling with abuse.

“We as a society tend to say, gosh, the family is the most important thing. You don’t want to do anything that would disrupt the family unit,” Black said. “One of the reasons that will finally drive them to make that difficult decision is that they see how the situation is affecting their kids, and because of their kids they choose to move forward. They feel it’s worth the risk.”

One in three women suffers in an abusive domestic relationship during her lifetime, Black said. One in four is sexually assaulted. For men, it’s one in seven and one in six.

To put that statistic in perspective, she said, one in eight women develops breast cancer.

More work needs to be done to talk about the dangers of domestic abuse and ways to improve the situation, Black said.

Tiffany Brown, a therapist who serves as the clinical director of the Couples and Family Therapy Program at the University of Oregon in Eugene, said it’s unclear whether Saeed and Naghmeh Abedini should remain in the national spotlight or seek privacy as they work on their marriage.

There has been huge interest in the Abedinis. Naghmeh’s Facebook post Wednesday on Saeed’s return to Boise brought more than 21,000 “likes” by Thursday evening. More than 5,700 people commented on the post, and 3,680 people shared the post on their own Facebook pages.

Meanwhile, Naghmeh asked the media for privacy while she and her husband work through their personal issues

“I believe that sometimes a public eye can create some safety and protection because all eyes are on them,” Brown said. “It could also cause additional stress, so I’m not sure there’s a right answer.”

Heather Tustison, a licensed clinical counselor from Boise, did not speak directly about the Abedini situation. She said she advises couples that see her for marriage counseling to focus on the future and work to strengthen their relationship.

“If you look at all the things that need to change or the things that you’re not doing right, you’re just going to get more of the same,” she said. “You want to be headed toward a goal that is attainable.”

Effective communication drives healthy marriages, she said.

“What that means is there is mutual respect, there is openness and honesty, there is freedom,” Tustison said. “There is an understanding that they’re looking out for your best interests and you’re looking out for theirs.”

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @IDS_Sowell