Haleh Esfandiari is the director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. She is an expert on women’s issues and democracy in the Middle East, as well as contemporary Iranian politics, and she has also worked as a journalist. A dual citizen of Iran and the United States, in 2007 she spent 105 days in Tehran’s Evin Prison, accused by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence with espionage and “endangering national security through propaganda against the system.” In My Prison, My Home: One Women’s Story of Captivity in Iran (2009, Ecco Press), Esfandiari recounts her experience while setting it within the context of Iran’s recent history.
What is it that you think you’ll never forget about those months in prison?
Prison leaves its marks forever and little things keep triggering your memory. For example, if I see the moon I always remember that the third time I saw it from the bars of my cell I knew that I had been in jail for three months or every time I see a butterfly I remember that one day, when I was walking on the small terrace of the women’s ward, I saw a white butterfly and I thought to myself ‘I am stuck here, what are you doing here?’ I will never forget being blindfolded during my interrogation for days and weeks and months, I will never forget being interrogated for eight, nine hours a day, I will never forget the day I was released, I will never forget the day my mother passed away and I wasn’t there.
Why didn’t you go back to Iran for your mother’s funeral?
Given what has happened since my incarceration, I don’t feel safe or comfortable in Iran anymore. I am sure I wouldn’t have problems getting in the country but I might have problems leaving Iran.
I often read about how Muslim women and men are adopting progressive interpretations of Islam to support women’s rights in a growing movement of Islamic feminism. Where is this actually happening and in which way?
For the last four decades there have been new interpretations of Islamic law when it comes to family law and they have been pushed by women. For example, the One Million Signatures campaign in the early nineties in Morocco led to an overall reform of the family law in the country. In Iran there is an ongoing campaign by women activists to collect a million signatures for equality under the law. There is this effort but it’s not easy.
Are there cases in the Middle East of men and women working together with these objectives?
Take the campaign to collect the million signatures in Iran. It was founded by groups of progressive men and women. In every country which has a parliament, for instance, in order to make these changes we need the support of parliamentarians and in all the parliaments there are more men than women so of course they need the support of men. In a number of countries they also need the support of the clerics who would help them to put these changes in the Islamic contexts. In 1967 when the first Family Protection Law passed in Iran, the government secured the agreement of the Marja in Najaf (the most authoritative jurists).
I read in an interview that you consider Iran’s family law an example for other Middle Eastern countries. What is exactly the family law about?
The family law across the regions regulates family relations between the husband and the wife. For example, in the original Iranian family law of 1967, women got the right to seek divorce, child custody was decided by a court (women could become judges then) and the age of marriage for girls was raised from 13 to 15 and then to18 years old. After the revolution (1979) the age of marriage was reduced to 9 and it was brought to 13 twenty years later, while women lost the right to seek a divorce. After years of fighting, women now have the right to go to court to seek a divorce but the courts are packed with men judges.
So it’s not as progressive as it used to be before the revolution?
Is the Iranian family law still an example for other Middle Eastern countries?
When it passed it was among the most progressive in the region and of course the other countries would look to it and implement some parts of it. Nowadays the Moroccan family law is an example for all the Muslim countries and the Iranian feminist movements have decided to collect the million signatures following the example of Morocco.
What is in Morocco’s family law that makes it an example for other Muslim countries?
Just to give you an example, the head of the family is both the husband and the wife. Except for Morocco and Tunisia, in all the other Muslim countries it is only the husband.
What do you consider to be the main obstacle to equality in rights and duties among men and women in Iran?
I think the main obstacle is the family law itself. If according to the law a woman needs her husband’s permission to leave the house, to travel, to seek employment, the husband can always resort to the law and stop her. In the political sphere, in theory women have the right to vote and to be elected but for example in Iran out of 270 members of the current parliament there are only 7 women MPs. Again in Iran there’s equal access to education for men and women but because the number of women entering university exceed that of men, parliament is toying with the idea of introducing quotas in favour of men.
If there’s unemployment they don’t go after qualification, they go after the sex of the person. I personally believe the family law is the source of all the restrictions women are facing.
To what extent is the tension with the conservative leaders going on now in Iran unique with respect to other Islamic conservative parties in other parts of the world?
Currently the tension in Iran is the result of the 2009 presidential elections and in no other Middle Eastern countries you have a cleric that is the ultimate decision- maker like the Iranian supreme leader.
How does the supreme leader’s role affect gender (in)equality?
So far every time there has been a change in favour of women the supreme leader has not objected to it. He has kept silent.
How do you see Iran’s situation in the immediate future?
I believe that the green movement is not dead but only dormant, that Iran will open up again, but this will happen from within the country and not from the outside, just like the green movement which was an indigenous movement.
And who are the actors and actress of this opening up?
I don’t know but I think among the younger generation there will probably be a leadership coming up, but I don’t believe it is going to overthrow the regime. I may be wrong.
You see, Iran is not North Korea, it’s connected with the outside world. There are over 20 million people accessing the internet and according to the BBC the number of bloggers amounts to over sixty thousand. That’s why you can no longer hide repression and if you sentence Sakineh to stoning in one hour the whole world will know and will take a stand on it.
Why do you think Sakineh’s case has drawn all the attention it has?
It is very simple. To sentence someone to stoning in 2010 of course gets attention and of course it is the women’s movement that mobilizes the world to take a stand on this issue.
So why do you think some cases like Sakineh’s get the world’s attention and others similar don’t?
Some cases trigger an interest from the media and others just don’t.