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.