Jailed Journalist on Gender and Culture in Iran


Harper Collins

Writers, musicians, filmmakers, and other free thinkers have chafed under Iran's fundamentalist censorship—and some like journalist Roxana Saberi have been made political prisoners. Saberi worked for six years in her father's native Iran and continued to report for the last three years even when the government took away her press pass. She started working on a book on Iranian culture before being smeared as a spy by the Iranian secret police. Though she was sentenced to eight years in prison, international pressure led to her release after 100 days. The Atlantic talked with Saberi about her new book about her experience, her memoir Between Two Worlds, and the book on Iranian culture she still hopes to write.

How do creative people in Iran continue to make art despite the repressive government?

People react to it in different ways. Some of them go underground as you saw in No One Knows About Persian Cats. They go into basements or the cowsheds to practice their music. And still they can find a lot of audience members selling their music on the black market. Journalists also, some try to continue within those restrictions that keep getting tighter and tighter because they think reporting under those conditions is better than not reporting at all. Many others leave the business or go into writing for foreign websites or blogging, which can be risky in Iran, but they think there's enough value to their work to take the calculated work to do it. It's not just journalists and musicians; it's also artists, writers, poets, filmmakers. Many of them have been facing increased restrictions in Iran and if you want to act just like the regime wants to act then you will have more job security, but I think many aren't comfortable doing that. That's when you find this division that I talked about this briefly in the book, which is between insiders and outsiders, and some people say that's what the regime wants.

What's it like to be a woman in Iran? They have more rights than some other countries in the Middle East but they also face some restrictions that are just infamous.

They do have many freedoms and rights that some of their counterparts don't have in other countries in the Middle East. And women have become more and more active in society in recent years. About 65 percent of the entrants in universities have been women in recent years. And women have become involved in politics and in different jobs—still a lot less than men.

And in the elections last year many women took part, and in the demonstrations afterward, many of them were trying to encourage their less courageous male counterparts on. But there's a lot of discrimination against women too. Like in court, a woman's testimony is worth half of a man's testimony. And they have a hard time getting divorced. Their husbands or fathers can stop them from working at a certain job. There have been grassroots campaigns to try to change some of this, but many of the volunteers in these campaigns have been jailed or intimidated and harassed. I think that's gradually changing when many more women are going to college. They go from smaller cities where they meet new people and develop increasing demands on society. I was sometimes accepted into men's circles since they saw me as a foreigner in addition to being an Iranian...only sometimes.

Is it true that nose jobs are popular among Iranian women? How does that fit in with the modesty guidelines women are expected to follow?

A lot of women get their nose jobs done, for one reason I've heard because they have to cover everywhere—their hair and their bodies, but they keep their faces out in the open and they want that part of their body to be as beautiful as possible. That's the part that people who pass them on the street will see...But Iranian women, I think, are gorgeous in general and they have been very careful about their appearance. When you go into private gatherings they wear very chic clothes and give a lot of attention their hair and makeup.

Being a freelance reporter is tough anywhere, but how did you make it in Iran as a freelance reporter without clearance in a restricted country?

The reporting I did without a press pass was limited and it was prohibited by the law. For example, news spots for the radio and maybe a few features... I had a lot more time on my hands, because I couldn't report as much as I used to so that's why I decided to work on the book. But I think that also it's in closed societies like Iran where trying to share information with the public can be most important, whether it's for journalism or blogging and so on. If there weren't people making these kinds of efforts the society would be much more closed and much more repressive. So you see a lot of Iranians who assume or know that they're being monitored by the authorities, but they keep doing what they're doing. They might be labor activists or people looking for new faiths—it's because of them that there's hope for democracy there.

What does Iranian culture teach us about being creative despite restrictions?

You can become creative when faced with restrictions. For instance men and women can't touch on screen, so you see the actor and actress get married, and then they go into a room and throw their shoes outside the door or something like that. They learn to say things in indirect ways and understand by reading between the lines. For example, many Iranians who read Iranian newspapers realize these publications have been censored, so they learn to understand what the journalists' messages are even if they're not saying what they want to say. When they're faced with force and violence they might be silenced in the short term but in the long term you can't eliminate those wishes through force and violence. As they say in Farsi—it's fire under the dirt. If the wind blows a little the dirt can be pushed aside and the flame can blow again.