Transformation in Iran Will Come From Women

On the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, a former political prisoner assesses the prospect of change in Iran.

Haleh Esfandiari speaks during a press conference in Washington on Sept. 10, 2007. (Stephanie Kuykendal/Getty Images)
Haleh Esfandiari speaks during a press conference in Washington on Sept. 10, 2007. (Stephanie Kuykendal/Getty Images)

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution, when the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a Western-backed autocrat, was swept away and replaced with the theocratic regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The revolution fundamentally changed the lives of most Iranians and the politics of the Middle East.

Foreign Policy spoke with Haleh Esfandiari, the former and founding director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Esfandiari, an Iranian-American, was arrested in Iran in 2007 while visiting her mother and was held in the notorious Evin prison for more than three months on suspicion of espionage.

Foreign Policy: Are there any particular moments that stand out for you from those days in February 1979?

Haleh Esfandiari: What I remember vividly was how surprised and astonished and, in a way, shellshocked I was when I saw the whole country falling apart when the shah left. I remember that I started drafting a letter to our 12-year-old daughter, who was with me in London, and saying you should remember this day because this is the end of an important part of history. The end of one of the oldest monarchies, 2,500 years of monarchy. The next thing I think that I will never forget was, day after day, the news of executions of people you knew, former ministers, the former prime minister. This was very shocking to me. I remember the pictures of dead bodies in the newspaper.

FP: What was it like to witness such a profound change in your country from abroad—to not be there for it?

HE: I was missing not being there because I always thought that it happens once in a lifetime when you can witness a revolution close up. I mean how often can this happen. Iran was a very stable country, at least in my lifetime. There was never a war, nor was there any upheaval. Nothing. So therefore when you live 38 years in stability, when there is suddenly this upheaval it shakes you to your core. Because by then everybody was worried what would happen to them. There was a sense of fear of whether the next day somebody they knew or a close relative or friend would be picked up.

My husband stayed almost a year after the revolution in Iran, and I was very worried for him because he was Jewish. By then, a couple of months had passed, and they had executed a very famous Jewish businessman. So I was, of course, worried for him.

FP: Did you go back in the immediate years after the revolution?

HE: No, I went back 12 years after that.

FP: What was it like then, when you went back 12 years later, compared with the Iran that you had grown up in?

HE: Once I went back, I was taken aback by the sight of the streets. Even when I started going back, you saw women wearing long coats that they would refer to as manteau—the French word. The coats were either black or navy blue or brown, the scarves were usually black, and they wore hardly any makeup. Even then I would go to somebody’s house, and they would shed these coats and the scarf, and under them there were very bright colors. And within two minutes, women would walk into a bathroom, put on some makeup, and there was a metamorphosis of these women.

I used to go three or four times a year to Iran because my family lived there. And I was observing the evolution of women’s attire. It was amazing how the coats became shorter and shorter, how young women would wear makeup on the street and in the summer they would show quite a substantial part of their ankle, painted toenails, and they would show quite a bit of hair both in the back of the scarf and in the front. My sense from the very beginning, from the first time I went back to Iran and started talking to women, was that if there were going to be any change in this society, it would be because women were pushing for change and they hadn’t been intimidated by the regime.

Women were flogged because they showed a bit of hair. Women were put in prison because they were caught in the company of a man who was not related to them. But nevertheless women were the group in Iran that was pushing back in the early days of the revolution. They tried to segregate the universities and bar women from certain fields of education like agriculture. But they resisted. They insisted on having equal access to university through petitions, demonstrations, and their sheer presence.

When it comes to education now, the majority of entering class students at universities are women. I mean, the Iranian parliament has toyed even with the idea of introducing a quota system in favor of men. Must be the only place in the world!

FP: Do you see Iranian women playing a larger role in any future changes in the way Iran is governed?

HE: Oh, sure. We had women in parliament under the monarchy, and we continue having women in parliament. Currently, there are 17 women in parliament. As I recall, 16 belong to the more moderate faction of Hassan Rouhani’s group, and there is only one more conservative member.

You have educated women. You have women who are connected to the outside world through the internet, Instagram, Telegram—you name it. I would say women are in the forefront followed by the younger generation, both men and women. But I think that the leaders will definitely be women because they are fearless, you know. They put them in jail all the time, and they are not scared. They come out, and they speak.

FP: In your experience, do U.S. policymakers have a good understanding of contemporary Iran and what makes it tick?

HE: Well, it depends who the policymaker is. My sense was that the group that negotiated with their Iranian counterparts under the Obama administration had a very good understanding of what was happening in Iran. They were seasoned State Department people who had to worked on Iran over a long period of time, but I’m not too sure about the current administration. It will take a while for me to really understand how much they know about Iran, how much they know about Iranian society, and how much they know about the Iranian leadership.

FP: What do we get wrong about Iran, and what are we not understanding? Are there mistakes you see repeated or misconceptions?

HE: My sense is that, on the whole, an Iran that is engaged behaves better than an Iran that is ostracized. Let’s put it this way: At the end of the day, after two years of negotiation, there was a deal. When you do that, you also have to condemn human rights violations. But these two can be parallel. You can talk with a country and condemn the violation of human rights.

FP: Could you talk a little bit about your detention at Evin prison? What was your time there like?

HE: Hell—if I want to put it very briefly in one word. Let me tell you that prison leaves its mark on you and you can’t shake it. It’s there. I was 67 when they arrested me and put me in prison, and I became notorious in the world as the 67-year-old grandmother working at the Wilson Center sitting in jail in Iran. Also, I knew that both my husband and Lee Hamilton, who was the director of the Wilson Center, would do anything they could to get me out of prison. But I had read a lot about Evin. It’s the most notorious prison in the world. People have died there, disappeared there, have been tortured there, and so on. Of course, I was horrified when they took me to Evin. But then I decided that feeling sad or pitying myself was not going to help me.

I was very focused because I was interrogated eight, sometimes nine, hours a day consecutively. I had to focus and be aware of what they would ask me, what I would reply to them, because then they would come back to the same question or questions three weeks later and try to catch a discrepancy. It was a very unpleasant time, but, as I said, I decided that I was not going to let them break me. I had no access to anybody but the women guards, because I was in solitary confinement, and on a daily basis my two interrogators. I saw one, not the other, because when the interrogation was taking place I had to face the wall. So it was a very tough time. But I always say that I am a very tough cookie. I’m an Iranian woman—we’re all tough.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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