The Woman Behind the Words: A chat with Nazila Fathi, Former NY Times Correspondent in Iran
“They are only trying to intimidate me” - at least that’s what she thought. Nazila Fathi was working as a NY Times correspondent in Iran when the nation that she called home witnessed its largest uprisings since the 1979 Revolution. The masses, dressed in bright green, questioned the integrity of the Iranian government in response to the 2009 presidential election. As the crowds continued to grow, government officials warned all journalists to stop reporting. But Fathi continued her work, compiling over 3,000 published articles, with a determination that would eventually force her into exile.
Her courage as a journalist, raw honesty as a writer, and voice as a women’s rights activist make Nazila Fathi a truly special person. During her visit to U.Va., I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak with her about her experiences on the ground in Iran, her views on immigration and refugee status, as well as her new book, The Lonely War.
KN: You were both a journalist and a woman in Iran, where you still managed to speak out despite the social norms that tell women to be quiet. Where did that courage come from?
NF: I believe it was a generational thing, and perhaps I’m lucky to belong to that generation. After the revolution, they basically told us that if you cover yourself, you can do anything. You’re absolutely right - Iranian culture is a hush-hush culture and you’re not supposed to do a lot of things as a girl, but somehow the revolution needed women. So as long as you were covered, you could do anything.
I went to school, to a segregated school, where I suffered a lot of discrimination, of course, in Iranian society after the revolution. But I never thought there was anything I could not do. Never.
Or maybe that was my upbringing. We were two sisters - and my parents never told us we couldn’t do something because we were girls.
The only time when I faced that question was when I was in my 20s and had applied to get press credentials for the NY Times. And there was this very chauvinistic director at the Ministry of Culture, who said to me that he didn’t like women working for the NY Times. That outraged me. It wasn’t something that I had heard before.
KN: Did he give you any kind of justification for why he felt that way? Was he concerned women would report differently than men would?
NF: No, I think he just wanted a man to do the job. And he was somebody - I talk about him in the book [The Lonely War] - he had lived in the States for many, many years. I always thought that if he had been in Iran, he wouldn’t have said that. He was the kind of guy who was sort of frozen in time: when he was with the Westerners he was very liberal, but when he was with the Iranians he was very traditional; much more traditional than a “traditional” man in Iranian society back then.
As soon as he left, I got my credentials.
KN: You mentioned your parents and your upbringing earlier. Do you think that the family you were raised in influenced your work and your decisions?
NF: You know I feel that whoever and whatever I am, good or bad, is because of my parents. We were very much shaped by our upbringing and I’m very grateful to them for that. My parents were very conservative in terms of what we could physically do. They were always afraid that we would climb walls or that we would be physically adventurous, and you know, I don’t remember ever breaking a bone or anything! And it really might have just been because they were not very athletic, or young. So they certainly did not favor those types of adventures.
But if I said to my parents that I wanted to go to the moon, my mom said, “good for you! When?”
They never told us there was something we couldn’t do - for any reason. I mean if it was financially impossible (and a lot of things were financially impossible, especially during the first decade after the revolution - that was the case for many other families as well) then my sister and I just took it. But they always encouraged us. My mother is quite fearless herself, so maybe that’s something.
KN: In your book, you mention the “morality police” in schools - and I remember the exact face of my Nazim (school official responsible for implementing Islamic morality and regulating improper behavior) when I went to school, and how they really do try to mold you into the “ideal Muslim woman”. Do you think that it’s possible to be a “good” Muslim woman and be feminist, as well?
NF: I think it depends on how you define a Muslim or a religious person. I think every religion has come to teach us to be better people, and to be ethical. You’d have to ask this question from them [religious leaders].
I think you can be a very good person and not be religious, or be religious and be a very bad person. So, I don’t know…
KN: That’s a very good answer to a very complex question. I think we need some Mullahs here to ask about that.
NF: And you know what, they would probably give you a very different answer!
KN: Another thing that stood out to me about your story is that you did it all as a mother. How did you balance the danger of working in on ground journalism, knowing that you also had these little people to think about?
NF: My children came along only during the last five years when I was working. I started this when I was in my early 20s, and that’s when I was really taking the big risks. And when I had my kids, I didn’t go to Iraq or Afghanistan anymore, because that’s where I thought the physical risk was.
In Iran, it wasn’t until I started getting threats and saw people getting killed that I thought my life was in danger. When I thought about consequences prior to that, I always just assumed they would put me in solitary confinement. I didn’t even take this lightly, because I knew there would be a terrible psychological torture involved. But I never thought anyone would raise a finger on me. That’s the farthest I went, in my mind.
I never thought what I was doing could have really life threatening consequences. And maybe I was too emotional because of the social climate in 2009, but that’s really when the physical threat existed. Otherwise I wouldn’t have done it, because of the reasons that you just said. I didn’t want to hurt my kids; I wanted to be there for them. That’s why I came back [to Canada].
KN: Do you think you want to go back to Iran one day?
NF: I don’t think about it. I don’t think about it…
I did what I really enjoyed doing for about twenty years - there are other people who are doing it now, and they’re doing a great job. I did what I could. I wanted to be with my children - I want to watch them grow old. Even when I was in Iran and I was doing what I enjoy doing, I wasn’t spending much time with my kids and it always broke my heart that my kids were going to grow up and I wasn’t going to be a huge part of their lives. I was traveling, I was working long hours…
So no, I’m happy.
KN: After everything you’ve been through, you’ve become a figure with a very powerful [political] voice. Does your experience change how you think about the Syrian refugees and the climate over there today?
NF: My opinion about immigration has definitely changed because of what happened. “Immigrant” is a loaded word for me now. It doesn’t make any difference if it’s me, or if it’s Syrians running for their life, or if it’s Africans running away. Or if it’s even somebody just seeking a better life. Because of my own experience, “immigrant” and “home” - those are words that have become very loaded.
Some people are running away from death and destruction, while some are just looking for more security or a better future for their children. And of course, our experiences are different. Some are much more traumatic than others. But I think in the end, we have to all struggle to find that home, and to define our identity all over again.
Who are we? Where are we coming from? Who is this Persian? Who is this Arab?
KN: Are we even Persian or Iranian?
NF: And is it Iran or I-ran? Or Iraq? Is there even a difference? What is the difference? Are you a Muslim? Even that! I think it’s an eternal struggle. Not only just for us, but for our children, for our grandchildren…
KN: To be immigrants?
NF: Yeah. And I never thought of it this way. I thought an immigrant is just an immigrant - you just move! I never thought about our roots and branches.
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