Faranak is a multimedia Journalist working on different digital platforms, radio and television. She is also a public speaker who focuses on gender equality on Farsi speaking social media networks such as Instagram. Faranak is also a social media influencer trying to create a safe microclimate for Iranian and Afghan women to exchange ideas and talk about their 21st century goals and challenges.
Tell us about your early years
I was born in Los Angeles in 1979 and lived with my family there until I was six years old. While I was in California I had a normal childhood just like any other average American kid. I had a Cabbage Patch doll and watched regular cartoons other kids watched on TV. But when we moved to Iran everything changed. It was the early years after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and right in the middle of the eight year Iran-Iraq war. It was a time of food rations, bombings, morality police and patrols on every street and revolutionary anthems on full blast. It was a completely different world from California. I remember when we landed in Tehran my mother covered her hair with a black scarf and wore a long black coat; she was covered from head to toe with no makeup or nail polish. It was the first time I had seen my mother like that. She was crying as we drove through the streets of Tehran. My mother had left Iran before the revolution and the Iran she had returned to was nothing like the Iran she remembered. I think my mother and her resilience had a great impact on me. I saw my mother resist the new limitations, which were imposed on her because she was a woman. Showing a strand of hair, Wearing lipstick, nail polish or any bright colours in those days could get you arrested. But I saw my mother and aunt put on their red nail varnish and wear their makeup and leave the house every single day. It was an act of defiance. I didn’t know it back then but I know it now and respect her for doing it. Although my mother married young and didn’t have financial independence she had a strong independent personality and she was very progressive compared to average women of her generation.
My father has also had a great influence on me. Although he was quite a patriarchal figure and in many ways bund to tradition he was also open minded in many ways. My father kept me exposed to western culture he encouraged me to read and gave me freedom to choose my own path. Unlike many of my friends’ fathers he never pushed me to get married on the contrary he always encouraged me to work and have a career. Without the support of my father I wouldn’t be able to be where I am today.
Music also had a great role in my life. Punk and Grunge in my teenage years opened my eyes to a rebellious subculture, which appealed to me a lot living in a conservative religious society like Iran. Later on also electronic music and the inclusive rave culture really influenced my views on gender and sexual orientation.
I guess these are just some of the main things that shaped my personality and views.
What was your career journey?
When you grow up in a patriarchal, conservative and religious society like Iran you realize from a very young age that personal and financial independence are very important otherwise you will always be under the guardianship of a man. Even with financial independence you are still legally under the guardianship of a man but it gives you more leverage. This said, it is important to note that it is difficult for women to gain this kind of independence because the necessary infrastructure is not there to allow women to have roles beyond mother and wife. But as I mentioned I was lucky, my parents were very encouraging and supportive. I left Iran to go to university in 1997. I came to London to go to SOAS. I didn’t finish my studies and went back to Iran after a year. But while I was in London I worked. My first job was waiting tables in an Iranian restaurant. It was such a joy to me. Back then it was very taboo for women to do such jobs in our culture. Women didn’t wait tables in Iran. I found it liberating. It was my first taste of financial power. When I went back to Iran I was the only one among my girlfriends who had had experience of working. I went to university in Iran and started working immediately. I was teaching English in a number of well-known language institutions and also doing private tutoring. My career journey has been very interesting though. I have taught English, acted in short films, translated books, trained as a kickboxer and taught kickboxing, I even made and sold ice cream! I tried everything and through it all I had my parents’ support. But it was in 2006 that I started TV journalism and I just fell in love with it. I always liked storytelling and there is a strong element of storytelling in journalism, which quenched my thirst. I must add that back in Iran the media is state run and that meant I was working for an English language state run channel. It was very challenging for me. The whole system I worked for stood against my values. But I looked at it as a launching pad and did my best not to compromise my values. In 2009 after the disputed presidential election results I resigned from the channel. It was time for me to move on.
What’s the most challenging thing you have encountered and how did you overcome it
This is a tricky question! I have had many challenges in my life. But I guess immigration was one of the most challenging things I had to face and deal with. I left Iran in 2009 a month before my 30th birthday. I left with a single red suitcase and a heart full of hope that things would calm down I would go back to Iran in a few months. I have not been back ever since.
After the 2009 disputed presidential election I left my job at the state run TV and joined protesters on the streets. This lead to a series of events, which forced me to leave the country.
At the age of 30 I was now in London starting from scratch. It was very difficult. I had to make new friends, find a job and deal with the fact that I was not going to be able to go back to my country and family for the foreseeable future.
Not being able to go back to a country I grew up in where all my family and memories live means I live in exile. The psychological pressure one has to deal with under such circumstances is immense. I have had nightmares of losing my parents and not being able to say goodbye to them. After a few years of living in London, I knew I needed help to be able to cope with this pressure. I started therapy. I take mental health very seriously and have always talked about it openly. Because of my work and social media activity also I am targeted quite frequently by anti-feminists, Iranian pro-regime groups and also political opposition groups outside Iran. Through therapy I was able to look at the limitations which exile has forced upon me in a different light and accept these limitations. It has given me the tools and mental capacity to work with and around these limitations instead of allowing them to paralyse me with anxiety. Therapy, fantastic friends and one hell of a supportive partner have all been important elements in my healing journey.
If you had the power and authority to change 3 things in the Middle East what would they be?
This is a tough question. I had to sleep on it for a few nights in order to be able to narrow my long list down to three!
I guess one of the major things I would change would be the role of religion in politics. I think lack of secularity in many Middle Eastern countries is a huge obstacle on the path of equality. In many instances the people and nations are ready for the change but it is the leading religious authorities who want to stick to the inequalities and ancient social structures to maintain power. In this case probably the most tangible example would be the mandatory hijab in Iran.
The male guardianship is another issue, which holds women back in many countries in the region. Probably the most extreme form of male guardianship is witnessed in Saudi Arabia but it legally and culturally exists in many other countries of the region to different degrees; including Iran.
Another things I would change would be laws on violence against women and a complete overhaul or better said dismantlement of the patriarchal and misogynist judicial systems in the region. In many instances women who are victims of the most brutal violence at home, seek justice but they are chewed up by the misogynist justice system that spits them back into that initial violent environment. In some cases the misogyny of the justice system causes women their lives.
Let’s debunk a few myths about refugees
In todays’ world there is so much misinformation about refugees and migrants. It is as if we are trying to find a scapegoat for our problems. We are told that refugees are a burden and that they come to abuse our welfare system. We are fed this fear of “others”. Refugees unfortunately have just become mere numbers; stripped off of humanity. I know Iranians and Afghans who came to the UK as refugees; hard working, educated people who left their countries not to come here and live a lazy life or promote extremism but to work hard and become the people they couldn’t become back home.
There is this misconception about Middle Eastern and Muslim women that they don’t have a voice. It is true that in many Middle Eastern countries including Iran women experience inequality and oppression but that doesn’t mean they are voiceless. Middle Eastern women have a voice and they are finding new ways to get their voices heard. We have seen really inspiring activism by Saudi women against the driving ban and male guardianship in the past few years. Iranian women have taken their protests against mandatory hijab to the next level through social media platforms. In Afghanistan there are various campaigns run by women such as the #WhereisMyName, a campaign fighting against the social norm that doesn’t allow women to be identified by their first name.
I guess what I want to say is that women in the Middle East might be oppressed and expected to be subservient but that doesn’t mean that women in the region have given up on being emancipated. They are fighting one step at a time and sometimes for every step they take forward there are setbacks but they continue to push forward.
What is your greatest achievement?
My greatest achievement! I don’t know if I can call it my greatest achievement, I don’t tend to measure my work and life in that way. But one thing I am proud of is my Instagram page. I have worked hard on it every day for the past two and a half years. I have put a lot of time and energy into creating a microclimate in which everyone especially women and LGBTQ+ in Iran and Afghanistan can familiarise themselves with feminism and have meaningful debates. When I started focusing on feminism on my page more than two years ago I had around 9K followers today I have 218K. We have become a community. I love witnessing this camaraderie among women; supporting each other, encouraging each other and voicing their dissatisfaction. I see more and more Iranian women talking openly on social media about taboo subjects such as sexual harassment, body shaming, domestic violence, sexuality and sexual desire. It is absolutely refreshing and I am proud to know I have had a tiny part in all this.