Global and Iranian history are both closely intertwined with the lives and destinies of prominent figures. Every one of them has laid a brick on history’s wall, sometimes paying the price with their lives, men and women alike. Women have been especially influential in the past 200 years, writing much of contemporary Iranian history.
In Iran, women have increased public awareness about gender discrimination, raised the profile of and improved women’s rights, fought for literacy among women, and promoted the social status of women by counteracting religious pressures, participating in scientific projects, being involved in politics, influencing music, cinema… And so the list goes on.
This series aims to celebrate these renowned and respected Iranian women. They are women who represent the millions of women that influence their families and societies on a daily basis. Not all of the people profiled in the series are endorsed by IranWire, but their influence and impact cannot be overlooked. The articles are biographical stories that consider the lives of influential women in Iran.
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Journalist and reporter Nafiseh Koohnavard has covered some of the most dangerous Middle East conflicts in recent times. As a schoolgirl, she was interested in creative pursuits, from creating wall newspapers to singing with her classmates and performing in school plays. She currently works for BBC Persian.
Koohnavard was born in 1978 in Urmia, the provincial capital of West Azerbaijan in northwestern Iran. The province is mostly populated by Turkish-speaking Iranians, which proved to be of use to Koohnavard decided to become a journalist.
“I always liked to do something different,” she told IranWire. “In school I was always reading political books but somehow I imagined that I would become a doctor. For two years I did not qualify for the entrance exams. I really wanted to study in Tehran or a big city like Isfahan.” She decided to change courses and registered at Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University to study business administration.
Her first year at college coincided with a huge wave of activism among university students, who were spurred on to make their voices heard during the relatively open years of reformist Mohammad Khatami’s presidency. She joined in when students staged a sit-in at the compounds of Tehran University to protest against censorship and the closure of newspapers. This led the Disciplinary Committee at her university to issue her with a demerit. During her college years, the committee repeatedly summoned her, but each time the intervention of university officials saved her from suspension.
After university, she was to due to start her career in journalism as a contributor to the reformist newspaper Salam but the government shut down the newspaper before she began. Instead, in 2002, she started work with the newspaper Hamshahri as an analyst of Turkish affairs.
“My two sisters are not interested in politics,” she told IranWire. “My father was self-employed and my mother, now retired, was the dean of Urmia Nursing School. When I told my parents that I was determined to become a journalist, my mother reacted angrily because she believed that I changed courses too many times. My family was not happy with me staying in Tehran and, considering my degree in business administration, they preferred for me to go back to Urmia and work with my father who had just founded a factory. But I insisted that I must remain and work in Tehran.”
This family fight continued until Hamshahri published her first article about Turkey, which focused on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the upcoming Turkish election. At that point, the quarrel subsided, and her family’s dissatisfaction was replaced with support.
At first Koohnavard held two jobs. During the day she worked as an assistant accounting auditor. At night, until the early hours in the morning, she worked on articles for Hamshahri.
She did her first exclusive interview with Abdullah Gul in 2003, when he was interim prime minister of Turkey and had traveled to Tehran to consult with Iranian officials about the US invasion of Iraq. “Then I started working as the Tehran reporter for the Turkish Service of CNN.”
But her reporting for CNN did not last. Following Khatami’s last press conference, she was banned from journalism. She said she was banned because of the questions she asked for Hamshahri at the press briefing.. “After the press conference, apparently Mahmoud Ahmadinejad personally contacted the [hardliner] newspaper Kayhan, which then published a special column accusing me of being a Turkish spy ‘with suspicious connections.’”
There was widespread international media coverage of the news that Koohnavard had been expelled simply for asking questions, as well as of the open letter she wrote to Khatami following the expulsion. After a few months, she was allowed to work for the foreign service of the newspaper Iran, but that employment ended with the inauguration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the president of the Islamic Republic.
Nevertheless, Koohnavard continued working for a number of other journals. She covered Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein and elections in both Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.
When she was based in Istanbul, she worked for the BBC. During her time as a BBC reporter in Turkey , she covered the 2011 earthquake in city of Van, the armed conflict and then peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the early days of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the group of P5+1 countries.
“After three years in Istanbul I left for London and started my work as the announcer for BBC Persian’s Your Turn program,” she told IranWire. “This led to increased pressure from the Iranian intelligence establishment on me and my family — from publishing a made-up biography and a counterfeit Facebook page to repeatedly summoning my younger sister and my father in Tehran and Urmia. They wanted me to leave the program but I stayed until I was assigned to BBC Persian’s Beirut Bureau.”
When Islamic State attacked Mosul, Nafiseh Koohnavard set out for the region. Many times, she and her team were only a step away from the Islamic State’s key positions. She also covered allied air strikes on Islamic State, the siege of the Iraqi Sinjar district, in which the terrorist group massacred thousands of people from the Yazidi religious minority, and the battle between Islamic State and the Kurdish Peshmerga for Kobane in Syria.
She told IranWire that what she has seen has changed her worldview. “Many times I have been asked: ‘Weren’t you afraid of being captured by Islamic State?’ or ‘Did you ever cry from witnessing so much suffering?’ The truth is that the answer to both is ‘yes.’ But what is difficult is that when you are working, you must focus only on your work and set aside or at least control your emotions. I remember when we were pushing to be allowed to cover the people of Sinjar, who had been besieged for four months, the only way to get there was by Iraqi army helicopters. The local officials told us that it was very dangerous and they could not allow us to go to Sinjar because there were no guarantees that the helicopters could bring us back. My argument was, ‘What is the difference? If it is dangerous it is dangerous for everybody. Somebody has to remind everybody that there are so many people still trapped there.’”
Also in the series:
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