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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“Philanthropist Bita Daryabari, known in the society pages for her stylish good looks, has a secret second life — and it doesn’t involve designer duds or diamonds,” an article published in the San Francisco Chronicle said of the Silicon philanthropist in 2015.
“I wanted to help the people in the Middle East, where I came from, because I knew, growing up, that I could see what was missing in the region,” Daryabari told the newspaper.
Bita Daryabari was born in 1969. “My family are lovers of culture,” she said. “From childhood I was very interested in poetry and arts, especially music and painting. Music remained important to my life even after I moved to America when I was 16.”
She moved to America in 1985, studied computer science, earned a Master’s degree in telecom management and started a successful career in Silicon Valley. In 1992, she married the Iranian-American Omid Kordestani, Senior Vice President and Chief Business Officer at Google, who ranks 246 among the wealthiest men in the United States.
They had two children but separated in 2008. In 2009, she married Dr. Reza Malek and has a third child from this marriage.
In 2006, she created the Unique Zan (Woman) Foundation to improve education, health and job opportunities for women in the Middle East. The foundation promotes women’s rights and education was responsible for opening an education center for Palestinian women in the West Bank.
In 2007, Daryabari partnered with the prominent Afghan human rights activist Sakineh Namdari, founder of the Afghan Institute of Learning, to build a girls’ school in Kabul. She has also been active in helping promote and set up education for women in Bangladesh and Pakistan.
In 2008, she endowed $2.5 million to the Persian Studies chair at Stanford University. She followed it with another $4 million for expanding Iranian research at the university and to hire experts for teaching Persian literature and language.
In 2009, she made an endowment to the British Museum and the London-based Iranian Heritage Foundation to help fund the exhibition “Shah Abbas: the Remaking of Iran,” which focused on the legacy of one of Iran’s most influential kings, who ruled the country from 1587 to 1629. British newspapers praised the exhibition.
In 2014 Bita Daryabari donated $2 million to the Centre of Shahnameh and Persian Studies at the University of Cambridge’s Pembroke College. “It is hard to imagine another modern culture more in thrall to its distant literary past than Iranians with their Shahnameh [The Book of Kings], the national epic composed by the poet Ferdowsi in the eleventh century,” the center’s website said when announcing Daryabari’s endowment. Shahnameh “exerts a profound emotional and psychological hold over Iranians to this day, and the epic remains central to contemporary Iranian identity, a perennial cultural refuge in turbulent political times.”
Daryabari’s philanthropy extends to many areas. For example, she made a donation to the University of California, San Francisco to create a neuroscience research center. In 2010 she founded the Pars Equality Center in San Jose to help Iranian and other Persian-speaking immigrants with legal and social services; she expanded this work in 2015 with the Daryabari Iranian Community Center.
She has won praise and awards for her philanthropic activities including the United Nations Appreciation Award for Outstanding Leadership, Commitment and Support of the UN and Achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals in 2011 and the 2012 Ellis Island Medal of Honor, which is awarded by the US-based National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations and celebrates immigrants’ contributions to the United States.
Daryabari has not lost any of her childhood love for Persian literature and art. In 2008 she founded the Bita Literary Award, which awards the winner $10,000 for his or her contribution to “literature and freedom”. The winners of this award have included prominent Iranian writers Simin Behbahani and Goli Taraghi, the movie and theater director Bahram Beizaie, the musician Mohammad-Reza Shajarian and Hooshang Seyhoun, the Iranian architect, artist and scholar. In 2009 she funded Iranian Artists through the Venice Biennale to display their work for the first time after a 30-year absence.
“She agrees — theoretically — that she could spend her time sitting around eating bonbons and traveling the world but rejects the idea,” the San Francisco Chronicle article said. “‘Then what?’ she asks, shaking her head. ‘What kind of a message am I going to give my kids?’”
Also in the series: