Special Features

Iranian Women You Should Know: Massoumeh Torfeh

May 31, 2020
Tahereh Taslimi
7 min read
Massoumeh Torfeh has worked for media outlets such as The Guardian, BBC News, Al-Jazeera, ITV and CBC and became spokeswoman for the United Nations in Afghanistan
Massoumeh Torfeh has worked for media outlets such as The Guardian, BBC News, Al-Jazeera, ITV and CBC and became spokeswoman for the United Nations in Afghanistan

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 last 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, and 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. These articles are biographical stories that consider the lives of influential women in Iran.

IranWire readers are invited to send in suggestions for how we might expand the series. Contact IranWire via email ([email protected]), on Facebook, or by tweeting us.

Massoumeh Torfeh is best-known as the United Nations’ Director of Strategic Communication and Spokespersons Unit in Afghanistan. But she insists that, first and foremost, she is a journalist: one with 30 years of experience in research and reporting, who attempts to portray the constantly war-disrupted lives of people in Afghanistan in a way that attracts international attention to this part of the world.

 

A Lifelong Passion for Journalism

Torfeh began her career with Ketab-e Jomeh (Friday Book) magazine in Iran. After finishing her education, she worked for some time in translation and teaching, occasionally writing articles for the Iranian press. In an interview with Radio Zamaneh, she later explained that she wrote her first article about Afghanistan in her early 20s for Ketab-e Jomeh.

Before the outset of the Islamic Revolution, Torfeh decided to continue her education in Britain. She received her PhD in Political Sciences from London School of Economics with her thesis on The Causes of Failure of Democracy in Iran.

While simultaneously studying and taking care of her child in London, she was thinking of ways to secure a better income. Journalism was one of the job-offers she received, she and began to work at the BBC. After starting her new career in a role saturated by news and current affairs, Torfeh rapidly became mesmerized by journalism and decided to stay on in. She was soon promoted to the BBC World Service.

After the revolution, Torfeh returned to Iran and taught logic alongside journalism in the newly-formed Islamic Republic. This lasted for just a few years, though. The post-revolution atmosphere was such that she decided to return to the BBC and resume her role at BBC World Service. Her tenure there would last for more than 20 years, and see her travel to many countries including Afghanistan and Tajikistan, preparing and broadcasting reports and going on to become a senior producer.

Torfeh believes her simultaneous love for politics and journalism drew her to this type of reportage. "The fire blazes among people. I go among them and try to calm down the blaze," she said in the interview. "Politics is, of course my career, love, and life, but fortunately I never took sides in a political fashion. I was always on the side of the people."

 

Turbulent Times in Afghanistan

According to colleagues, Torfeh is a serious, rigorous journalist and a perfectionist, who does not give any quarter to anybody, which is what has led to her fame. She traveled to Afghanistan for the first time in 1990 and was able to interview Mohammad Najibollah, the seventh Afghan President. She then went to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Even though Torfeh did not visit Afghanistan for many years after her first journey there, she always followed the news and affairs of the country.

After the September 11 attacks, the UN asked Torfeh to go to Afghanistan as a political expert and lecturer to help reconstruct the country’s domestic media. Her arrival in Afghanistan coincided with the fall of the Taliban and efforts to establish a new government.

Nothing was in its own place at that time. The wounds of successive wars and the Taliban's presence meant the country’s home-grown media organizations lay in ruins. Torfeh worked at the UN office at Kabul for a while, then moved to President Hamed Karzai's office to empower the president's information network. There, Torfeh trained a team of native Afghan journalists who prepared reports for radio, television, and the press, recording the pained process of reconstruction in their country.

At the time, there was still no peace in Afghanistan. Bombs could explode at any moment and put an end to everything. In her interview with Radio Zamaneh, Torfeh recalled: "In Kabul, like all other foreigners, I stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel and lived there for two to three years. Even though it was a relatively safe place, one night after drawing the curtains to go to bed, I suddenly heard a terrible sound and the glasses of the big windows, which acted like a wall, were shattered. The curtain, which I had drawn, was torn and fell down. Fortunately I was not near the window and immediately went out of the room. Many Korean and Japanese travellers were also out of their rooms. It was then that I realized there were no other women there, because they did not dare to stay alone at a hotel in Afghanistan."

When the Japanese residents asked her to accompany them to a safer place, Torfeh replied: "Don’t worry, all the hotel staff know me."

“The hotel was evacuated at that night,” she said, “and the only traveler remaining was Massoumeh Torfeh, walking in the corridors. The staff asked me, ‘Are you not scared? Don't you want to go somewhere else?’. And I told them, ‘No. With the explosion of the bomb, this place will be safe for a few days.’ I had seen many scenes like that, which were always very distressing."

 

Reviving Afghan Media, One Broadcast at a Time

In her two years in Kabul, Torfeh also designed and implemented the communications program for the new United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA). The program consisted of producing mixed news, features and even dramas for Afghan media using the local workforce. The broadcasts worked to promote peace and stability in the country, as well as raise issues related to women, youth, and civil society. The program also supported local media extensively by strengthening the Afghan legal framework and reconstructing the local National Union of Journalists with the goal of enhancing press freedom and the free flow of information.

Torfeh became the spokesperson for the UN’s observers in Tajikistan, and a general information advisor for Hamed Karzai's office in Afghanistan. Alongside her work for the UN, she served for several years as the director of Tajik language services at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and editor of the Asia desk at the Radio Free Europe central newsroom in Prague. Torfeh has taught at SOAS as a lecturer and media commentator on political affairs of Iran and Afghanistan since 2008. She has also worked for other media outlets, such as The Guardian, BBC News, Al-Jazeera, ITV and CBC.

 

Recent Coverage of Iran

In recent years Torfeh has conducted research on the Iranian women's movement during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, conducting a survey on the active groups. Based on this undertaking, Torfeh says: "Pressures on the women's movement under Ahmadinejad bestowed an identity on this movement."

Throughout these years, along with her journalistic work and other research, Torfeh has also been writing books. One of her most important publications was Persian Service: The BBC and British Interests in Iran, which was co-authored with Annabelle Sreberny, Director of the Centre for Media and Film Studies at SOAS and published in 2014.

Torfeh’s most recent collaboration with Sreberny is a compilation of documents from the archives of the British Foreign Office and the US State Department, which include military and intelligence reports, and from the archive of Iranian Islamic Consultative Assembly, with the goal of examining the causes of failure of democracy in Iran.

 

Read other articles in this series: 

The Women's Clandestine Union, Anonymous Political Agitators

Roshanak Nodust, Headmistress of Saadat School

Mahshid Amirshahi, Writer, Journalist and Satirist

Malektaj Firouz Najm ol-Saltaneh, Founder of Iran's First Modern Hospital

Ashraf Bahador-Zadeh, Iran’s Mother Teresa

Razieh Ebrahimzadeh, Wanderer and Communist Firebrand

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