10 questions about Iran, women and youth with Negar Mortazavi

Digital Originals

Iranian women on an election day in Tehran. Photo: AP.

Negar Mortazavi is an Iranian-American journalist based in New York City. She’s discussed the Iran nuclear deal on CCTV America, and we asked her to tell us more about the youth and women in Iran. Here’s what she had to say in a Q-and-A with anchor Asieh Namdar.

Namdar: There are mixed messages from Iran. On one hand, a hardline rhetoric from the supreme leader; on the other, hope and optimism among the youth. Can you tell us how Iran’s youth sees this nuclear agreement?

Negar MortazaviMortazavi: Iran is a young country. Seventy percent of the population is under 35, with high hopes and aspirations, living in a post-revolution post-war society that is trying to find its way back into the world stage. They have seen years of violence and chaos and are striving for stability and peace. In 2013, the majority of Iranians, especially the youth, voted for better relations with the world. Now they see this nuclear agreement as a first step in that direction and towards opening up to the world.

What is the biggest concern for Iran’s under-30 population? What changes do they want to see?

Iranian youth are similar to any other young population in the world. Their dreams are not much different than, let’s say, the American dream. They want a better economy, more jobs, social and political freedoms, and good relations with the world. They are also one of the highest educated populations in the Middle East, and are very worldly. They are hungry for connecting to the world and seeing their country represented positively.

Iranian youth are highly educated, motivated but many are having a tough time making ends meet: no jobs, no income, and many have left Iran. Will this nuclear agreement (and the lifting of sanctions) prevent “brain drain” – stop Iranians from leaving their country?

Yes indeed. The prospect of economic development and a better job market has created very high levels of hope in Iran, specially among the youth. Many young Iranians tell me that they now see a brighter future for themselves in their own country. I even know Iranian students and young professionals abroad who are thinking about returning to Iran with the new prospects.

What is the overall sentiment towards the United States? Many westerners see Iranian citizens as anti-American, is that the case?

Let me first explain that the anti-American sentiment is aimed at the U.S. government and not the American people. During the 1979 revolution, there was a very strong sentiment against U.S. policies in Iran, shared by the majority of Iranians. That sentiment resulted in the ‘Death to America’ becoming one of the main slogans of the revolution that the hardliners are trying to save to this day. But the majority of the society doesn’t share that sentiment any more. Specifically in recent years when President Obama came to office and changed the anti-Iran rhetoric of President Bush with a more respectful tone. Now the majority of Iranians see the United States government and its foreign policy in a much more positive light.

Iranian women played a huge role in the Green movement after the disputed 2009 elections. They were fearless then. Would you describe them as brave today, considering what they endured back then?

Definitely. Iranian women have played a very strong role in the past 100 years as the Iranian society has been fighting for democracy, since the Constitutional Revolution of the early 1900s and to this day. Iran is home to one of the oldest human civilizations, which was traditionally patriarchal. Iranian women are not only fighting alongside men for democracy and civil rights, they are also fighting for equal rights in a patriarchal culture with thousands of years of history. Iranian women are very strong and very determined and have created one of the strongest and most vibrant women’s movements in the middle east.

Instead of taking to the streets, many show their defiance in other ways, like showing their hair. Tell us about some of the other ways Iranian women are being heard around the world?

Iranian women have been fighting for equal rights on so many levels. Education has been one of the most important paths they took towards that change. For the past decade, more than 50 percent of Iran’s university students have been women. Girls study very hard, sometimes even harder than boys, to get into top programs in top universities. So much so that it scared conservative policy makers who then tried to have quotas for women and men in university programs. These highly educated women have become doctors, engineers, lawyers, politicians, and successful business owners. They enter the society with high economic and job expectation, and then demand equal social status and civil rights.

What is the main disagreement between mothers and daughters in Iran today? In some countries it’s about the pressures of getting married, having kids. Are there visible differences here between older and younger generations of women?

Iran, as an ancient civilization and a developing country, is going through a major transformation. We are witnessing a real transition from tradition to modernity. A family-oriented culture is turning into the individualistic urban life where personal freedoms take priority. All of this creates a tension between the younger and older generations. Where mothers still worry about their daughters getting married and starting their own families. But young girls worry about finding a job and becoming independent.

With so many Islamic rules and restrictions, what do Iranians do for fun? How do they ‘date’?

The pre-marriage dating scene in Iran is really complicated. Not only does the government have many restrictions and rules, the society and families are also conservative. Girls especially are under many restrictions because childbirth outside wedlock is still taboo and not culturally accepted. But Iranian youth are very savvy in bypassing rules and bending restrictions. So many young girls and boys date and have relationships without the knowledge of their parents, and (the rate of) sex outside marriage has had a sharp rise in the past two decades. Coffee shops, restaurants, house parties, and vacation homes are the most popular hangout spots for young lovers.

What is the biggest misconception people in the west have about Iranian women?

That they are an oppressed and victimized population who need to be saved. That is the exact opposite of what Iranian women are. They are strong and determined, and are fiercely fighting for their rights in  society. They need admiration and support, and definitely don’t need to be saved.

What needs to be done to change those misconceptions?

More accurate and deeper media coverage about the real stories of women in Iran. Stories that go beyond the hijab and sex, and dig deep into the real struggle of the Iranian woman. The world needs to invest more in trying to understand what has been a black box for many years. We also need more direct contact and exchange with women in Iran in all areas; in academia, culture, arts, sports. That is the best way to engage with them on so many levels, and to understand their unique situation and struggle.

Negar Mortazavi is an Iranian journalist and analyst based in New York City. She is a frequent contributor on Iran to U.S. and international media including CNN, BBC, MSNBC, Al Jazeera, NPR, Huffington Post, and others. Negar worked at Voice of America from 2010 to 2014 where she hosted a daily hour-long interactive show discussing politics and current affairs with Iranians in Iran and across the world.

Negar is on The Guardian’s list of top 10 twitter feeds on Iran. She tweets at @NegarMortazavi.