The first time I met Faezeh Hashemi was in December 1998, a day after my arrival in Tehran after 15 years of absence. We had never met but corresponded, exchanged gifts and knew about each other's private life. After the first Muslim Women's Olympics in Tehran in 1993, she sent me a copy of her book with a memo. Later on, being sarcastic, I sent her a see-through chiffon blouse and to my amazement I received word that she loved it. I still wonder where she might wear a blouse like that?
Faezeh had helped my daughter get a visa to Iran. Being born to a British father in Canada, my daughter is not considered Iranian and needed a visa. We had all the documents with respect to our marriage in England but we were told that they needed to be stamped by the Iranian Embassy in London. Logic would not work with the embassy staff in Canada, but one phone call from Faezeh to the ambassador and we received emails, direct calls and a tourist visa in 24 hours.
We met for lunch at a popular chelokababi. My parents had insisted we should go to the restaurant on my first day in Tehran since the fasting month of Ramadan was starting the next day and the restaurants would be closed at lunchtime. When we got there, Faezeh was chatting with my brother, who is a close friend of her husband. The two went through medical school together and both had become psychiatrists. In the good old days before the revolution, they had a band. My brother and a few other friends played music and her husband sang.
But it all ended with the revolution. It would not have been appropriate. After all Faezeh's father, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, had become a key member of Ayatollah Khomeini's government. And her husband was the son of a prominent ayatollah, too. But the ayatollah had been arrested by the revolutionary court in the early 80's and died in custody. The incident has not been forgotten and has kept the son-in-law away from the Rafsanjani clan.
Faezeh, still a member of parliament at the time, had been to Isfahan in the morning on an official visit and had just arrived from the airport. After the usual kiss, hug and pleasantries, her first question was about how I felt being back after 15 years. I told her I was shocked. She nodded her head but did not say anything. She was dressed in her usual chador that was actually a combination of chador and a long coat. The light-fabric chador never slipped from her head while the rest of us had problems holding on to our scarves.
Faezeh looked confident, assertive, energetic and very fit. There were no bodyguards or even plain-clothed security agents. She drove her own small Japanese car and carried a cell phone. Parliament was not in session because of Ramadan and her schedule was not as hectic. After lunch she was going to pick up her teenage children from school and spend some time with them before going to the office of her daily paper Zan.
She was obviously recognized by everyone in the restaurant. People kept staring at us. This might have been because other than Faezeh, the rest of us looked really taghooti. My father, as usual, was impeccably dressed, with matching designer tie and silk scarf. My mother looked elegant in her stylish coat and colorful roosari. My teenage daughter is a tall blond with blue eyes and looks very European. My brother looks like a younger version of Freud and dresses like European gentleman of the early 20th century. People must have been wondering what Rafsanjani's daughter was doing with this lot!
Faezeh was very amusing and full of jokes, especially about the clergy. She also mentioned that one of her cousins had called the day before, distressed and tearful. She had heard that Faezeh had been assassinated and was telling her the details. Faezeh was jokingly saying that the details were so realistic that she was beginning to believe that she was actually dead and felt sorry for herself!
At the time she had gone through a court case and was found guilty of spreading propaganda against some prominent members of the so-called pressure groups. She had printed pictures of them beating up Khatami's envoy at a meeting. Her paper was to be closed down for a few weeks. She was telling us the Judiciary wanted her to appeal but she was going to refuse, mainly because her staff planned on making changes in the format of the paper and this would give them ample time. Besides, with her paper closed for a while, its popularity would soar . They were going to print a very hot and provocative headline before closing down.
She spoke like a true journalist and was excited about the sensation her paper would create. She had to see her father beforehand and warn him about the coming storm. The headline did appear in a few days: “Change the Leadership of the Judicial System”. There was also an article critical of the whole system. Later, another article appeared with a cartoon, critical of the Islamic legal code with respect to women. That, and a news brief about former Empress Farah's New Year's message, resulted in the paper being shut down for good.
Faezeh told us her daughter, Mona, was really excited about meeting my daughter. We had bought her some cosmetics from The Gap.When we met Mona later she had an ordinary small scarf on with her hair sticking out. She could not wait to start driving lessons even though she was underage. As I understood from my mother, Mona was against everything forced and compulsory and was questioning the notion of the hejab.
Politics is the core of all discussions in Iran so naturally we talked about various issues. Faezeh clearly distinguished between her group, the Kargozaran and the conservatives. She always referred to the latter as “them”. She expressed concern that some members were switching over to the other side and they were loosing some of their supporters in parliament.
The interesting thing was that though Faezeh was clearly recognized, nobody made a fuss over her. The manager did not come running and I got the impression that the waiter intentionally ignored her. The only incident was when we left. A middle-aged lady waiting by the exit, handed her a letter and asked her to pass it on to her father. She took the letter and assured the lady that she would do so as instructed.
We met many times during my stay in Iran. Faezeh brought us a number of scarves and chadors with different styles to make the hejab business easier. She also gave me the last 30 issues of her paper and provided detailed information about the government-run women's organizations. She told me about a recently discovered women's center in a village in the north. The locals ran the center and one of her reporters was going there to find out more. Before I could decide whether I had time to go or not, the reporter was called in by the Ministry of Intelligence and that was the end of a potentially exciting journey.
Faezeh never talked about the hejab or Islamic principles. However, one got the impression that she was not keen on either. Her support and admiration for her father was evident and genuine; she talked about him with affection. At the same time she sounded cold when she talked about her sister, a stanch supporter of the conservatives. In an interview with the magazine Zanan a few years earlier, she had said that her father and his ideas were very important to her and she totally believed in what he was doing.
She paid a heavy price for this during the last parliamentary elections. Her failure to get reelected was widely linked to her support for her unpopular father. I heard she was totally shocked and did not expect such a defeat. She had gained the highest number of votes in Tehran during the previous election and expected the same. Friends had advised her to tone down her tribal allegiances and follow the people; she obviously did not take the advice and remained loyal to her father – a decision she admittedly regretted afterwards.
Under normal circumstances, Faezeh would have been on talk shows and national television talking about her hectic life, being the president's daughter, a member of the parliament, running the Olympic committee, heading women's organizations, publishing a daily paper and raising two teenage children. She would have talked about the stress and the strain such a life style might have had on her marriage. But in a masculine culture of the veil and restrain, a woman, no matter how talented, powerful, well connected and energetic, is limited in how far she can progress or express herself.
No doubt Faezeh got where she was because of her father. Nevertheless, she had the potential to prove and establish herself on her own. But she had to support her father at her own expense because it is the patriarchal relationships that control and legitimize her existence not her own merits. She can never talk about the strain her father-in-law's death might have had on her marriage or discuss whether her daughters' aspirations would ever be realized.
Faezeh Hashemi could live like the wives or daughters of many other prominent figures in the country, behind closed doors with unlimited luxuries. Knowing her, this is not what she wants.