Former Imprisoned Journalist Talks Reporting Under Threat

Yeganeh Rezaian shares with students in the Women’s Leadership Program the challenges facing female reporters in Muslim countries.

March 22, 2017

Yeganeh Rezaian

Yeganeh Rezaian speaks to students Tuesday as part of the Women’s Leadership Program Speaker Series. She and her husband were arrested in Iran in 2014. (William Atkins/ GW Today)

By Kristen Mitchell

Yeganeh Rezaian was 5 years old the first time she wore the hijab, the traditional headscarf Iranian women are required to wear in public. She was photographed in the scarf the day before she started preschool and never left her home in Iran without it again.

At the time she didn’t think much of it. Looking at that picture now, she feels pity. That day marked the start of a government-controlled life, she said.

“I did not have any idea what was happening to me. I was just excited thinking more about school,” she said. “The fact that I always saw my mom going out publicly with the scarf or my sisters, it never prompted any question in my mind about what was really happening.”

Ms. Rezaian, an Iranian journalist and Global Women’s Institute Knapp Fellow, spoke to students Tuesday on the George Washington University’s Mount Vernon Campus as part of the Women's Leadership Program Speaker Series. She talked about her life in Iran, being a female journalist in the Middle East and her 2014 imprisonment.

Ms. Rezaian said life with her husband, Jason Rezaian, an American and Washington Post journalist, was a fairytale until their home was raided in the middle of the night. Mr. Rezaian was charged with crimes related to espionage, allegations he has denied. Ms. Rezaian believes she was held for being married to an American, not because of her work.

After 72 nights in detention—69 in solitary confinement— Ms. Rezaian was released under house arrest and told not to talk about her imprisonment with the media. Her reporting credentials were revoked. Her husband was not released for another 16 months as part of a prisoner exchange with Iran during nuclear negotiations.

Mr. Rezaian was released alongside another Iranian-American, Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine who was arrested in August 2011 while visiting family. Ms. Rezaian said as a journalist she knew about Mr. Hekmati’s arrest but did not report on it, fearing retribution from the Iranian government. When she met him, she didn’t know how to apologize.

“I was really ashamed and heartbroken,” she said. “These are not choices you can make based on what you like and what you don’t like. These are choices that society forces on you.”

Ms. Rezaian was threatened as a journalist in Iran. She knew there were things she couldn’t report without facing backlash. Since leaving Iran, she has written about the challenges facing domestic female journalists in Muslim countries, who report without the institutional support of large media organizations.

In solitary confinement Ms. Rezaian lived in a cell without a bed and constant lighting, a setup designed to break her down, she said. Ms. Rezaian and her husband both deal with post-traumatic stress disorder because of their detention.

Recently while her husband was driving, a police car passed them.  Ms. Rezaian panicked. Her hair was uncovered. But then she remembered there in no dress code in the United States.

“These things still happen,” Ms. Rezaian said, but she is getting better every day.

Ms. Rezaian said her experiences in Iran left her with complicated feelings about her home country. Some days she misses it desperately and yearns to return. Other times she hates it.

Students were invited to ask Ms. Rezaian questions about her past and her plans. She said she doesn’t know whether she will ever return to journalism. While she desperately misses reporting, she said, she doesn’t think her work would be impactful in the United States. As an Iranian reporter, she was able to tell the world the truth about her home—even when she didn’t like it.

“Sometimes I think, in Iran despite all the challenges, I was really happy about what I was doing because I felt I was making a difference,” she said. “I always thought that Iran was quite misrepresented in the media, whether good or bad.”

She doesn’t know if  she would ever be able to be as engaged in American politics as she was in the Iranian system, she said.

Ms. Rezaian plans to continue her research on female reporters in Muslim countries as part of the Knapp Global Women’s Fellowship and is planning a memoir. Mr. Rezaian works with the School of Media and Public Affairs as the 2016-17 Terker Distinguished Fellow.