Iranian Journalist: ‘I Had No Choice But to Chart a New Course’

2015 Women’s Leadership Conference keynoter Nazenin Ansari on 30 years of fighting for global human rights.

Iranian journalist and Mount Vernon College and Seminary alumna Nazenin Ansari told the women who attended the Women's Leadership Conference that they should embrace change as a catalyst for new adventures in life.
March 30, 2015

By Brittney Dunkins

As a young college student,  journalist Nazenin Ansari—the daughter of a diplomat —was bound for a life of public service in her native Iran.

But soon after she entered the Mount Vernon College and Seminary in 1976, Iran was rocked by revolution after a “militant interpretation of religion transformed the government,” she said.

Unable to return to her home or leave the United States, Ms. Ansari found an unconventional family in her “bright, energetic and fun” classmates and a career path as a journalist and defender of global human rights.

“I had no choice but to chart a new course… We were the hunted in our own lands and pariahs abroad,” Ms. Ansari told an audience of women Thursday at the 15th annual Women’s Leadership Conference. “In these moments of darkness the Mount Vernon College did its best to protect and embrace me.”

Ms. Ansari’s address kicked off the conference that included breakout sessions on career development tactics, networking, finances and communication led by friends of the university and GW staff and faculty including Associate Vice President for Communications Sarah Baldassaro. The afternoon keynote was given by GW Women’s Studies professor Bonnie Morris, who was voted the 2012 GW Professor of the Year.  

Shelley Heller, associate provost for academic affairs at the Mount Vernon Campus, said that the conference theme, “Charting A New Course,” was a natural fit for modern women attempting to “achieve a balance” among jobs, family and self.

“Charting a new course is a dilemma,” Dr. Heller said. “But once you chart a new course, you can become a leader.”

Ms. Ansari gave a vivid account of how she leveraged her circumstances for academic and professional success in the wake of the escalating political climate in Iran. She is currently the editor of international Farsi publication Kayhan London, and serves on the governing committee of the Foreign Press Association and on the board of directors of the Encyclopedia Iranica at Columbia University.

Her commentary has appeared in numerous publications including the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and the International Herald Tribune.

Ms. Ansari recounted the wealth of experiences gained on the front lines of global journalism, from entering China in 1979 just after the country opened its borders to western journalists to flying into an Afghani minefield on a C130 Portuguese military plane just after the fall of the Taliban to report with a team of journalists.

“The only thing constant is change—change is integral to life,” Ms. Ansari said. “We are subservient to providence, but we are masters of our own universe.”

Though Ms. Ansari has not returned to Iran since 1978— she refused to wear a head covering for a new passport as dictated by Iranian law—she remains closely connected to Iranian culture and politics.

She said that she long ago refused to be “a martyr for a story” and—because of her work—contacting her family could endanger their lives. Iranian security officials detained her 85-year-old grandmother for four hours upon her return from a trip to the United States.

“We have spent our lives saying our goodbyes,” Ms. Ansari said. “But we have learned to connect through the heart, and when you do that, it transcends time and space.”

Ms. Ansari stressed how that connection could be a unifying voice in protecting human rights, especially when positive change is wrought from a feeling of humanity rather than religious zeal. 

For example, she said that the widespread outrage and civil demonstrations over the recent mob-killing of 27-year-old Farkhunda—an Afghan woman accused of burning pages of the Quran—is an example of how people around the world are standing up for human rights.

“Under Iranian law a woman’s life is still worth half of that of a man,” Ms. Ansari said. “To effect change you need grassroots action and the legal system…We women have powerful potential because of our direct experience with both tradition and modernity.”