Tehran, Asharq Al-Awsat—Zahra Eshraghi is an Iranian human rights activist who is well known for her outspoken, feminist views. She also happens to be the granddaughter of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Eshraghi gives her view of the situation in the country following the election of moderate leader Hassan Rouhani. She discusses the controversial police enforcement of women’s dress code in Iran, pledging to overthrow the traditional black chador (robe) and ignite a “color revolution.”
Eshraghi granted Asharq Al-Awsat an intriguing insight into the life of the granddaughter of the country’s founder, claiming that she inherited her unique dress sense from her family, adding that Ayatollah Khomeini himself did not favor wearing black. Eshraghi, who is married to Mohammad-Reza Khatami, the younger brother of reformist former president Mohammad Khatami, also discussed Iranian music, fashion and her hopes for the country’s future.
This interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Despite being the granddaughter of the founder of the Islamic Republic, you are famous for wearing colorful dresses and jeans. Has your family ever commented on your dress sense?
Zahra Eshraghi: My family are just like me—my sisters, my mother and my grandmother. My grandmother always dressed properly and her dresses were more beautiful than ours, her grandchildren. My grandmother was a well-educated poet, extremely beautiful and always well-dressed. If my dress sense is different from that of the daughters of other well-known religious families, it is because of my family background.
I think that everyone dresses according to their attitude. I have always opposed the way female officials dress. If they want to promote Islam, they can do this while wearing more fashionable veils and dress.
For example, my grandfather—Ayatollah Khomeini—always said that the color black is not a good color to wear. That’s why I attribute my own dress sense to my family background. I even planned to issue a call to Iranian women via Facebook to begin dressing in happier colors. I want to start a color revolution. Psychologically, color can have positive or negative effects. With Mr. Rouhani in power, there is a good opportunity to do this. Both Rouhani and his foreign minister [Mohammad Javad Zarif] are always dressed smartly.
Q: What about the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham?
I am opposed to the way she dresses and I think that she has to reconsider her dress style. I think that she should dress in light colors. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson is viewed across the world. Clothes are very important. You must know that Mr. Khatami, who won an election, did so not just because of his attitude. It was also due to his appearance and apparel. Unfortunately, some people in the regime do not take this issue into account. Men’s dress may have gradually changed to some extent, but I regret to say that women’s dress has remained the same. If we can gradually create a color revolution, that would be great.
Q: You are very active on Facebook and other social networking websites. You must have seen the photos of violent police crackdowns on women due to their flouting of dress codes. What’s your view of this?
I am opposed to any police crackdown on the dress code because I believe that such measures will have no effect. As long as this law is in effect, we have to object to it. The entire dress code law must be annulled. However, conditions have changed in Iran and they have improved to a great extent. I hope that Mr. Rouhani will bring an end to the police crackdowns over the dress code. A couple of days ago, I posted several photos of myself without chador [robe] on my Instagram account; several religious women told me that my dress was inappropriate. I replied: That’s me. [If you don’t like it then] don’t look at me!
Q: Is it realistic to believe that the hijab could no longer be compulsory in Iran one day?
I was talking to one of my friends who is a political activist. She said that this will be in effect within two years’ time. Nobody knows what the future holds for the Islamic Republic. Who imagined that a telephone conversation between the Iranian and US presidents would ever take place? We would have laughed at anyone who raised this possibility just three months ago. Therefore, we cannot rule out anything.
I agree that there are some harsh restrictions in Iran, but the most stylish boys and girls in the world are found here in Tehran. Some time ago, I returned from a trip abroad and I discovered that Iranian girls are more stylish than the Europeans, despite the restrictions. While there were even more stringent restrictions in the past; these have been eased now. For instance, my son can go to university dressed in brightly-colored T-shirts and jeans. Conditions have changed—and I hope for the better.
Q: There was a sense of hope in Iran following the 1997 presidential elections and the arrival of reformist Mohammad Khatami. This is a sense that has perhaps returned with the election of Hassan Rouhani. How would you compare the May 1997 election of Khatami and the June 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani?
I don’t see any major difference [between these two events]. The last elections, which brought Mr. Rouhani to power, were a continuation of the May 1997 elections. This showed that the Iranian people still want reforms. Despite an eight-year hiatus and the unfortunate arrival in power of an anti-reform government, people showed that they still want reforms.
All of this happened despite voter apathy dominating the election campaigning and the main contenders being disqualified from running for the presidency. This election showed that people are not disappointed. I don’t see any difference between this election and the 1997 election. I think that people want reforms and calm in the country.
Q: Is it possible that the current administration will meet the same fate as the reformist administration of Mr. Khatami, namely with it being succeeded by a president with a completely opposing agenda?
I’m not disappointed. The May 1997 election was an emotional and unprecedented event. Both the reformists and their opponents were inexperienced. I think that even opponents of reformists have become a bit more reasonable and understood that the violent methods they resorted to during those days are no longer effective.
I think that both sides have become more moderate. While I doubt that the anti-reform groups have opted for any level of moderation, I think their leaders have embraced a bit of moderation. I don’t think that the violent atmosphere that prevailed during that period could return. The conditions have changed now. Tough economic sanctions, failed foreign policy, and sanctions are all legacies of the Ahmadinejad Administration, and so I think everybody is seeking a way out of these woes. So I don’t think we will see a return to this period.
Q: You noted that both reformists and conservatives have embraced moderation. How have reformists been moderated?
They have been moderate in their discourse. At the time, they failed to correctly assess the conditions. They controlled the administration and the parliament, but some of them pursued a radical discourse and the regime feared that some of them might be subversive.
Q: Your husband, Mohammad-Reza Khatami, is a senior reformist figure in Iran, while you are a well-known human rights activist. Have you ever been at odds over political or social issues?
Our differences are minor. Both of us are reformists and we want reforms and calm in the country. He does not accept all my views, nor do I accept all his views. He is stricter than me on some issues.
Q: How often do you travel abroad?
I love foreign trips because one can see the customs and more of different countries. My last visit was to visit my daughter. I have never traveled abroad simply for tourism and entertainment. I often travel with my husband, who is a medical doctor, and is often invited to attend seminars abroad.
Q: Which countries in the region have you traveled to?
I went to Lebanon many years ago, I have also traveled to Dubai and Syria—which is now in chaos. I also went to Turkey, with my husband, for a medical seminar.
Q: Do you speak any foreign languages?
Just a bit of English. Just enough to understand daily conversations.
Q: Do you have satellite at home?
Yes, we do.
Q: What kind of channels do you watch?
I often watch BBC Persian, Al-Jazeera, and Al-Arabiya. But my Arabic is not good. Reza often follows news on the Arabic channels. I also like to watch films and music.
Q: What is your favorite television series?
I often watch NBC, which broadcasts the latest Hollywood films. I watch [Turkish soap opera] “Magnificent Century.” Of course, this is if the channels are not being jammed. I also like to listen to music.
Q: Who is your favorite singer?
It depends on what I feel like listening to. Everyone loves traditional songs, particularly those by Mohammad-Reza Shajarian. I also like Homayoun Shajarian and Ehsan Khajeh Amiri.
Q: Do you listen to any female singers?
Yes, of course. I can’t say that I love Googoosh; that will cause a media storm. [Googoosh was banned from singing after the Islamic revolution.] I love Hayedeh’s voice; Hayedeh was a prodigy of Iranian music. I love Hayedeh’s song about Imam Ali. Hayedeh and [her sister] Mahasti are popular female singers. I also like pop music, but not the new songs. My children are like me and share my taste. Life is meaningless without music. I think that life without art and music is spiritless.