By Allison Stevens
Washington Bureau Chief
Thursday, December 28, 2006
At NPR, Iran Davar Ardalan has helped bridge the gap between the estranged countries of Iran and the U.S. Her memoir coming out this month, "My Name Is Iran," describes the efforts of women in her family to do the same.
WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)--It was the dawn of the Islamic Republic, and Iran Davar Ardalan, an Iranian American teenager who had recently returned after graduating from her Boston high school, seemed to have it all.
Nineteen, newly married and pregnant, she landed a job as an anchor on the English language version of Iran's state television news program in 1984, just a few years after the 1979 revolution that transformed Iran from a constitutional monarchy to a religious state.
Almost overnight, Ardalan became an Iranian star, setting the phones ringing after she delivered newscasts and drawing proposals for marriage from unknown viewers.
"I was very much the face of the Islamic Republic," recalled Ardalan, 42, a producer of "Morning Edition" at National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. Her memoir, "My Name Is Iran," will be released by Henry Holt and Co. on Jan. 9.
Before too long Ardalan began to question her embrace of the Middle East.
She came to see Iranian women, even those who covered themselves, reduced to sexual objects, a problem she had associated more with the West. Once, for instance, a managing editor asked her if she was wearing mascara. When she replied that she wasn't, he informed her that viewers had been complaining that her features were too attractive for television.
"I thought to myself, 'He's not telling me I'm doing a good job or anything about me," she said. "He's telling me that the men, the conservative men clerics who were watching on TV, thought I was too pretty. I was like, 'that's so shallow.'"
As a female public figure in an Islamic republic, she also came to resent the country's system of religious law. Although women in Iran enjoy high rates of literacy and employment, under the country's system of Sharia, a woman's worth is valued at half that of a man's, women are less likely to get custody of children in a divorce and are far more likely than men to be killed by stoning if convicted of adultery.
"Within just a few years, I started to see a lot of the hypocrisy that was around me," Ardalan said recently in a wide-ranging interview at NPR headquarters. "Women were second-class citizens, and a lot of the laws that were modernized during the previous regime had been completely stripped away . . . It just became completely terrifying."
It is this kind of up-close-and-personal view of a country in an official diplomatic standoff with the United States that Ardalan brings to the production room at NPR.
"She's got tremendous contacts in the Iranian community, and what do you know, it's in the news all the time," said Steve Inskeep, co-host of NPR's "Morning Edition."
Inskeep said Ardalan's knowledge of the country, the language and its people enables her to give listeners a rare and valuable perspective of Iran, which is riveting world attention thanks to its proximity to Iraq and allegations about its efforts to build nuclear weapons.
She is able to translate Iranian entries in the blogosphere, is aware of Iranian radio broadcasts out of Los Angeles, and knows and has interviewed prominent Iranians such as Reza Pahlavi, the son of the former shah of Iran, Inskeep said.
She has devoted considerable time to covering the country for NPR.
In the spring of 1995 and 1997, Ardalan produced a series examining the re-emergence of criticism and self-expression in Iran, the status of women and dangers to the country's intellectual class.
In 2003, she traveled to Oslo, Norway, to cover Iranian lawyer and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of women's rights.
In 2004, she created an hour-long radio documentary that weaves her family's stories into the history of the 1979 revolution and explores its on-and-off-again relationship with the United States.
And more recently, she helped put together a story about Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, who had been imprisoned by Iranian authorities.
"Over the years she's done a lot of our coverage of Iran," said NPR Editor Deborah George. "She's worked on it, she's pushed stories, she's aided reporters in their work."
At the center of the tale in Ardalan's memoir are three women--Ardalan's grandmother, her mother and herself--whose lives are inextricably interwoven with both the United States and Iran. Together, their stories illuminate the complexities that face women navigating cultures with starkly different rules about women's place in society.
On her American side, Ardalan's grandmother, Helen Jeffreys, was an adventurous nurse from Idaho who met her husband, an Iranian doctor, in a New York hospital.
Jeffreys moved to Iran, where she helped her husband start a hospital, raised seven children and served on a U.S. health commission to Iran, where she traveled to rural villages--accessible only by camel or donkey--to educate Iranian women about modern health care. She eventually returned to the United States after divorcing her husband.
"We have a picture of her wearing a skirt, a jacket and high heels, on a camel!" Ardalan exclaimed. "She was just this absolutely fascinating woman."
Jeffrey's daughter (and Ardalan's mother), Mary Nell Laleh Bakhtiar, grew up in Washington, D.C., and moved to Iran as an adult with her husband, a U.S.-educated Iranian architect. In the wake of her divorce, Bakhtiar immersed herself in the study of Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam, and later started one of Iran's first magazines for women, where she wrote stories about Islamic feminists. She eventually left Iran.
Ardalan sees in herself parallels to her mother and grandmother, two women divided by their love of two strikingly different homelands.
Born in San Francisco, Ardalan grew up in Iran and moved to Boston in 1980 because her international high school in Tehran closed in the wake of the revolution. After graduating from a U.S. high school, Ardalan suffered a nervous breakdown that she attributes to an identity crisis and returned to Iran to recuperate.
There she became swept up in the revolutionary fervor of the times. She converted to Islam and got married to a virtual stranger soon after her arrival. Around the same time, she landed the newscaster position.
In 1987, she and her husband moved to New Mexico to pursue higher education. In 1991 the two divorced when he wanted to return to Iran and she didn't.
A single mother, Ardalan studied journalism in college and eventually got a job as a reporter at KUNM-FM in Albuquerque, N.M. In 1993, she moved to Washington, D.C., to work at NPR.
In 2004, she took the graveyard shift producing "Morning Edition." In January, she will start as a dayside producer.
Ardalan credits much of her success to lessons she learned from her female forbearers, women she hopes readers of her memoir will be inspired by.
"I don't know if it means anything by saying it," Ardalan said. "But if there's anything inside your gut where you feel that you have something offer, just always trust in yourself and have the confidence that things will work out."
Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women's eNews.
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