Maryam Faghih Imani seems an unlikely candidate to give an address that will touch on making peace between Israelis and Iranians, as she will at an international forum in Oslo Wednesday.
After all, she grew up the daughter of one of Iran’s most prominent ayatollahs.
She spent her summers in the city of Isfahan playing with the children of other prominent ayatollahs, including those of the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
During the school year, she attended a religious institution, where students were fed a steady diet of hatred for Jews. Israel was erased from all maps and there was no mention of the Holocaust in any history books.
But today she preaches the value of tolerance and urges the people of the region to “walk the talk.”
“The Middle East is the land of differences,” she told the crowd at a recent Harvard Business School conference on building bridges between Iran and its regional rivals. “We have to learn how to seize this opportunity and make the best out of it.”
To say Imani was a strong-willed and rebellious child would be an understatement. As a young girl, she was admonished by her parents when she wanted to play with boys and when she tried to remove the headscarf required of all Iranian females.
A father close to Ayatollah Khomeini
Imani’s father, Faghih Imani, played a major role in spreading Khomeini’s message of revolution throughout Iran before the 1979 uprising. He remains an influential figure in the country today.
But at night, when her family thought she was safely upstairs praying and getting ready for bed, Imani would escape to forbidden lands written about in classical literature.
After the revolution, all books about the West were banned. But she read books about European and American history that she smuggled from the library built for the Iranian people by her own father.
It was between those pages that Imani found a new truth, a “different window of thinking” that radically altered the course of her life, she said in an interview in Washington.
By the age of 16, she began to doubt everything about life in Iran and started raising questions about religion and the government, to the dismay of her father. He was angry to discover his daughter had been “brainwashed” by Western ideas, she recounted.
Unlike her four sisters, Imani longed to attend college – a dream her father said was out of the question before she married and sought her husband’s permission. It wasn’t until her oldest brother Mohammed intervened on her behalf that her father proposed a compromise.
“Dad said he would try an experiment. He made me sign a statement that said I could go to college, but if a ‘suitable’ man proposed marriage, I would marry him and drop school if he wished me to. No excuses.”
She signed the agreement. There were suitors, but she would always find a reason why they weren’t suitable.
Her influential father’s decision prompted several other prominent ayatollahs to allow their daughters to attend college as well.
Ridiculed for attending college
Imani became a top student in management and planning, but she was the target of ridicule by male students who said she belonged at home.
Her dad was ashamed, complaining regularly that she would not attract a husband. He even forbid her from wearing glasses, despite her headaches from straining her eyes, because he said it would detract from her appearance and nobody would want to marry her.
“I was so jealous of this fictitious husband,” she said. “He cared about his opinion so much more than his own daughter. He couldn’t feel the concept of my pain.”
She graduated from Isfahan University with top honors, but without her father’s permission, she had no right to work and earn money. Once again, she was a prisoner in her own home.
“To everyone, I was privileged,” she explained. “But inside I felt poor.”
Restless, she would sneak out of the house when her father was napping to take underground classes in English, music, painting and theater. She paid for them by secretly translating articles into English for fellow students’ assignments and by writing on social issues for journals and newspapers using a pen name.
With each passing day, Imani grew into a very different woman than her father had hoped she would become.
She knew she could not remain in Iran and hide her liberal and secular beliefs. She visited Malaysia as a tourist with her sister and her family and decided to get back there soon to start her master degree. While there, she applied to a university in Kuala Lumpur and was promptly accepted.
But she needed her father’s permission to obtain a visa. As expected, her father refused. So she once again implored her oldest brother Mohammed to intervene.
“I told him I had two choices,” she recalled. “Leave or commit suicide.”
With help from her brother, her father reluctantly agreed – but he wouldn’t support her. She was on her own.
On the day she left, her father reminded her of her promise to marry. He gave her a check for the exact amount for a one-way ticket back to Iran, something Maryam called “a very ayatollah thing to do.”
“It was for when I would realize that I made a mistake leaving home, would feel regret and want to get back home,” she said.
As her father predicted, life in Kuala Lumpur was hard. She had had everything done for her since birth. Now she had to take care of herself, including learning to shop for groceries.
Her father wouldn’t take her calls. But finally, she said, she felt alive. For the first time she was free to think and speak her mind.
“I never realized how lonely I was in Iran until I left,” she said. “My family believed it was dangerous that I was becoming a different person. But I was not close to the person I was meant to be.”
It was a year before she went back to Isfahan for a visit. Her father gave her the cold shoulder for two weeks before they finally reconciled.
After earning a masters degree in Kuala Lumpur, Imani went on to conduct research in Norway, Finland and Portugal and take cultural diplomacy courses in Berlin.
Today Imani is the founder and president of the Oslo-based Centre for Cultural Diplomacy and Development, which promotes democracy and tolerance and offers entrepreneurship programs for women and youth in the Middle East.
Engaging Iranian and Israeli youth
One of the center’s flagship programs is the Iran-Israel Friendship Dialogue, engaging youth from both countries in a cultural dialogue, bringing them to meet in countries in the West. She is planning a visit to Israel sometime in the near future, a trip few Iranians have made.
“There are a lot of similarities between Persian and Jewish culture,” she said. “I think by working together we can build a future instead of looking into the black holes of the past.”
Josh Hantman, a former Israeli diplomat, heard her speak at Harvard last month and welcomed her message.
“I was blown away,” he said. “What a fighter.”
She hopes to replicate the Israel-Iran program with people from other warring nations.
“I want to help make peace,” she said. “If you work with your enemy, they will become your partner.”
Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who met Imani when she was in Washington last month, said her story is all the more unusual for her gender.
“I have heard the stories of many, many people who rebelled against their religious families. But they were the stories of sons, not daughters,” said Khalaji, who like Imani has a father who is an ayatollah and who left Iran after adopting a more secular worldview.
“It is the first time I heard someone like her take this position – leaving not only the family or the city, but the country,” he noted. “And she not only left the country geographically, but in terms of her mind-set.”
On Wednesday, Imani will deliver her message of coexistence before the Oslo Freedom Forum, a brainstorming session of human rights defenders, Nobel Laureates, scholars and students.
Although he can’t show support for her choices, Imani said she knows deep down her father loves her. They still talk, but the conversations are strained. He always begs her to come back and get married.
She still has the check her father gave her when she left home. She says she will never cash it but rather will keep it as a reminder of where she comes from. And how far she has come.