Interview with Ghazal Omid

Dreams Into Lightning exclusive: Interview with Iranian activist and author Ghazal Omid.

She is the author of "Living in Hell: A Young Woman's Life in Revolutionary Iran". You can read her columns here. I've previously posted on Ghazal Omid here and here. Now I'm pleased to be able to bring you an interview with her. I spoke with Ghazal by phone for about 45 minutes this evening. What follows is not a verbatim transcript, because I was taking notes by hand, but it does represent the essential points of our conversation.

(Please tell us your thoughts on the recent terrorist arrests in Canada.)
I've been telling the Canadian government about terrorism for a couple of years. Canadian laws are designed to protect everyone; the terrorists understand this and use it to their advantage. [Terror suspect Abdul] Kahar was from a family of terrorists - his father was an officer of Osama bin Laden, and was killed in Afghanistan. We could have had another 9/11 on our hands. Canada is a backdoor for terrorism because of lousy laws. We need to be more careful. When somebody is proven guilty, why are we keeping them in this country?

(On Muslim identity and government incompetence.)
I receive hate mail and phone calls every day, from Muslim fanatics. And yet, I was detained at the border for 45 minutes after I returned from Dubai. Another example: When I took [copies of threatning messages] to the police, they said, "you choose your actions, you receive your reactions." The police showed no enthusiasm and shrugged their shoulders. This is ludicrous. The government needs to know who the good guys and the bad guys are. I believe it's my Muslim duty, and my human duty, to stand up to terrorism. I'm with you - what are you going to do to protect me?

(Tell me about your upcoming three books.)
The first book is called "Poverty in Paradise". It's inspired by my trip to Dubai. In many countries like Dubai, they have a misrepresented image of the United States. It's a corrupted image. They think everyone is like Paris Hilton and Pamela Anderson. When I asked male acquaintances in Arab countries what they thought about America, they thought of women running around in bikinis. The image that's presented abroad, via satellite programming, is even more distorted than the portrayals on domestic television. Working-class North Americans aren't portrayed. Yes, the United States holds a large share of the world's wealth, but most people in America work very hard, long hours. They're not rich. I want to make people in other countries feel we all belong to the same family. My second book is called "Islam 101" and it's an introduction to Islam. The religious section is separate from the political section, because I feel these things should be kept separate. The third book is about Iran's future. It's essential to educate women and children if you're going to stop terrorism. You don't want to get to them when they're 20; you want to get to them when they're 3. This book will be a message of humanity and education about Islam and other things.

(You've brought up the subject of wealth and poverty, and the fact that many people in other countries have a false - and harmful - belief that "all Americans are rich and decadent". As you were speaking, I was reminded of the section early in your book "Living in Hell" where you describe the paradox of growing up being rich and poor at the same time. Can you tell me a little more about how this experience influenced your thinking?)
When I was 12 years old, my father would bring home money in potato sacks. When I asked him why, he said, "People give me money so I can hide it." They trusted him more than they trusted the banks. My mother would have me count the money by hand. She wanted me to hold it in my hand so I would get used to the feel of it and not yearn for it. But although Father didn't take care of us - how many days did I live on bread and milk? - we never took his money. He could leave it in his coat pocket and we would never touch it. I have my pride - I'm not gonna beg! But I want to educate people about what they can say and what they can't [so that they can speak out on injustice in a productive way]. I need to respect me before I respect anybody else; I need to love me before I can love anybody else.

(Tell me why, as a religious Muslim, you feel it's important to end the Mullahs' dictatorship in Iran.)
The Mullahs are parasites - they're charlatans. They are distorting the image of Islam; they're no better than bin Laden.

Apart from getting rid of the regime, what changes do you think are necessary for Iranian society?
Education is critical, especially for women. And cultural education. The practice of marrying young girls has nothing to do with the current government, they only increased the problem that was already there. Educating a young girl is like painting a masterpiece - it takes time. We need to raise a generation of strong women.

Do you think you might seek political office in a future, democratic Iranian government?
Yes. I will change the pace of society and work for women's rights. There will be a new sheriff in town!

(Other comments.)

Shirin Ebadi is an opportunist; millions of dollars are funneled to her organization.

When you have a charity in Iran, you have to have someone in the government [who's getting paid off]. When you give money to that charity, your money goes to the government.

Voice of America is using its funding the wrong way; it's actually helping the regime. The Iranian government shows the same images of wealthy, decadent Americans and says to the people, "look, do you want to be like that?" There have been some positive changes at VOA, but it needs to change more.

The US Government is wasting a lot of its money for Iran. Many of the grantees are crooks. The Iranian people need to see tangible efforts, not just TV broadcasts.

A couple of years ago, I saw how people in Washington State took up a collection from their own money to help Iranians after the earthquake. The US needs to do a better job of publicizing efforts like this - sometimes it's OK to let people know when you're doing something good.

I would have loved to help the US Government, if they would listen. I would like to immigrate to the United States, but it could take 15 years unless I can find a way to speed up the process. They did it for Pamala Anderson. Look, Pamela Anderson got into the US because of her breasts ... I should be able to get in because of my brain.

We can help children understand that they are not different from one another because of nationality. We can touch the hearts of children with things they can relate to. Things that touched me as a child: bedtime stories, and listening to radio programs. We love our history. If people in Iran knew how much other people around the world care, they would throw this regime out. If Americans and Iranians really understood one another, they would fall in love with each other.