Tala Dowlatshahi is the Senior Advisor for Reporters sans Frontières (Reporters without Borders). A member of the Overseas Press Club, Tala serves as the Senior Advisor on the USA board of Reporters Sans Frontières and a board member of the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting. A roving eye of international journalism, Tala promotes press freedom and global campaigns for freedom of expression in countries where freedom of expression is suppressed.
Tala’s work has taken her to conflict zones in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Indonesia, and Uganda, to name a few. Currently based in Zurich, Switzerland and a longtime resident of California, Tala earned her Bachelor of Arts degree at UC Berkeley in Mass Communications. She also holds a Master’s degree in Humanities and International Development from New York University. A fierce anti-traditionalist and a staunch believer in international peace and justice, Tala has dedicated her life to making life better for others in disadvantaged places.
Were you born in Iran? How long did you live in Iran?
Yes, I was born in Tehran. I lived in Iran until I was four years old. I then moved to the United States — California, to be exact — with my parents, brother and twin sister. We felt very isolated at first since we were one of the first Iranian families to move into the neighborhood.
Tell us about your family background please.
My parents are secular Iranian Muslims. My mother comes from a large family — 10 brothers and sisters, three of whom died during infancy and early childhood. My father is an only child. His family comes from Arak, and my mother’s family are a mix of Qajaris and Kurds.
What is your education?
I was educated at UC Berkeley in Mass Communications where I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree. I also earned a Master’s degree in Humanities and International Development at New York University. My thesis focused on picture brides in Iran and the exploitation of women (institutionalized prostitution in the form of temporary marriage contracts, i.e., Sigheh).
How did you end up in the journalism profession? What are the news media organizations you have worked for?
Being Iranian in America, I naturally became political at a young age because all the American families would always ask me what I thought about the Iranian government and the Islamic Revolution! Here I was a kid of six or seven, and grown-ups were asking me these questions! The irony was that most of my American friends wanted me to feel included so they said “hey you are just a tan version of us”!
I grew up wondering why I was Iranian, why this unique background was attached to me. Why I couldn’t just be a “normal” American? All of these early questions in my mind eventually led me to journalism because I was prompted toward political dialogue based on where I was from. For example, my best friend’s father, a tall red-headed man with freckles, would always ask me “Tala, what are your people doing over there”? So instead of thinking about Barbi dolls, I started thinking, hey, I’ve got to find an answer for this man next time I see him. I must investigate!
I have worked for Talk Radio News Service, where I serve as UN Bureau Chief, Reporters sans Frontieres, and the Amnesty International Press office in the United Kingdom. I ended up in the journalism business after receiving a visa to be a freelance journalist in the UK through the Association for International Practical Training. I then started writing freelance pieces and submitted them to several online journals.
What is your current role and responsibilities at the Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting and Reporters Without Borders?
My current role at CUSIB and Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF) is to serve as a board member and senior advisor to promote press freedom and global campaigns for freedom of expression. I have worked for nearly ten years for RSF; first as the New York Director to shape US operations and then as a Senior Advisor to promote the plight of journalists in countries, including Iran (during the 2009 protest movement), and in China, Burma, Vietnam, Mexico, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and so many more. I have over 3000 Facebook friends and most of them are Iranian comrades I met online during the 2009 Green Movement. It really made me feel good to be a part of the community that helped spread the messages of Iranians inside Iran. I felt my role was to support them. It was a truly inspiring experience.
What places have you traveled for your work?
I have traveled far and wide. I have been in minefields on the Eritrean and Ethiopian border, in Afghanistan directly after the US invasion, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Indonesia, Turkey, Mexico, and Colombia, to name a few!
Who would you name among some of your main sources of inspiration in your journalistic achievements?
One of my fortunate God-given traits is that I feel cosmopolitan and “global.” I don’t believe I look traditionally Iranian, and I have never identified myself as white like most Iranians in America do. Historically, we are white since we are the original Arians — Iran being named Aryan due to its local to the Caucasus Mountains (you know the story). However, in America, I have always felt brown or tanned. This “brown” sensibility has enabled me to identify with many ethnic groups in America, e.g., Latin American, Native Americans, African Americans, and other minorities, where other Iranian friends of mine just thought I was being a rebel by joining these “people of color” movements.
In my international travels, for example, when I go to Colombia and speak even a bit of my broken Spanish, people really do believe that I am a Colombiana based on my looks! I once also reported on Native American groups and the problems with gambling and alcoholism in Oklahoma and people actually thought I was part Cherokee! In Ethiopia, I was Ethiopian; in Indonesia, I was part Indonesian — it is really incredible. As a journalist, this gives me the upper hand as I immediately bond with locals and can get to the grassroots of stories because I blend in, and in this process, “break bread” with local communities and thus eliminate boundaries. I have reported on so many small but wonderfully touching stories — from women making honey to sell at the local market on the Ertirean border in order to support their families to reporting on Afghan girls learning how to use the computer for the first time in high school. Getting the first email can be such an exciting experience, and I really loved reporting this story! I have also covered timely stories at the United Nations, including the release of the Goldstone Report, and the release of the UN findings on the assassination of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. I have also participated and covered a number of protests against the Iranian government and the various human rights violations committed by the government against journalists and activists.
How do you think being an Iranian woman or a woman of Iranian descent has played itself out in your career?
I think being Iranian is just plain difficult — politically, that is. Consider what is happening now inside the US in regards to the breakdown of nuclear negotiations with Iran. I really do identify with the most popular movie out of Iran: “A Separation.” Since I am currently living in Zurich, I finally have a separation from the US and my role inside the US as an Iranian-American. This separation has enabled me to be more critical of the relationship between the Obama Administration and the Iranian government — but now from a European perspective. Maybe it is neutral Switzerland, but I am not so deeply affected by every news report I read about the US and Israel attacking Iran. I have a much more distant perspective and possess the ability to filter the media hype. “Is war imminent?” people ask me. I don’t know how to respond. As an Iranian woman raised in the United States during the Iranian Islamic Revolution, I was always afraid of saying I was IRANIAN, like it seemed to be a bad or dangerous word. When I finally started proudly referring to myself as Iranian, it was in college at UC Berkeley where coming from a different and unique culture is always welcome. Being Iranian has greatly influenced my career because I always think of my Iranian roots in comparison with the country I am reporting on. I use my Iranian background as a point of reference in almost everything that I write and report on.
Are you a mother?
Yes, I am. I have one beautiful son named Julian. He turned one this past March!
How do you think the Arab Spring will impact women’s social status in the Arab/Islamic world? Are you an optimist?
I feel optimistic about the Arab Spring. I believe in the movement because it is coming from the next generation, and it is coming with a fierce message: “We want jobs.” This is a global movement with OWS and all the various youth groups challenging the corrupt economic system throughout Latin and Central America, in Africa, and throughout Asia as well. What I mean is that this is not just an Arab Spring thing. It is indicative of a global system of financial corruption.
Regarding women’s role, well, why wouldn’t I feel optimistic about women’s roles? I do not support the harassment of female reporters on the streets of Cairo (Lara Logan’s case) nor do I support the recent dialogue about implementing Sharia law inside these various regions, but I am still hopeful. Women in the Middle East and North Africa are born strong so I am sure they will fight to make their way and attain the full rights they deserve.
Five years from now, what kind of an Iran do you envision in your mind?
Five years from now, I unfortunately envision an Iran very much still in the hands of a corrupt and politically pious state. I would one day like to show Julian where he is half from (his father is an American from Connecticut). I would like to see Iran’s youth gainfully employed. I would like to see more women in government from all political parties and not just female representatives of the current regime. I would like to travel freely to Iran with my family. I would like Iranians to be free from international threats. I would like an end to all nuclear producing programs inside Iran and throughout the world — same goes for Israel and the US. I would like all those who signed onto the NPT to practice what they preach.