Sheema Kalbasi: Iran is Ingrained in My Dreams & Nightmares

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Sheema Kalbasi (Persian: ???? ??????‎) was born in Tehran, Iran on November, 20, 1972 and grew up in Pakistan and Denmark before she moved to the United States. ??She is a poet, writer, editor, literary translator, researcher, documentary filmmaker, and rights activist. Her poems have been anthologized and translated into eighteen languages to date.? She has done voluntary teaching and tutoring of Baha'i refugee children as well as Iraqi Kurdish children, and disadvantaged Pakistani children in Pakistan. Kalbasi has worked for the United Nations and the Center for Refugees in Pakistan, and UNA Denmark. Sheema is the founder and the director of several literary projects including the Other Voices International Poetry Project.  Sheema's life commitment is to the people in areas affected by lack of human rights, healthcare and education and works independently of any political or religious agendas.? ?To learn more about her current works and projects please visit her website.

She kindly agreed be interviewed by Clarion Project Research Fellow Elliot Friedland.

Clarion Project: What is it about poetry that makes it such an effective medium for putting forward the voices of Iranian women?  

Sheema Kalbasi: Poetry thrives in vagueness and metaphor and so does the Persian language. Poet tells things she cannot directly describe in words or rather finds too painful to do so. Thankfully poetry also rides on another language which, unlike the former, is understood universally by all humans: the language of human emotions.??


Clarion: Your latest book "The Poetry of Iranian Women" tells some incredibly emotive stories of what women face in Iran. Does this reflect the experience of many Iranian women?

Kalbasi: I believe so. Iranian women live under systematic oppression. After the Islamic revolution the legal system was altered. The legal code is based on Sharia law. Iranian women are not free to choose and have little to no control over various aspects of their lives. From inability to travel without father or husband’s permission to custody of the children in case of divorce, the list goes on and on. Even higher education, which used to be one of the few areas women could demonstrate their abilities, is becoming increasingly inaccessible to them.  I recently read about gender separation in municipal offices. Even something as mundane as entering cafes or working at one is now denied to women. This hurts me but doesn’t surprise me. Introduction of theocratic anti-woman laws more than 3 decades ago turned women into the property of men from father and brothers in early life to husbands after marriage. Imagine for a moment that the first female recipient of Fields medal in Mathematics, Iranian-American Maryam Mirzakhani, whom we all are so proud of, had to have her husband’s permission to work, which she would have if she lived in Iran. Would that not be tragic?

Clarion: You live in the United States right now. Do you hope to be able to return to Iran one day?   What do you miss most about Iranian culture and life?

Kalbasi: Iran is engrained in my most beautiful dreams and in my most horrendous nightmares. From the idyllic landscape of  Valasht lake where I used to vacation with my family as a child to the horrors of war and losing family members, Iran is part of every fiber that makes up my body and every specter that terrifies my soul. So yes I would like to go back. Time froze for me in 1979. I would like to go back and see it flow again. I would like this turn to nowhere my country took more than 3 decades ago magically end up somewhere and I would like to be there when that happens.


Clarion: The Facebook page 'My Stealthy Freedom' featured women photographing themselves without the traditional hijab (head covering) in defiance of the Islamic Republic of Iran's strict modesty rules. It got over half a million page likes and media attention from around the world. Is this part of a wider cultural trend against religious oppression in Iran?

Kalbasi: I certainly hope so. Iranians use every opportunity to show their opposition to regime’s backward laws and I believe this is only a sample of that broader trend. That said I have to admit I have mixed feelings about campaigns of this kind. I do not believe this is how you can overcome evil.


Clarion: The Iranian birthrate has dropped to historic lows. Would interpret this as a silent revolt by women against the oppressive regime or as a sign of complete lack of hope in the future?

Kalbasi: That is a very interesting perspective and I believe there is certainly some truth to it. That said, what we see is the tail-end of a long term demographic trend characterized by dropping fertility and infant mortality rates on the one hand and increased urbanization on the other. The Shah put in place aggressive policies to tame the population growth in the 70s many of which were put on hold when the Islamic regime came to power, although the very same policies were adopted again in late 80s and 90s. Faced with the prospect of an aging population within the next 2 decades, regime supreme leader Ali Khamenei has ordered sudden reversal of family planning practices with the hope to take Iran fertility rates back to where they were in early 80s. I believe that is a futile attempt on his part and the regime will not be able to turn back the clock this time because of the many structural and cultural changes that have taken place in the Iranian society in the last few decades. 

Sheema Kalbasi's latest anthology is called 'The Poetry of Iranian Women.' It is a collection of poetry voicing perspectives of homeland, heritage, oppression and empowerment and includes poems from many different authors.

Watch Sheema Kalbasi's documentary 'Women on The Front Line,' unveiling injustice and fighting for equality and freedom in Iran.  

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David Harris

David Harris is the editor in chief of Clarion Project.