It was 2009, and Iranian journalist Maryam Mirza stopped to vote in her country's presidential election before leaving for Germany for 10 days for a media conference. At the time, she had no idea it would be a one-way trip to Berlin.
Soon after results of the election were announced, declaring incumbent hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad president, mass protests took place in Tehran and elsewhere in the country. Security forces responded by killing at least 17 and arrested hundreds of activists, journalists and students. Suddenly Mirza's home country looked unsafe for someone whose work focused on women's rights. Mirza decided that staying in Germany was the safest course.
Her career had begun in 2005 with the Iranian women's magazine Zanan during a period of relative press freedom under former president Mohammed Khatami. She also worked on the editorial board of Zanestan, a feminist website. Her parents had preferred she become a lawyer–being a journalist in Iran was not considered a safe or stable profession as news outlets could be shut down at any instant. That's what happened to Zanan, which was shuttered by the Ahmadinejad government in 2007. Maryam says it may have been closed down in part due to her reporting about violent crime committed by women and crime against women. The publication reopened this year after Ahmadinejad was replaced with the reform-minded Hassan Rouhani.
Now 33, Mirza works for the German news service Deutsche Welle and covers news about Iran from Germany. She spoke with Global Journalist's Natalia Avdonina about covering women's issues in a conservative religious state and her 'accidental exile.'
Global Journalist: What did you learn while working for a women's magazine in Iran?
Maryam: One [principle I learned] was that you need to look at an issue from as [many] different perspectives. If you are writing about temporary marriage in Iran, you need to talk with psychologist, you need to talk with very average people, you need to put the issue on the table and sit on different chairs and look at it.
GJ: What topics are considered taboo?
Maryam: There are some issues that you cannot write about at all, like homosexuality, sex. You can write [in a conservative way] about politics...the atomic program, you cannot write any criticism at all. You can just write a news report that 'he said this', 'another one said that.' Writing critiques is like committing suicide for a journal. [There are] different things about women in Iran you cannot write about, even some words are very, very controversial. If you are writing about women's bodies you cannot use some words at all.
GJ: Why did you decide to stay in Germany?
Maryam: The way I left Iran was somehow accidental, I was invited for a conference in Berlin, in 2009, the conference was about media in Germany, and it was the same day of the election, that controversial election, I voted and just left the country. I was supposed to be in Germany for ten days, but what happened in Iran, my friends were arrested, so it was too risky to go back. I did not want to stay here forever...just for some months to see what was going on, and then...some months became some years.
Fortunately, because I was invited for the conference about media I had already some kind of network, and it made difference between me and some other colleagues who came here as asylum seekers. ...I started with Spiegel online as an intern. [The] internship stopped because of some legal issues about my residency permit, because that time I still had a visa as a tourist...Then I cooperated with Reporters Without Borders working on their website. I was offered...work on Deutsche Welle, as a freelancer but it was based on a contract.
GJ: How do you now report on human rights overseas?
Maryam: It is easier. Because if I was in Iran, I could not write about [human rights] at all. I have other colleagues of mine, all of us have our contacts and network in Iran.
GJ: Do you think you might return to Iran?
Maryam: Now I have a home here, but...I need to go back to see...I know I am missing something big in my heart.