JAMSHIDI

Saideh Jamshidi in Madison, on Wednesday, August 3, 2016.

PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

It's a funny thing that Saideh Jamshidi ended up launching a website about Muslim women's fashion. Fashion, she'll tell you, is not actually her thing.

In fact, Jamshidi has a long history as a political journalist. Before leaving her home country of Iran in 1999, Jamshidi wrote about politics and women's issues for a number of major newspapers, including the country's paper of record, Hamshahri. In the U.S., she's reported with outlets like Free Speech Radio News, Al-Monitor, and Wisconsin Public Radio.

But with Goltune, Jamshidi has now immersed herself into the world of Muslim fashion as a way to ask big questions about what women wear, and how society scrutinizes those choices. All women are beautiful, Jamshidi says, but it's important to unpack who interprets beauty and how — particularly in the context of Islam, where the issue of coverage is a major point of contention.

Goltune, which Jamshidi has been operating out of her desk at the coworking space 100state, is also a space for what Jamshidi describes as "peace journalism." On the website, you'll find articles about Islam in the context of sports, medicine, travel, food, culture — coverage that Jamshidi says provides an antidote to the prevailing narrative in U.S. media linking Islam with violence and terrorism. 

Jamshidi recently announced that she'll be moving away from Madison. Her husband has accepted a job in Seattle, and she'll be moving with him. Before leaving, she sat down with The Capital Times to talk with us about her work.

Can you describe what the climate for reporters like in Iran when you were there in the 1990s?

It's a bit hard to explain in a western Democratic environment what a reporter may go through when they're reporting on sensitive issues in Iran. And I'd say any issue in a totalitarian theocracy is a sensitive issue. Sharing information is monitored very carefully.

Women's issues and women's news has always been in a very carefully monitored space. The reason is because the government wanted to control the society by controlling women. Women are usually very easy subjects. And the people who were writing about women's issues were targeted. That's why I received lots of threatening messages from different organizations.

Was that the reason you eventually left Iran?

I was working in 1999 at Zan newspaper. Zan in Farsi and Arabic means "woman," and Zan newspaper was the only daily newspaper written for women, about women, and about Muslim women. It was a very reformist paper.

The paper was managed by the daughter of a reformist president, Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani. But the paper was shut down after a few months. And that was a wake-up call for me. I thought, if the authority decides overnight to close down the paper that the daughter of the president is managing, they would do anything to reporters.

Then a friend in the intelligence services told me they moved my name up on the blacklist....in Iran, that means that reporters on that list are going to somehow be threatened, or somehow be scared. That was the time when I really started to fear for my family.

After I left, I think it was about eight months later that five of my friends working in the same newsroom got imprisoned for the stories they published.

I wonder, what's your outlook on the ways Iran gets discussed politically in the United States?

It's understandable, the not-very-friendly attitude some people have toward Iran. Because something happened during the revolution that the U.S. public never forgives, and never forgets. And that was the hostage crisis.

I was just a little kid at the time, but still, for people who had seen those images on the TV, it's still very emotional. It's understandable how, perhaps, the public may feel. It's also understandable how the Iranian public may feel when an airplane full of Iranian citizens was targeted and hit by the U.S. army, and 277 (actually 290) of the passengers died. So you need to look at the issue from both sides.

The larger picture, in my opinion, is the Islamic State is an important threat. Iranians suffer from that kind of attack. So it might be the time for the better good that we surpass some of those hard feelings that we have between two nations.

Tell me about Goltune. How did it start?

I came to the United States, and after working in different media, including Wisconsin Public Radio and other national programs, and I saw the same pattern that was in Iran — the domestic media is not too fair toward international news. And it got me thinking, what is this — what's going on?

The other area that really struck me was the same phenomenon I'd been dealing with in Iran: the media was not friendly toward women. Here, the media was not friendly toward Muslims. And I thought, I need to do something about this. It's just wrong. Why label Muslims as terrorists? Or why should I be always afraid of telling people, I am Muslim? I always check myself when I say I am Muslim, asking if I've done something wrong or right. That's why I started this.

The project was to take beautiful photos of women with beautiful garments and beautiful fashion coming to Eid al-Fitr. And the project grew from there. 

Yeah, this is a fashion photography event you've been organizing for three years. One just happened in Seattle, right?

Yes. So in 2012, I went to this Eid al-Fitr and there were about 600 people gathering to celebrate the holy month of Ramadan. 600 people, and there was no media coverage. So I was thinking, my god, why are there no reporter to talk about the event?

And where was this?

This was in Madison.

I decided at the spot that I was going to do something about this. I was coming from Iran, and with my background in Iran, usually people have all the same clothes, because of the government. But here, you would see women in different garments, different dresses, different colors — so beautiful, so vibrant.

The next year, with my photography clue, we set up a stage ... with a white background, and we invited people to come take pictures. We posted it on the website, and it was a blast — everyone loved it. So we did the next one in Vancouver, the third one in Chicago, and the fourth one in Seattle.

One element of Muslim fashion I don't know a whole lot about is the hijab. Can you give some context?

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Women's appearance has always been an issue of discussion. In Islamic culture and Islamic tradition, women cover. And that perspective in Western Democracy has been viewed as inferior, viewed as oppressive.

Within the Muslim-majority countries, Muslims may or may not choose to wear hijab. In western societies, women may or may not choose to wear it. I am Muslim, I don't cover. Another person is Muslim, she may decide to cover.

One argument people like me are putting out is, it's a free society. It ought to be respected, individual choices. Sometimes individual choices challenge the common sense or the belief everyone else has. If I come here with burqa, maybe I scare you off. You say, 'What is this? I don't know this.'

I think many of the women, those who cover, they understand the challenge. I think It's brave. It's as brave as to not wear a scarf in Iran, because you may end up in prison ... I think it's as brave to cover in a society where it's not very cherished. And many women think that it's part of their faith, and they just want to be truthful to their faith.

It strikes me that you're writing about women, and that you're writing about Muslims -- two groups that have a history of adversity in the U.S. Have you encountered any adversity yourself?

Fortunately, I'm not one of those women who gets easily discouraged by adversity. I was blacklisted in Iran. But yes.

When I first started the project, it was Fashionable Muslim Women. And we had a story about belly dance. Belly dance is itself a very sensual and sexy dance, where you're moving your body as a woman. We posted that on our Facebook page. And then, I would say in about one and a half days, we received more than 550 comments. And after 48 hours, we were getting to 1,000. Many of the comments were directed to the writer and myself about how blasphemous, how faceless, how insensible, how dangerous we are — connecting Muslim women with such a sensual, sexual dance. We received a backlash from a conservative camp.

What else should people know about what you do?

I'm very happy living in a society that respects minority rights -- respects individual freedom. If I wanted to do the same thing about Ba'hais in Iran, I would have been killed or been in jail. If I was Sunni, and doing anything to talk about Sunni issues in Iran, I would have been in jail. There is no question about it.

It might be to you sort of cliche, but what Mr. Khizr Kahn said at the DNC is what many people like us many feel. I read the Constitution cover to cover .... and I am extremely proud of the U.S. Constitution.

The fact that people like me escape from prosecution and from very difficult circumstances to come here to have a life, a normal life for themselves and for their families and their kids, it's unfair to take that dream away. And because we are fair, at least on paper — I don't want that taken away from immigrants.

Are you thinking of the rhetoric we've heard from Donald Trump?

Not really. The Muslim community is doing its best to assimilate with the larger culture. They assimilate, and then they want acceptance. And I think they ought to give it to us. Donald Trump does not represent the U.S. culture. He's just a person, part of this nation, and he's free to say whatever he wants to say. But Donald Trump is not the U.S. culture. The U.S. culture is way bigger than Donald Trump.

Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.