Haleh Afshar: the Muslim feminist, crossbench peer and one time ‘fierce Marxist’
Haleh Afshar has never been afraid to speak her mind. She talks to Gary Connor about her upbringing within the Iranian establishment, fleeing Tehran and her journey to the Lords
Haleh Afshar’s mother always told her that the best way to get what you want in life was to be diplomatic and give good parties. “She always felt that I was too fierce and too upfront,” Afshar says when we meet to discuss her remarkable journey from Tehran to the red benches of the UK parliament’s upper chamber.
Born in Iran in 1944, the self-declared ‘Muslim feminist’ comes from a long line of women who defied convention and followed their own beliefs. Her maternal grandmother refused to wear a hijab, thought Afshar laughs that this was less of an act of religious defiance and more that “she felt she was far too beautiful to cover!” Her mother, too, was a fierce advocate of women’s rights, particularly their right to vote. Afshar recalls that the most important thing she learned from her was to refuse to take no for an answer. “You don’t give up if you have a conviction that a cause is right”, she says.
Hers was a privileged childhood, typical of the political and academic classes in Tehran in the 1940s and 50s. Each morning, her nanny would be there from the second she opened her eyes, to ensure that she was washed and dressed. Her mother would always brush her long hair. “I never did anything,” she recalls.
However, she insists that she wasn’t brought up in an isolated bubble, and she rebelled to become a “fierce Marxist” from a young age. She would regularly run from her privileged house to the one next door, where the people who worked for her family and their children lived. She’d sit on the floor and share stories with them. Her parents – “absolutely dedicated to education” – made sure all the children went to university.
A “lightbulb” moment came at the age of 14, after she read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, in French, which led her to conclude that she needed to stand on her own two feet. “I realised, if you left me on the side of the road, I wouldn’t be able to get my clothes on, let alone be a carer for somebody. So I said ‘I’m going to England’.”
Her destination was to be a boarding school in Solihull, and the first impressions weren’t great. “It was very dark and so drab, and people dressed so badly,” she laughs. She found the food in England “inedible”, discovering that the only thing she could stomach was chocolate. “I used to buy tonnes and tonnes of it. It’s the only time in my life that I became completely rotund.”
Picking up English came very quickly, due to a good ear and a photographic memory, and after boarding school came college in Brighton. There she befriended a young Ranulph Fiennes, regarded now as the world’s greatest living explorer. She remembers hitching lifts to parties on the back of ‘Ran’s’ motorbike and him being “conspicuous by his absence” at lessons.
She recalls it as a “wonderful time”, where she’d “party like mad”. As well as academic talents, she also used her skills as a poker player to win a ticket to see The Beatles play in London. “I’m very good at poker,” she says. “Largely because I’m smiley and never serious. It’s not a poker face that hides. It’s a poker face that is open.”
After college, university beckoned. Her father – a man “very much part of the establishment” and at that time a minister in the Iranian government – was convinced that only Oxford or Cambridge were good enough, and an interview was arranged at Girton College, Cambridge. However, Girton wasn’t a good fit for Afshar, who says it resembled a prison. She was interviewed by three women “with a combined age of a thousand years”. “They kept on asking me about whether I had boyfriends. I thought that it was worse than boarding school.”
Eventually she ended up at York – “a place with no walls, no rules and no regulations” – which suited her much better. A doctorate at Cambridge followed, before she returned home to Iran and joined the civil service, working with the Ministry of Land Reform, and as a journalist. She spent time travelling with officials, around the country, visiting remote villages and meeting the people who lived there, and educating them.
“I loved talking to the women, who were not even aware of the Islamic rights they had; the right to property, payment for housework, all kinds of things. It was wonderful,” she recalls. “In a way, I think I’m a born teacher.”
But political differences with the pre-revolution regime in Tehran meant that Afshar would eventually be forced to flee Iran for her own safety. She caused a stir after publicly disagreeing with a minister she had interviewed about land reform. “He said ‘this is what is happening’. I said no, this is what is happening, because I’ve been there’.”
The incident left her in a “bad place” with the authorities, and Afshar was warned by her father that she risked being the first person “up against the wall and shot”. Like her mother, he believed in acting “slowly, slowly” to achieve your aims. “I just felt it had been slowly slowly for too long. It was just time. Surely?”
But it was her career as a gossip columnist for an English-language paper that was to ultimately seal her fate. In her column – ‘Curious’ – she made a passing reference to a relationship between one of the king’s sisters and a younger man. “In the most discreet way. But the people at the top knew.” She describes it as a “disaster”, which got her into “deep, deep trouble”.
Seeking to renew her passport in anticipation of a swift departure, she made a trip to the passport office, and was dealt with personally by its chief. When she returned to pick the document up “he said that they’d lost it. It wasn’t there”.
Luckily, her cousin’s husband, a “high-powered” minister, was due to make a trip to England on government business. He instructed Afshar to return to the passport office at 7am the next morning, inform the chief that the minister wanted her to cover the negotiations, and that he would report her passport loss to the king if it wasn’t dealt with urgently.
She relayed the instructions in the passport office. The warning had the desired effect. The chief opened his desk drawer and handed over her “lost” passport.
So Afshar went to England, covered the conference as promised – “and then I resigned from everything and stayed”.
Afshar has had a long and successful career, writing numerous books on Islam and feminism. She was a founding member of the Muslim Women’s Network and has advised extensively on public policy matters. Today she is an emeritus professor at the University of York, where she taught politics and women’s studies.
An initial approach to join the House of Lords came through work with the Women’s National Commission, a public body set up to advise government. The former Labour minister Patricia Hewitt suggested she join to “get things done”. Afshar laughed off the suggestion, but on Hewitt’s advice visited the place she always assumed was full of “posh people having posh lunches”. “I came to the Lords and I couldn’t believe it. I thought that they were serious, and really interesting. I suddenly realised yes, I do want to be here.”
So she duly applied, and despite being “very uppity” in the interview, was asked to join and took her seat on the crossbenches in 2007.
Afshar has never struggled with the formality of the upper house. “In Iran, politeness is next to godliness. You’re courteous towards everyone, low or high,” she says. She initially found it difficult not to “blurt out what I think” and says she had to practice toning her forceful personality down.
Despite insisting she is a “retired lady”, Afshar comes to the Lords at least three days each week, getting the train down from York, where she lives. The quiet carriage acts as her office and she reads a novel on the journey back home. Thursdays and Friday are devoted to work with postgraduate students, giving them advice on articles and hosting lunches in her home. “I’m not completely intellectually asleep”, she laughs.
But she has long felt it would be unsafe for her to return to Iran, after criticism of the country’s view on women. Shortly after she became a life peer, an invitation to visit the Iranian Ambassador in London arrived. Afshar recalls hesitating over whether to accept, because she worried about being arrested as soon as she stepped foot inside the embassy.
Eventually, she decided to risk it, but took her husband Maurice along as backup. “I told him ‘if I don’t come out in two hours, go to the House of Lords and tell them they’ve got me’.”
However, the ambassador was charming, and offered her tea rather than a pair of handcuffs. He insisted she should go back to Iran, and that things were very different.
She asked him to guarantee that she would be allowed to come back to the UK. “There is a Persian saying”, the ambassador replied. “You have the decision”.
“I said to him – I have made the decision.”
Afshar has never been back to her homeland.