In the summer of 1999, sitting alone in my jail cell, with its naked lightbulb and damp gray carpeting, I asked myself time after time, Why am I in this forsaken place?
At 18 I had been the youngest newspaper reporter in Tehran, with a reputation for outspokenness. This was in 1991. The Ministry of Intelligence scoured every public and private space looking for dissenters and independent thinkers, and everyone knew what the consequences were if they took you away.
After Mohammed Khatami was elected in 1997, the more open political climate afforded me new opportunities and I became even more outspoken. But the reformist paper I wrote for—Zan, which means "woman"—was shut down in the spring of 1999, and I was detained in solitary confinement for 76 days on the pretense that I'd breached national security and challenged the authority of the regime.
As I lay blindfolded in the back of a car, escorted by agents from the Ministry of Intelligence, I had no idea where I was going. Terrified of the unknown fate that hovered before me, I remembered how, when I was a teenager, suitors—potential husbands—would come to our house, and how their attentions meant nothing to me because I wanted a future as a professional journalist.
I thought, too, of the hot Tehran summer of my last year of high school, finishing my courses in changing diapers and bathing newborns. (All of our training was performed on dolls.) Women were valued only as "model wives" and "proper mothers."
My aha! moment came as I was sitting in solitary confinement. After weeks of confusion and fearing for my life, I realized I was doing penance not for my reporting but for not raising children and cooking. I had opposed the Islamic republic by refusing to embody its values, by rejecting my traditional role. But I knew that it was journalism that made my heart beat and that I would never give it up.
I thought about the other girls who worked at the newspaper and how they would scurry off to their husbands and families early in the evening while I would stay late, sometimes until 2 in the morning. I could see clearly that I had crossed a line and that there was no crossing back. And I was forced to realize that to be who I wanted to be, I couldn't stay in Iran.
Six years have passed since I was released under the condition, documented in a formal agreement, that I not work as a journalist in my country. Still very much at risk, I seized the first opportunity to get out, leaving my family and my case behind. I now live in New York, where, against the wishes of the Iranian government, I am still a journalist, uncovering the truth and making it available to others.