Foreign Policy Blogs

The Iranian Women in American Journalism Project (IWAJ): Lisa Daftari

The Iranian Women in American Journalism Project (IWAJ): Lisa Daftari

Lisa Daftari, Photo: Courtesy of Fox News

Lisa Daftari is an independent journalist and analyst from Los Angeles. Lisa has appeared on leading American news organizations including Fox News, Front Page Magazine, Newsmax Magazine, NPR, Daily News, Wall Street Journal, NBC, Voice of America, Russia Today, Wikistrat and PBS. As a rising figure on the American media scene, Lisa is firmly focused on bringing the human side of the stories to the foreground. She believes that “politics do not come alive until their human impact is felt.” 

Born in New Jersey to Persian Jewish parents, Lisa is fluent in Persian, Hebrew, and English, and speaks Spanish, which, in her words are “reflective” of her family’s values and emphasis on culture and its role in one’s upbringing. Lisa obtained her undergraduate degree in Middle Eastern studies, Spanish literature and vocal performance at Rutgers University and later moved to the west coast, where she obtained her Masters degree at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism.

Where were you born? Tell us about your family background.

I was born and raised in Paramus, New Jersey, a suburb of New York City, to Iranian parents who had fond memories of a pre-Revolutionary Iran and who were committed to raising their children with knowledge of Iranian history, culture and language. My parents would frequently paint vivid pictures of what Iran was like to the point that I could imagine seeing the colorful arrangements of the mosaics of Isfahan and smell the corn on the cob sold by street vendors in Tehran. These were our dinner table conversations. I inherited a peculiar nostalgia for something I had never seen or experienced.

Where did you attend school?

I completed my undergraduate degree in Middle Eastern studies, Spanish literature and vocal performance at Rutgers University.  At the time, I did not know what I wanted to spend the rest of my adult life doing. I enjoyed many things and with the blessing of my supportive parents, I allowed myself to delve a bit deeper. I became an emergency medical technician and volunteered on an ambulance corps. I worked in a law office, sang at Lincoln Center, taught ESL and LSAT prep courses on campus, and held jobs in the fashion business while simultaneously studying toward completion of three very different majors that would not lead me to any specific career choice. Ultimately, I realized that my passion was in journalism, or more specifically, in the research, study and presentation of various subjects, and even more specifically, in telling human stories. I then moved across the country and attended graduate school at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism.

How did you end up in journalism? What specific areas do you cover?

I seldom have the opportunity to tell about the exact moments that led me to my final decision to study journalism and focus on the Middle East and Counterterrorism. While I always had a passion for writing and public speaking, I never imagined that I would dedicate my career to journalism. I was taking the LSAT, the law school entrance exam, a block from the site of the Twin Towers attack only a month after September 11, 2001. Because of the attack, the area, which would soon be known as Ground Zero, was closed, and I had to spend the night before the exam in a hotel nearby. As I checked into the hotel, I realized I was the only civilian there. All other guests were police, detectives, FBI and other government officials who came from all over the United States to help with the clean-up and aftermath of the attack. That night, the last thing on my mind was the following morning’s exam. Even if I wanted to forget where I was, the smell of dead bodies and burnt rubble remained in the air as a pervasive reminder. I spent the night in the lobby speaking to different agents, asking them about their experiences and what they saw. I should have been going off to bed as it was getting late, but I was glued to these stories. There I was, on October 11, a small radius away from Ground Zero. I knew the opportunity was a historic one for me personally and would reverberate down the line. I just didn’t know how.

Who would you name among your sources of inspiration in your career?

My main sources of inspiration come from my own parents. I idolize my father who has always instilled within my siblings and I the importance of education and following through with our goals. He left his own family at a very young age to come to this country alone with the dream of one day becoming a doctor.  My mother has always been incredibly supportive of my work and inspires me to live up to the values and ideals by which she lives. She has always taught me to work very hard, but more importantly, to treat everyone I meet along the way with respect and kindness.

Throughout your career you have chosen to work independently. Explain why?

My interests in Iran and the Middle East were born very early in life. I questioned why we couldn’t live in Iran and why young Iranian people like me could not live freely as I do. When I was in grade school, I always chose to write any research papers on Iran to educate my classmates. Later, as I witnessed the tragic events of 9/11, I felt that the important stories that would put into context what this country was experiencing were again absent.  When I became a journalist, I was fueled to tell these stories and make differences in the lives of my people and many other people in the region. My goal was to be a voice for the voiceless, and I realized early on in my career that staying with one outlet would minimize the opportunities I had to tell these stories.

What news media outlets and networks are you affiliated with? What are the challenges, if any, of offering your expertise to multiple news media outlets?

I am currently affiliated with Fox News, Front Page Magazine, Newsmax Magazine, NPR, Daily News, Wall Street Journal, NBC, Voice of America, Russia Today, PBS and Wikistrat, which is a geopolitical strategy consulting firm.  Other than keeping me very busy, I would say that working across multiple outlets, both left and right wing affiliated organizations, only reinforces the importance of the Middle East and specifically Iran in the news media.

How do you think being an Iranian woman or a woman of Iranian descent has played itself out in your career?

As an Iranian woman living in the United States, I have constantly been cognizant of my freedom and the additional opportunities that are available to me. I have been blessed to come from a family of extremely hard-working and enlightened individuals. My grandmother frequently reminds me that if she grew up in this country, she would run for President. Growing up, I tried to seek out opportunities to study language, music, sports, all in an effort to become well rounded and to engage in activities that I knew at the time, were not available to all women. As a journalist, I prioritize stories about women’s rights and crimes against women, particularly in Iran. I remember doing many television appearances on the case of a woman who was sentenced to death by stoning for cheating on her husband in Iran. The ban on Saudi women driving was also an important story.

As an Iranian Jew, do you see or cover aspects of Iran and its socio-political life that perhaps others don’t?

I definitely am drawn to stories about religious persecution in the Middle East. For those who follow my work, the persecution of Christian converts in Iran has been a cornerstone of my work over the past few years. Likewise, I’d like to shed light on Baha’i persecution. Perhaps coming from a religious minority, I feel a certain degree of empathy for these groups, but I think these days Iranians both inside and outside Iran are united against a draconian political system that has suffocated its population across religious, cultural, social and gender lines.

How do you think the Arab Spring will impact women’s social status in the Arab/Islamic world? Are you an optimist?

As a whole, I am not very optimistic about the political outcomes of the Arab Spring, as we are beginning to witness. However, I am optimistic about the future of women across the globe. Although they may be marginalized from the formal developments of nation building in these countries, the truth is that women were on the frontlines; they are reading and writing; they are becoming educated and are asking for their rights. They may be suffocated now, but the truth cannot be suppressed forever. The reality of the situation is that the Middle East region is erupting and begging to be brought to the dawn of modernity. Women will not be left behind for long.

Ten years from now, what kind of an Iran do you envision in your mind?

I tend to be very positive about the future of Iran. I believe in the ability of Iranians to create a better future. I speak to dozens of people across the population spectrum in Iran every week. They are a large population of young, sophisticated, tech-savvy, educated people who believe in freedom and equality. I believe that they have the determination and tools to make significant changes that will mean a new Iran for us all.