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Suzanne Kianpour: Elevating the voices of women of peace and power

Suzanne Kianpour is an Emmy-nominated BBC journalist. She has reported on the frontlines of conflict all around the world, with her recent work including coverage of the protests in Iran following the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini. Additionally, Kianpour is the creator and host of “Women Building Peace”, a BBC series that connects women trying to bring peace with lived experience in conflict zones with women who are globally influential. I collaborated with Io Oswald, who writes for Cherwell, to speak to Suzanne about her experience as a frontline journalist, the Iranian protests, and the future of civil action and conflict resolution. This transcript was originally published by Cherwell.

Thumbnail image source: Motivate Talent

Oswald: As a young person, you were interested in politics and international relations. How did you decide on journalism as the best way of expressing your political voice?

Kianpour: I was actually told never to tell this story by one of my bosses, which is exactly why I'm going to tell it. When I was in about fourth grade, I don't know what that is in UK school standards, but I was about nine or ten, and we had Current Affairs Friday. So we had an assignment every Friday where we had to go and take a newspaper and find an article and clip it off and hand write a summary of the article and then present it in front of the class. And I loved Fridays specifically because I got to look forward to this. I basically do this for a living now.

I grew up during an era of a lot of conflict, and I just realised how important documenting history is and how important being an impartial witness is. That's really what drove my decision to go into this part of journalism. Of course, I was just getting started in journalism when the Arab Spring happened. And then the rise of ISIS. My first real foreign posting was in Lebanon, and it was quiet when I arrived. And then suddenly next thing you know, there's this Islamic extremist group that was wreaking havoc across the region and they're chopping heads off an hour away from where I was living in Beirut.

Kianpour reporting from the streets of Beirut. Image source: The Fund for American Studies

Oswald: How has the world of journalism changed since the time when you came into it?

Kianpour: I mean, so much. Now there are so many outlets, and it seems like every day somebody's starting a new news outlet and it's great. And there's a whole other ecosystem when it comes to social media and new social media outlets coming up, and I see the upside in that. Particularly in my work, it has never been easier for sources and contacts to get in touch with journalists.

When I first started in journalism, the U.S. economy was in the worst recession since the Great Depression. So, my family thought it was crazy - I had just graduated from university and education was pretty expensive in the U.S. And so they're thinking, oh, great she’s going to go and get this great high-paying job. And then I called them and said, Guys, I have a job. I'm working at NBC News, which is like working for the BBC here. And they said, Oh, that's wonderful. What are you doing? I said I’m working in the mail room. I'm delivering mail. But I said, Listen, you have to do anything to get your foot in the door. I said I promise it'll work out. And sure enough, a year later, I was following Obama around and meeting Kobe Bryant. And so it did work out, it led me here. But at that time, I didn't have as many options. I had to do what I could. Now students interested in journalism have so many options.

Also, I think with the emergence of A.I.—well, I shouldn’t say it’s the emergence of AI because it has obviously been around for a while—but with the sophistication that now exists, I think the media landscape is going to change even more. I personally think it's a positive development. Others might not agree.

Oswald: How do you see the role of journalism changing with AI?

Kianpour: The reason why I think it's a good thing is people will pay for good content. Because of this fear of A.I., there's less room for mediocrity. Everyone has to be on their game, and thinking creatively. You need to be thinking about what you can deliver to your audience that a robot can’t. It's really as simple as that. People will pay for good content and they don't need to be afraid of A.I., it’s not going to take all of our jobs. It’s going to take the jobs that keep us from being able to do our jobs in the way that we really want to. I really see it as helping with the busy work, frankly. And I say that as somebody who hosted an episode of the BBC's inquiry, which was all about killer robots and the rise of AI in warfare, and I am still optimistic. So I think that's saying something.

Oswald: You've been to many countries and have had an extremely broad career. How do you change your approach to navigate those shifts between cultures in your journalism?

Kianpour: I think that being from a diverse cultural background has been an asset for me, particularly. My dad's family is Iranian, and so when I have been speaking to foreign policy officials who are not exactly friends with the US, and they've found out that I'm Iranian, there's an element of intrigue, but there's maybe less mistrust. As a woman, you have better chances of getting the stories of the women who are in the war zones. Oftentimes they have the most profound stories, but they're less likely to open up to men. So I'm grateful that I've come from a background where I can sort of manoeuvre between cultures. But even in the U.S., some parts of the country just feel like a completely different world to others. Being from the southern part of the country, when Donald Trump was elected and I was doing stories about MAGA country, I would approach people and they would first see me with a bit of suspicion because they would say they saw that BBC as a bit of an elitist organisation because Trump was really big on pumping up the whole fake news thing. But then when they would find out that I'm from Georgia, they would soften. And so I think as a journalist, it's good to tap into the parts of what makes you who you are and your identity, not only to empathise with your subjects, the subjects of your stories, but also be able to make them feel safe and put them in a position to soften.

Kianpour reporting in the US as part of her BBC documentary, 'America’s Place in the World’. Image source: BBC

Oswald: You've done a lot of work in your journalism on uplifting women's voices and finding their stories, which has been really quite inspiring and fascinating. I was wondering, as a female journalist, have you ever struggled with asserting or demanding your legitimacy in those kinds of political spaces?

Kianpour: Oh, yeah, definitely. I mean, I've found that sometimes it's good if you're underestimated because then they're off their game and you can use that to your advantage. I've taken that to work for me rather than, you know, getting offended by it. And I think one's work speaks for itself.

And it's also one of the reasons why I felt that it was important for particularly women in conflict’s stories to be amplified. One of the roots of “Women Building Peace” was because I was going to these conflict zones and I was talking to these women and I didn't see them. I didn't see those stories amplified. There was this U.N. statistic that came out pretty shortly before my series debuted on the BBC. It was that to this day, only 25% of stories have women as the subject. This was in early 2022. Yet women don't make up 25% of the world's population. So, I mean, we still have work to do. I got so much positive feedback after that series launched and representation matters, so amplifying the stories of women not only in leadership but also connecting them with women in the conflict zones and literally facilitating the conversation between two people who would normally not have access to each other lifts them up. And we need more of that. And I hope to contribute to more of that. I hope that more women join me in contributing to more of that and stay tuned.

Wong: I actually wanted to ask about your views on the protests in Iran. You’ve done a lot of reporting on it—could you just give our listeners a bit of context? How are they going right now and what do you think is the future of these protests? Kianpour: So I’ve just recently published an article in Politico magazine called “The Women of Iran Are Not Backing Down” and that stands. I believe I also ended that article with ‘this genie is not going back in the bottle’, and it’s not. This revolution is a revolution, and it is the first women-led revolution. Iran is no stranger to protests; whether it’s Iran when it was to the monarchy, or Iran under the rule of the Islamic Republic. But this time it’s led by the women, it’s supported by men, and the regime is losing ground and they know they’re losing ground, and therefore they know they have to reform. There are factions within the regime who have admitted this and are advising the supreme leader. I’ve had sources tell me this who have knowledge of these conversations and have had the conversations themselves. When you get to that point, this is why I very confidently say that this genie is not going back in the bottle. As it stands, the hijab, which is what sparked protests, has been rebelled against for a long time. In the opening of the article, I talked about my last trip to Iran which was in 2007 and even then, my cousin and I were also part of the rebellion because we were trying to wear as little hijab as possible. I saw how the women were quietly protesting using fashion, frankly. They were slowly pulling at the thread of the hijab which would eventually begin to unravel one of the pillars of the regime, and that is what’s happening now and they know that, and that’s why they’re in crisis mode. I think we have to continue to see how it unfolds, but it’s not a matter of “change is coming”—change has already happened, change is in the past. Women are just going out in the streets not wearing hijab. They’re trying to find all these ways to enforce it and enforce the law, basically, and women don’t care. The ones who don’t want to wear it aren’t wearing it and the ones who do want to wear it are. Some say it’s over because they’re not pouring into the streets like they were in the fall, but that’s not true—a revolution isn’t “you’re in the streets marching every single day”. We’ll see how it unfolds.

Cover image of Kianpour's article published by POLITICO, 'The Women of Iran Are Not Backing Down'. Image source: Franziska Barczyk for POLITICO

Wong: I read the article, it was really good. I just wanted to pick up on something you said about the women themselves leading the protests—how does that specifically contribute to the longevity of the revolution? Kianpour: I think it’s a battle of the wills, right? The authorities are banking on the women giving up, and they’re not going to give up. I’ve had conversations with people who have been non-political for most of their lives and now are suddenly political. This isn’t a political movement—and by political, I mean they’re saying “we don’t want the regime”. It’s less about politics; it’s about civil rights. The regime really miscalculated, quite frankly, in its crackdown. They thought they would get away with what they’ve gotten away with in the past, but nobody is forgetting the number of people who have died. The women, the kids, the men—nobody’s forgetting that, so that doesn’t just go away. That’s why women are continuing to lead the charge. What prompted the protests, what was the match that lit this up? I’ve been living in Dubai, part-time at least, and it felt like living in a tinderbox in the Fall. I thought, because I was also hosting this documentary on the Iran-Israel shadow war, I thought that it was a miscalculation in the covert war between Iran and Israel, but it wasn’t. It was a routine detention of a woman who wasn’t wearing her hijab properly. This is an important distinction—it’s not that she wasn’t wearing a hijab at all, she just wasn’t wearing it properly. They detained her, which happens all the time, and it went wrong. And that was it. Wong: I also wanted to pick up on something in the “Women Building Peace” series—I listened to the episode on the Colombian peace agreement. What do you think women-centric conflict resolution looks like, and do you think it’s a trend we can expect to continue seeing in the future, or is it still very tentative? Kianpour: Well, I hope that we see more of it in the future. I think that the reason why we decided to do an episode on Colombia even though Latin America is largely ignored by the world’s media unless it’s something going off in Venezuela—I’m thinking specifically of American news—that was the perfect example of why women need to be at the table when it comes to peace negotiations. But also, we often speak a lot about women in peace; I did a story of women in the Iran nuclear deal, the women who actually brought home the Iran nuclear deal. But I also want to focus on the role of women in power when it comes to building peace. That’s what it really comes down to. There is power in being able to be at a table to bring about peace. I think up until now there’s been the idea that “peacebuilding is safe, let’s allow the women to do it”. Now we’re seeing that actually, this is quite effective. I think, to go back to the women of Iran, there was a huge coup. This cohort of women managed to get Iran kicked off the UN Committee for Protection of Women’s Rights, which is pretty ironic. That in and of itself is an example of why women should have a seat at this table. Wong: I was actually going to ask you about that coup from the UN: what role do you think international organisations like the UN have to play in these protests? Do you think they’ve made a significant impact, or what more could they be doing? Kianpour: I mean, people will debate this and they’ll say how much that means. But I think particularly when it comes to Iran, so much of the hold on power is psychological. Psychologically speaking, that was a defeat for the regime. Obviously, when it comes to a hands-on approach, there’s a lot of debate around that—particularly around violations of human rights, which is what they’re looking at right now in terms of what mechanisms they can use in order to hold the perpetrators of human rights violations in Iran specifically, but also elsewhere in Ukraine, accountable. But the UN is a bureaucracy; that’s why its efficacy as an organisation has historically been called into question—Donald Trump is one of them, right? But then we see the victories of the women who took this case to the UN and succeeded.

At the end of the day, everybody is on the same page—whether they’re in the diaspora, or whether they’re inside the country, or the UN, or the US government, or the UK government, everyone is in agreement that the future of the country lies in the hands of the people living inside the country. They all live in the shadow of the 1953 coup which has really been weaponised, in a way, by the regime to reinforce the idea that the West is just coming in to meddle. There are a lot of discrepancies with that story, but that’s another conversation.

An image purported to be of a protest inside Iran. Image source: BBC

Wong: On the topic of protests more broadly, you recently posted on your stories about social media as the new organising tool for protests. What do you think is the role of social media in protests now, and how do you think they’ll shape the evolution of protests in the future? Kianpour: I think I also posted this on my social media that there are days where I’m so sick of social media, and I’m just like “why do I have to keep this up?” But then I remember why—because it’s literally a lifeline for people like the Afghan woman who we called ‘Lama’ to protect her identity at the time. Now she’s out of the country, she’s continuing her studies in exile, and she’s holding UN officials’ feet to the fire. The reason why she made it onto my first episode about Afghanistan and women’s education in Afghanistan where she had a conversation with Hillary Clinton—Hillary Clinton actually just retweeted her the other day and she was really cute, she was freaking out about it as you would—was that she contacted me on Twitter.

It’s a whole separate thing, but this is why social media’s important, verification is important. Elon Musk is throwing all of this up in the air and there’s a lot of debate about this right now. But all of that is important because this is a tool for getting your voice heard. For the women of Iran, the 2009 Green Revolution, which was a political movement about having the right to free and fair elections, was the Twitter revolution. That really put Twitter on the map—it was the Iranian revolution and political campaign that got Twitter on the map. And then the Arab Spring came after and solidified it. This time around, the women-led revolution in Iran is on Instagram. It’s all Instagram, and so much of the reporting I’ve done came from random people just sending me DMs and voice notes. At one point when the protests were happening every single day and it was really bloody, I was waking up to voice notes every single day. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t know what was happening in Iran even though I was 70 kilometres away from it because I couldn’t get in; they weren’t letting Western journalists in. And so social media is a really important tool—I find it as a double-edged sword, and it’s here to stay. It’ll evolve, but it’s here to stay. Wong: As more protests take place on social media, do you think there are any forms of activism on social media that are performative, or is that a distinction that isn’t worth drawing? Kianpour: Yes, I think unfortunately in activism and journalism and all kinds of ‘ism’s, there is the performative. But I think at the end of the day when it comes to human rights it is the journalist’s job to sift through the performative. I think performative is inevitable no matter where you go and no matter what you’re doing and who you’re talking to. Wong: I also just wanted to ask—and this is kind of bringing in things from “Women Building Peace” and the articles you’ve written about the desire of the Iranian people to keep telling their stories—what’s the role that storytelling plays in advocacy? Kianpour: There was a time when a friend told another friend that they had heard this amazing podcast called “Women Building Peace” and it was the Ethiopia episode. It was so moving that they had to turn in to pull over into a driveway and continue listening to it. When I hear stuff like that as feedback to the journalism that I’ve put out into the world, I realise how important storytelling is. It’s not just the story—it’s also how you tell it. For me, for “Women Building Peace”, it was of utmost priority to really focus on the stories of the people living the story on the ground in the conflict zone. Some of the episodes were post-conflict—as you know, Colombia and Bosnia. It’s about the story and the person and what they’ve experienced. There’s this quote that I can’t remember now, but I love this quote and think about it often and I think it’s a big part of why I do what I do: “tell the story of the mountain you climbed because it could be a page in somebody else’s survival guide”. I think that that can resonate across so many different kinds of stories. Joan Didion said “we tell ourselves stories in order to survive”. Storytelling is so important and I think it’s important to be protected and that’s why I keep doing what I’m doing.

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