7:30AM BST 04 Jun 2013
British-Iranian comedian Omid Djalili is gearing up to launch Prison Poems tonight, a collection of work written by a former teacher currently behind bars in Iran’s notorious Evin prison ‘simply for her faith’. He speaks to Louisa Peacock about the strict Islamic regime, the treatment of women at home and abroad and about being a ‘male feminist’.
There’s a joke Omid Djalili tells in his stand-up routine, which always gets a good laugh and which he repeats to me almost immediately after we meet. “I usually get called misogynistic, usually by women, and what do they know? They’re not even men,” he serves up proudly. Making light of hard-hitting issues from sexism to terrorism is what Djalili does best.
Tonight, the charming and likeable British-Iranian comedian who’s used to making people laugh, has a tough sell, however. He’ll be standing up in front of an academic London crowd to talk about an anthology of poems, written by a 55 year-old former teacher, currently incarcerated in Iran’s infamous Evin prison. She (along with six others) was imprisoned five years ago this month “simply for her faith” and her poems shed light on Iran’s strict Islamic regime. Sure, Djalili’s joked about injustice in Iran and the Middle East before, but to introduce Prison Poems to a crowd of intellectuals and book lovers as a serious topic is a somewhat daunting task.
In some ways, that’s why he’s doing it, Djalili tells me over a peppermint tea. Djalili is arguably the most famous Iranian comedian in Britain today, who happens to be a member of the same faith as the imprisoned teacher. He’s a Bahá’í. To even have him talking about the issue in the UK has the potential to raise far more awareness than the teacher could on her own. And he can do it in a way that is light-hearted enough to capture the imagination of the masses.
“For me, humour has always been a tool for rising above hateful situations and suffering. I have some jokes, some things up my sleeve, to highlight the absurdity on the night,” he says.
The story of the seven former leaders of the Bahá’í community, who were arrested in 2008 under “trumped up” charges, is also a subject close to his heart. Not long ago, Djalili’s uncle was held in the same prison for exactly the same reason: being a Bahá’í. It’s also the same reason the London-born comic will not travel to Iran, the country where his parents were born, for fear he will be locked up.
“The whole thing is ridiculous,” he says. “It’s nutty for me to take on the Iranian Government by myself, and I will be making a couple of humorous comments about it because it’s the only way. To have a comedian stand up and use the shield of irony and the sword of truth, you’re there to point out ridiculous things in society. Who better than a comedian to do that?”
There are over 100 Bahá’ís imprisoned in Iran today simply for their faith, he says. He is hoping that by raising awareness in the West of the seven leaders’ imprisonment, this particular “human rights campaign“ will put pressure on Iran to reduce each of their 20 year sentences – or stop them altogether. Hillary Clinton, William Hague and Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi (pictured) have made statements in the past highlighting the absurdity of the seven leaders’ punishment – for “doing nothing wrong”.
And yet all the while, the lady behind Prison Poems does not portray herself or Iranian women generally as victims. “These poems are a real positive statement of defiance; they are saying ‘we’re not victims, we’re not going to buckle’. From a feminist angle it’s interesting how they refuse to have any kind of victim status,” he says.
“The poet [Mahvash Sabet] wanted [her book] to be a snapshot of what goes on in a woman’s prison in Iran, as a Bahá’í but also generally. There are drug addicts, prostitutes, anyone that is imprisoned unjustly under that regime suffers – it’s her way of coping. But from a literary point of view, academics have praised her book for not being filled with ‘woe is me’ or ‘I’m the victim’. It’s tremendously uplifting. It’s not ‘screw you’.”
He believes that this sense of empowerment, and self-confidence – in the face of adversity – is a shining beacon of hope for any woman who is discriminated against purely for her gender, or what she believes in.
Djalili, the self-confessed “male feminist”, says he doesn’t believe man’s potential will be fulfilled until all women are treated equally as men.
“We live in a very male-dominated society, even in the UK. We live in an inherently sexist society, in the sense that a lot of women who get ahead do so through the sexualisation of everything.”
“The sexualisation of everything is there for women to try and get the men’s heads to turn,” he says. “Some women will have boob jobs and dress provocatively because the men will turn their heads …” He stops himself. “It’s uncomfortable to talk about it,” he says quietly, readjusting his position and taking a sip of tea.
“But it’s that kind of discrimination we have – I know from the casting couch, you see people, you see it in America, where the producers say, ‘we don’t want her, she’s not sexy enough’ and I say, ‘but the other actress was much better’. They say, ‘yeah, but is she going to get middle America to watch?'” In other words, her boobs aren’t big enough.
And he would know. Djalili, as well as being a stand-up comedian, is also an actor (appearing as Fagin in Oliver, and the likes of the James Bond movie The World Is Not Enough and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator), a TV producer and a writer. He has been on both sides of the commissioning fence long enough.
“The world is unconscious to this [sexism], I think the world is immature. It’s not about men having power and men being the best they can be. It’s only when there’s equality that’s when we’ll see men really flourish.”
Djalili is a fifth generation Bahá’í. He explains that the faith believes wholeheartedly in equality and is inoffensive, emphasising the spiritual unity of all humankind. “The Bahá’í message is so sweet; God, if he exists, is one; mankind is one. The Bahá’ís are a very moral, multicultural community.
‘All religions are from the same book’
“But they’ve always been the persecuted minority, since the Bahá’í faith started in the 19th century. Muslims believe in Moses, Christ, Buddha, but they say Mohammed was the last, everyone in the world should become Muslims. The Bahá’ís believe their prophet is the latest and not the last. All religions are different chapters in the same book.”
He adds: “From a human rights standpoint, these people [seven leaders] have done absolutely nothing wrong; it’s just the Iranian regime is so strong on people who have a slightly different belief. The poems don’t deny it’s awful, but are impressive and uplifting too.”
As an example, one poem reads: My heart aches, for you do not seem to know / The worth of that subtle inner star. / If only you could see the lovely one / Who lies prostrate in who you think you are.
As uplifting as the poems may be – and Sabet’s individual story – it’s often easier for the West to turn the other way when it comes to an intense, serious subject like this. Clinton and Hague may empathise with their plight, but religion and different beliefs have been the cause of so much pain, so much hardship – so many lives – in the Middle East and across the world, that it often becomes easier for people (who are living in a relatively peaceful democracy) to pass off the “injustice” of what’s happening to Bahá’ís in Iran as ‘just another religious clash’.
And if it is religion itself that gets blamed for crimes against humanity, then how does this help Sabet’s cause? Does religion itself have an image problem?
Djalili – a man known for pushing back cultural boundaries – believes religion has become “corrupted” by terrorists or strict regimes to fight a particular cause, which has given the whole of religion a bad name. Young people are being sent mixed messages about what faith means today and what it is to be religious. Is religion still relevant today – and if so, how can it be?
“We need to redefine the purpose of religion, understanding that the purpose is to improve the state of the world. Unless religion propels us to do something that advances civilisation as a whole, then there’s no point to it. Religion should be a tool working for the betterment of the world and addressing injustice.
“If people are fighting in the name of religion, then that’s nothing to do with religion at all.”
‘In the name of religion’
I meet Djalili less than a week after the horrific Woolwich attack, which saw solider Drummer Lee Rigby hacked to death, supposedly “in the name of religion”. One of the alleged murderers said the attack was “by Allah”, the Arabic word for God.
Djalili says: “What you’re seeing is terrorism, it’s a kind of mental illness – it’s got nothing to do with religion – but it’s a real symptom of how religion has become corrupted.”
The Bahá’í faith is all about renewal and serving society, Djalili explains. “A lot of my atheist friends say religion is irrelevant, it’s about your inner moral code instead. I agree with them – but at the same time, you have to articulate what that moral code is, and that changes with time.”
One very strong way that the Bahá’í faith serves humanity is by treating its men and women equally, Djalili argues. “Bahá’í is working towards the equality of men and women. Men will never really fulfil their potential until there’s equality. What we’re seeing in Iran now is a tragedy; Iran is hurting itself as a country, they’re holding themselves back. Once there is equality, that’s where men can really flourish.”
Iran’s treatment of women is seeing men “behave like animals”, he says. “I don’t know where it comes from, maybe it’s an animal instinct. I just know that humans are different from animals and things would be easier if we had equality.”
Omid Djalili will introduce Prison Poems at the National Bahá’í Centre in London on June 4, alongside the acclaimed writer Bahiyyih Nakhjavani.