Wilson Center Experts

Haleh Esfandiari

Director, Middle East Program
Middle East Program

Contact Information:
T 202/691-4259 // F 202/691-4001
Gender Equality
Women's Rights
Middle East and North Africa


Dr. Haleh Esfandiari is currently the Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. From 1995-1996, she was a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Dr. Esfandiari has taught Persian language at Oxford University. She also taught Persian language, contemporary Persian literature as well as courses on the women's movement in Iran while at Princeton University from 1980 to 1994. Prior to Princeton, she served as Deputy Secretary General of the Women's Organization of Iran. She was also the Deputy Director of a cultural foundation where she was responsible for the activities of several museums and art and cultural centers. She also worked as a journalist in Iran and taught at the College of Mass Communication in Tehran.

Dr. Esfandiari is the author of Reconstructed Lives: Women and Iran's Islamic Revolution (1997), editor of Iranian Women: Past, Present and Future (1977), the co-editor of The Economic Dimensions of Middle Eastern History (1990), and of the multi-volume memoirs of the famed Iranian scholar, Ghassem Ghani. Among her other writings are chapters in the books: In the Eye of the Storm: Women in Post-Revolutionary Iran (1992), Iran at the Crossroads (2001), Middle Eastern Women on the Move (2003) and Islam and Democracy in the Middle East (2003).

Her articles have appeared in essay collections in a number of books as well as in Foreign Policy, Journal of Democracy, Princeton Papers in Near Eastern Studies, New Republic, Wilson Quarterly, Chronicle of Higher Education and Middle East Review. Her Op-Ed pieces include “Held in My Homeland” (September 2007) and “Tehran's Self-Fulfilling Paranoia” (August 2009) in the Washington Post and "U.S. Hikers and Iran's Maze" (October 2010) in the Los Angeles Times. She has also written for blogs and websites such as the New York Review of Books Blog with “Iran’s Harshest Sentence for an Innocent Scholar” (October 2009), “Iran’s Women of War” (January 2010), “Iran’s Interrupted Lives” (September 2010), “Iran’s State of Fear” (March 2011), “In the Jaws of the Mullahs” (November 2011), and “Iran’s Man in the Middle” (June 2013), as well as “Why Iran Freed Roxana Saberi” (May 2009) in the Daily Beast, “Misreading Tehran: The Real Impact of the Elections” (June 2010) in Foreign Policy, “Iran: The State of Fear” (April 2011) in the New York Review of Books, “The End of Illusion” in the blog of the New Republic (October 2011), “Iran Curtails Female Education” in The Iran Primer blog (August 2012), “Breaking Taboos” in the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program’s Viewpoints series (November 2013), as well as pieces for the New York Times’ “Room for Debate” series (August 2013 and March 2014).

Dr. Esfandiari has also edited the proceedings of conferences sponsored by the Middle East Program which include: "Women in Central Asia: A Turn of the Century Assessment" (2001), "Symposium on Palestinian Refugees" (2001), “ Middle Eastern Women on the Move” (2001), "Intellectual Change and the New Generation of Iranian Intellectuals" (2001), "An Assessment of the Iranian Presidential Elections" (2002), “More Than Victims: The Role of Women in Conflict Prevention” (2002), “Winning the Peace: Women’s Role in Post-Conflict Iraq” (2003), “Post-Khatami Iran” (2004), “Women, Muslim Laws and Human Rights in Nigeria” (2004), “The ‘Strategic Partnership’ Between India and Iran” (2004), “Political Transition in Afghanistan: The State, Islam and Civil Society” (2004), “Building a New Iraq: Women’s Role in Reconstruction” (2004), “The Status of Women in the Middle East” (2005), "A Troubled Triangle: Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan" (2005), “Building a New Iraq: Ensuring Women’s Rights” (2005), "Iran After the June 2005 Presidential Election" (2005), “A View from the Region: Different Perspectives on Israel’s War with Lebanon’s Hizbullah” (2006), “Regional Strategies for Empowering Women” (2006), “Reformist Women Thinkers in the Islamic World” (2009), “Secularism in the Muslim Diaspora” (2009), “Vanguard: Women in the Iranian Election Campaign and Protest” (2009), “The Iranian Presidential Elections: What Do They Tell Us?” (2010), “Islamic Feminism and Beyond: The New Frontier” (2010), “Iran: Turmoil at Home, Assertiveness Abroad? (2011), “Is the Arab Awakening Marginalizing Women?” (2012), and “The Arab Awakening: Is Democracy a Mirage?” (2012).

Dr. Esfandiari is the first recipient of a yearly award established in her name, the Haleh Esfandiari Award. This award was presented to Dr. Esfandiari by a group of businesswomen and activists from countries across the Middle East and North Africa region on the occasion of a conference sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center, “Women Entrepreneurs: Business and Legal Reform in the MENA Region,” held in Amman, Jordan in May 2008. Her other awards include: a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grant (1997); the Special American Red Cross Award (2008); the Women's Equality Award from the National Council of Women's Organizations (2008); and Miss Hall’s School Woman of Distinction Award (2009). In December 2008, she became one of three first annual recipients of the Project on Middle East Democracy’s “Leader for Democracy” award.

Dr. Esfandiari received her Ph.D. from the University of Vienna and holds an honorary degree from Georgetown University Law Center (2008). She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Dr. Esfandiari serves on the Board of the Peace Research Endowment and on the board of advisors for the Project on Middle East Democracy. She was featured in Parade magazine (May 2008), in O, the Oprah Winfrey magazine (November 2008), and in Vogue magazine (August 2009).

Her memoir, My Prison, My Home, based on Esfandiari’s arrest by the Iranian security authorities in 2007, after which she spent 105 days in solitary confinement in Tehran’s Evin Prison, was published in September 2009 by Ecco Press, an imprint of Harper Collins. The paperback edition was released in October 2010.



Ph.D., University of Vienna


Recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Grant

Major Publications

  • My Prison, My Home: One Woman's Story of Captivity in Iran (Ecco, 2009; paperback 2010)
  • “Tehran's Self-Fulfilling Paranoia” (August 2009) in the Washington Post
  • “Iran’s Harshest Sentence for an Innocent Scholar” (October 2009); “Iran’s Women of War” (January 2010); and “Iran’s Interrupted Lives” (September 2010) in NYRblog
  • “Misreading Tehran: The Real Impact of the Elections” (June 2010) in Foreign Policy
  • "U.S. Hikers and Iran's Maze" (October 2010) in the Los Angeles Times
  • “Iran: The State of Fear” (April 2011) in the New York Review of Books


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