Tehran – Fatemeh Daneshvar moves easily around the room as she speaks of her accomplishments, pausing at one point to admire a photo of her children, and at another to flip through a glossy magazine packed with images of some of the thousands of women her charity has aided.
Daneshvar, 43, now counts seven major businesses to her name, having spent years pursuing a successful career in the male-dominated mining industry. She serves on Tehran’s city council and the Iranian chamber of commerce, and has authored dozens of reports on the social problems plaguing Iran, from addiction to child labour. She donates one-fourth of her income to her own charity, Mehrafarin, which supports women and children whose fathers have abandoned them.
But of all that Daneshvar has achieved over the years, she is proudest of her work with Iran’s street kids. She runs a programme to train and support dozens of exceptional orphans, giving them a chance to succeed in the broader community.
“Once, they were just yearning for a basket of fruit; now, they want to be astronauts, the best physicists of the world,” Daneshvar tells Al Jazeera from inside her Tehran office.
Daneshvar has done all of this while raising four young children alongside her husband and business partner, and she openly acknowledges that it has not always been an easy road. Along the way, she faced resistance from traditionalist members of Iran’s business community – but she persisted, citing a need to send a message to other women in the country.
Daneshvar recently sat down with Al Jazeera to speak about how she found success in a male-dominated industry, while also challenging Western stereotypes of what it means to be a woman in Iran.
Al Jazeera: What initially drew you to the business world?
Fatemeh Daneshvar: I did my MA in the field of business management and later decided to do business for myself. I was single at the time, but it wasn’t quite something normal in Iranian culture, which was male-dominated in the business field – especially in mining and importing/exporting.
But I entered the mining industry sector and started exporting mining materials to different countries. My business took off and I got very successful.
Later on, I realised I’d gotten a lot of attention as the only woman active in this field. I realised that I’m quite different from others because of some of the virtues I have, like self-confidence, risk-taking and audacity.
The first business deal I made, I made a $2m deal, but all I had was $200. People wanted to know how on Earth I did that. I explained that it was through the art of negotiations.
Al Jazeera: What challenges have you faced while navigating this male-dominated world?
Daneshvar: I was always committed to setting goals and prioritising my goals, and I tried to look at them from above. Then, I always told myself: “That’s nothing, let’s do it.”
Among those objectives was bringing four children into the world. I made those children at the height of my business and I was quite busy, but it happened and I am very happy for that – two boys and two girls.
It was like an earthquake across the country, that in a totally male-dominated field, a woman has gotten this vote. It was like a thunderbolt.
At that time, it came to my mind to become a member of the business chamber of Iran. There was no female member of the mining industry at the chamber. When I signed up, the senior members made fun of me, saying no such “young lady” should come to this field. They teased me that I should leave; I was pregnant at the time with twins and very busy.
But in the election of the chamber, I got the second-highest vote. It was like an earthquake across the country, that in a totally male-dominated field, a woman has gotten this vote. It was like a thunderbolt.
I received a lot of calls from male members of the chamber that I should resign, and that they could not accept a woman presiding over them. I sometimes got very tired and fed up with these kinds of calls, but I thought if I do resign, it’s a kind of betrayal to the women in our society.
Instead, I made way for others: There are currently three other women chairing specialised committees.
Al Jazeera: Do you believe there are misconceptions in the West about what life is like for women living under Islamic rule?
Daneshvar: There is a huge misconception about women in Iran from a Western perspective. When I’ve travelled to different countries, I’ve realised that Iranian women are extremely highly educated and enjoy many more freedoms that in some of these other countries. But these misconceptions persist.
In a country like Iran, women have a delicate conduct with their husbands. They shouldn’t weaken their husband to strengthen themselves.
My husband has been a great partner, especially for raising children. When I’ve had to be away from home dealing with my business, he has filled that gap for me. He has been a great father and is wonderful with the children. This is another key to success, having a supportive partner.
Al Jazeera: What would you say are the most pressing social problems facing Iran today?
Daneshvar: Addiction and unemployment. These two are the root causes of many of the problems that I personally have seen, the social crimes and social harms.
Our country is neighbouring Afghanistan, where many of the drugs are produced, and it is a transit route for drugs to Europe and Western countries. In the process, a lot of Iranian youth can become addicted to these types of drugs, and this leads to many social problems and social issues. We have divorce, we have family problems; we have many, many issues resulting from this. What is especially worrisome is the addiction among women, which should be tackled very seriously, because they are involved in child-bearing.
The country’s senior authorities have always been very sensitive to this, but recently senior officials have paid a lot more attention to the issue, and many rehabilitation camps have been launched. Such efforts have been cumulatively increasing.
Al Jazeera: What’s your advice for women and girls who want to follow in your footsteps?
Daneshvar: I always advise them, the number one enemy is fear. Do not be scared, no matter what. And always think about yourself – set goals and objectives for yourself. Try to know thyself first.
I’m indebted to my spiritual intelligence. Because of the way my family raised me, I fear nothing but God. That’s why I always take risks and do things that many people do not do.
This Q&A was adapted from a translated interview and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Follow Megan O’Toole on Twitter: @megan_otoole