Jackie Ballard, the outspoken former Liberal Democrat MP, has swapped the rolling Somerset countryside for a new life in Iran. After being narrowly defeated at the election, she has decided to move from Taunton to Tehran to work on a PhD and learn Farsi.
It has meant a dramatic change in lifestyle for the feminist, who has enthusiastically embraced a dress code of scarf and long coat as an alternative to the all-encompassing black chador. She said her new uniform was "liberating" and contrasted it with the business suits worn by women Labour MPs.
Ms Ballard, divorced with an adult daughter, quickly made an impact on the Liberal Democrat benches after she captured Taunton from the Conservatives in the 1997 election. Two years later she made a bid for the party leadership. But she lost by just 235 votes in June, a defeat widely blamed on her fierce opposition to fox-hunting.
Her interest in Iran dates from her student days at the London School of Economics, when she had an Iranian boyfriend. The idea of going there rose after an Iranian constituent who visited her with a visa problem.
Ms Ballard, 48, said: "I love the country and the people and, many years ago at university, there was a particular person." Four weeks into her stay in Iran, she has begun a PhD at Tehran University on the effects of the internet on Iranian society. She is also studying Islam, although she said she had no plans to convert from Christianity. She said: "When I first came here, I was hung up about the idea of wearing a headscarf. Only Vera Duckworth wears headscarves, I thought. But once I had gone out a few times, it became just something you do." Ms Ballard said she found her new garb "liberating", because she could wear anything she wanted under her coat.
"You don't have to worry about which suit to wear. I now have a bigger wardrobe of scarves than of suits. Underneath I can wear jeans and a T-shirt, or anything else for that matter." She said Western media tended to concentrate on images of Iranian women in chadors, rather than the millions who wore more colourful clothes. In Iran, she said, the chador is not compulsory.Reuse content