Crisis in Iranian Women's Studies
By: Golbarg Bashi, 15 July 2005
Research student; University of Bristol, United Kingdom
Iranian Women's Studies Foundation's 16th International Conference, Vienna, Austria (8-10th July 2005)
First of all I would like to give my thanks to the Vienna team for their hard work. I want to praise and raise Ms Golnaz Amin to the skies for having established the IWSF and for her continued soul-drenching work to uphold IWSF and its conferences. I would also like to thank every team which has taken on the demanding task of organising this annual international conference for the past 16 years (with very limited resources and heaps of difficulties).
Iranian women's studies is - as we all know too well - an immensely contested area of inquiry.
Perhaps IWSF conferences represent this divergence all too visibly, that is the clash of interests between the "radical" political activists and the "other" feminist research community as well as the second generation Iranian women and girls who are used to debating in democratic/open forums.
The latest IWSF conference in Vienna was more chaotic and verbally abusive than ever. To put it crudely, the verbal abuse is targeted at women who do not start or end their speech with "marg bar jumhuri-ye eslami", and toward those who wish to hear about different research projects in Iran and who allow *different voices* to be heard.
Like many others, I have been attending IWSF conferences in the past 5 years and find them more and more exhausting, if not sometimes crippling for the research topic and even for the activism (it's stagnating).
The majority of the "radical regulars" of the IWSF conference are allergic to anyone who is doing anything else that actively "throwing stones at the Mullahs". Women in Iran who are trying their very best to not only survive but make a living as e.g. academics (Mehrangiz Kar before she left Iran, Shirin Ebadi and many others) are seen as a collaborator and compared often to Nazi torturers. An imminent scholar, Dr Shamsosadat Zahedi of Allameh Tabatabi University in Iran who presented her work on Saturday in Vienna was laughed at, shouted at, and was called a Nazi. See her work and judge for yourself if she qualifies as a Nazi:
So work of "non-radical leftist" feminists and especially academics is more than often underestimated, discouraged and threatened in the IWSF conferences.
The most moderate of the "radical regulars" say, "so and so did not need to go out and conduct research for 4 years on reasons behind women's absence in managerial positions in Iran, she could have come and asked me, and I would have said "listen honey, Islam is fundamentally corrupt and you don't need to do your research".
They thus suggest that no analytical and theoretical work should be done in Iran's stark Islamic reality (they seem to live in Disney land). They seem to suggest that 70 million people should sulk in Iran (ghahr konand), or become radical political activists and set themselves on fire. People should be allowed to make a living in Iran, and reform their country in ways they know best, even if you and I think differently. We cannot impose political imperialism upon 35 million women, or can we? How dare we sit comfortably in Berlin or Stockholm and patronise and actively fight them? I agree that radical lobbyism is needed in Iran too, but 35 million women can not all choose this avenue. I'd like to hear about all types of work in and outside Iran, this is how we all can grow. Or should we all just invite our chums whose words are music to our ears?
I thought that at last there was one place one could go to hear about new research on Iranian women, especially from inside Iran itself. Women activists and academics in Iran are thirsty for exchange of ideas, and need to come out and share their work with us, but when they do, a lot of them are verbally abused, bullied and shut out by the "radical regulars" in exile.
The hope is that at least the second generation panel (young women) in the IWSF will continue to propagate academic freedom and pluralism of ideas which they have done very successfully. Well done to the free spirit and open-mindedness of Ms Afra Afsharipour who despite being a very busy Iranian-American lawyer organises this panel every year (voluntary like all the other IWSF teams)!
I believe that the clash we experienced during the Vienna conference is a serious one and is something that needs to be re-negotiated and discussed. We CANNOT afford to alienate women from attending/contributing to this conference!
We cannot afford to loose heavy weights of Iranian Women's Studies from seeing this conference as a credible one. I no longer see their names appearing, but they have more than anyone else brought forward the plight of Iranian Women across the world and they are busy publishing: Haleh Afshar, Valentine Moghadam, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Haideh Moghissi, Mehrangiz Kar, Parvin Paidar, Janet Afary, Nayereh Tohidi and many many more! Nor can we deprive women academics from Iran from sharing their research findings with us: even if their work is conducted in the framework of the current system and/or is not up to "scratch" - it's not up to us to judge/patronise them anyway unless we are imperialists. We NEED dialogue and an exchange of ideas -- and we should certainly analyse and criticise works that are presented to us, but we need to do it constructively and in a civil manner!
I do hope that open-minded researchers will start coming back to this conference, and 'teach' a thing or two about the realities of the world, and how we need to have dialogue to achieve the change we all want. Or we should start an objective and democratically orientated Iranian Women's Conference which might draw fewer people but will be far more democratic and fruitful? I propose to all who are supporters of this kind of project to urge the IWSF board to reform! Or we'll have to break away and start afresh which is a tragedy.
I do hope that we can somehow keep reminding ourselves about the *identicalness of our aspirations*, and that we are free to choose *different avenues* for our fight for gender equality, the removal of tyranny and freedom for all in Iran. Anything different than this is a form of tyranny.
Developments of feminist theories AND a pragmatic political approach are both vital to a healthy and sustainable mainstreaming of gender equality and long-term change.
I just wished that as Iranian women, we could all gather under the same roof to share our work without it being so painful. After 16 years of conferences and 26 years in exile it's time to move on, it's time to listen, to share.
Please see below my correspondence with the heavy weights of Iranian Women's Studies at top US and British Universities in the past few days. These women are highly respected and widely published researchers who have done more than anyone else to make Iranian Women's Studies an expectable research topic, they have made heard the plight of Iranian women in the international arena.
Here are their responses on my above essay. One top professor says:
"Unfortunately, the voices of reason and fairness are often muted by loud populist pseudo-radicalism in many places, particularly within the Iranian community. I do believe we urgently need and keep urging people (who continue to invite the already many times invited experts) to go to fresher views/perspectives and younger scholars who are coming out with remarkably useful, relevant and fantastically new researches but unfortunately are not heard by those who most need to hear them.
Frankly, I have stopped going to certain gatherings exactly for this reason. After so many years in exile the audiences depress me as still empty slogans (Shoar-e Moft) has more acceptability. The strength of the Islamists in Iran lie exactly in this un-shakeable faith of some of us to old/stale ideas and our refusal to see the realities and try to understand and explain them accordingly and not by repeating ourselves.
I am sorry that IWSF has fallen prey to this mentality. It is just too bad that populist, masculine culture of resorting to intimidation and silence has affected this gatherings I only hope that your generation confront my generation's prejudicial ideology-driven ways of thinking and acting as they are counterproductive and do nothing but alienating intelligent, thoughtful women like yourself. Stay well."
Another Internationally renowned Iranian Women's Studies professor says:
"Thank you for sharing your wonderful posting with me. I found it so refreshingly well-thought, good intended and well-written. I wish some of those "radical" activists who have discouraged or alienated people like me from attending the IWSF annual meetings could hear you and could really understand and appreciate what you so wisely said. It is unfortunate that some of us preach feminism and anti-imperialism, yet in practice, we still behave like the very patriarchs and imperialists we abhor.
Despite all the disappointing aspects however, like you, I do value the IWSF and the women who have sustained it throughout the past 16 years. Hope the younger women scholars/advocates like you will nourish this entity and help its growth and improvement".
I wish *us all* the very best in our *common* path.