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
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
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.
Ms Golbarg Bashi,
PhD Student, Bristol University
Development Officer, Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK,
School of Religious and Theological Studies,
Cardiff CF10 3EU