Axis of hope
UCI professor's new book documents women's rights activists and activism in Iran and the diaspora
In her new book, Axis of Hope: Iranian Women's Rights Activism across Borders (University of Washington Press, 2019), Catherine Sameh, assistant professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of California, Irvine, shares the stories and practices of women's human rights activists both inside and outside of Iran. Her interviews and materials highlight the perseverance and impact of these activists not only on Iran, but also on international discourse around women’s and human rights. They include the One Million Signatures Campaign to End Discriminatory Law, the memoirs of human rights lawyer and Nobel Prize–winner Shirin Ebadi, and the life story of feminist Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh and her activist project ZananTV.
Here, we discuss with Sameh the impetus for her book and what she hopes readers will take away from its stories.
Why did you name the book Axis of Hope?
Axis of Hope is meant to trouble the framing of Iran as a place of exceptional state violence and repression. The designation of Iran, along with North Korea and Iraq, as part of the “Axis of Evil” by George W. Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address functioned to rationalize the invasion of Iraq and lay the foundations for a possible invasion of Iran. The book explores how Iranian women’s rights activists challenge the various discourses and practices of war—from the demonization of Muslims to threats of invasion to sanctions. In foregrounding the networks of Iranian women’s rights activists inside and outside of Iran, who have long struggled and often succeeded in changing their society, Axis of Hope also speaks to the culture of solidarity, love and hope created through these activists’ labors.
What is Islamicate feminism and is it something you find visible in Iran and the U.S.?
Islamic feminism has been used to describe feminist discourses and practices emerging from within an Islamic framework. Islamic feminism engages the Qur’an and Islam to argue for equality and justice for women. Those using Islamic feminist discourses may be religiously observant Muslims, secular Muslims and non-Muslims. Islamic feminism is, however, a contested term. Some argue, as did a few of the activists I interviewed, that Islamic feminism is a term invented within Western academic circles, while others see it as a term with resonance in Muslim contexts. I use the term Islamicate feminisms as a way of acknowledging Islamic feminism as a contested term, and opening it up it to accommodate a range of social actors. Islamicate feminisms encompass various religious and political identities, some of which might seem to be at odds with one another. Although they are not the only feminists to challenge patriarchal interpretations of Islam, Islamicate feminists find Islam an essential resource for their feminism. In Iran, the U.S. and around the world, feminists draw on the ethical principles in the Qur’an to express and struggle for equality and justice.
You were born and raised in the U.S. but also have citizenship in Iran through your father. How has your dual citizenship influenced your research?
This is an interesting question because, as I say in my book, I acquired the privilege of dual citizenship through the very patriarchal laws the activists I write about have been challenging. Children of mixed (Iranian and non-Iranian) parents have only been able to get Iranian citizenship and its benefits if the father is Iranian. But this changed very recently! Children born of Iranian mothers and non-Iranian fathers can now apply for citizenship. This is absolutely a victory of women’s rights activists, including those profiled in my book, who have been challenging discriminatory laws like this one for decades. Iran follows Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco in reforming citizenship laws in the Middle East and North Africa. My dual citizenship allows me to travel to Iran on my Iranian passport, a privilege I do not take for granted. More significant than my citizenship status, though, is the fact that my father is Iranian, that I have a huge extended family in Iran, and that I am Iranian-American. Like many Iranians and Iranian-Americans, including those in my family, I’m deeply and quite personally invested in the self-determination of Iran and Iranian people, an end to war and militarism, and an end to sanctions and the economic strangling of Iranians. I’m also invested in the hope and profound endurance required for making the kinds of changes women’s rights activists have made and continue to make in Iran.
You have a history of feminist activism and nonprofit work in both New York City and now in the Southern Californian Iranian diaspora - tell us about those experiences and how they have informed your scholarly work.
Like many, my feminism came through both activism and scholarship. I did my undergraduate work in history and gender studies in Portland, Oregon and lived there for 20 years before going to graduate school. In Portland, I was active in reproductive justice and anti-Gulf War work, wrote a feminist column for a local activist newspaper, and then founded, with two friends and fellow activists, the feminist bookstore, In Other Words, infamously and lovingly parodied on “Portlandia.” I worked there for 10 years. In Other Words was not simply a feminist bookstore, but a non-profit community center for supporting activist projects and a space for scholar-activist work. While working on my Ph.D. at Rutgers and living in New York, I was active in a collective of Iranian feminists, thinking, writing and organizing against war and sanctions. I also worked for four years at the Barnard Center for Research on Women, an incredible space for bringing scholarship and activism together. I founded BCRW’s transnational feminisms project, which explores the possibilities for transnational collaboration around knowledge production, and scholar-activist networks and projects.
A group of activists I interviewed for my book are based in Southern California, and I have been fortunate enough to meet and work with other scholars and activists here around feminist interventions against Islamophobia. Activism, particularly really grassroots and underfunded activism, has always been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Of course, it is deeply rewarding to work with others, to build something—a movement, a community, a project, a protest—to feel like you are making a difference. But activism is also difficult, laborious, emotionally draining, intense and frustrating. It’s not always easy to work with others or stay committed and hopeful when the stakes are so high and the battle feels only uphill and endless. I am interested in and I try in my book to think through these spaces and scales of activism, the nitty gritty work over many years, over many decades, to build and sustain feminist ideas, knowledges and projects.
You finished this book near the 40th anniversary of the revolution and the women of Iran are still trying to obtain equal rights under the law. Have you noticed a change in the attitudes of this next generation of Iranian men and women who have witnessed the fight for equality?
In a sense, that is what the book is about. Although a discriminatory legal structure still exists for women in Iran, women’s rights activists and their supporters consistently challenge it. And as the recent changes in citizenship law reveals, they sometimes win. But equally, if not more significant has been the ways in which women’s rights activists and other Iranians have insisted on women’s equality and justice as a component of Iranian sovereignty. Often the state sees it differently, accusing women’s rights activists of compromising national security. But sometimes these activists have won the state over. Certainly, they’ve made women’s rights something that Iranian society must contend with.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
I would like readers to learn that Iran, like everywhere else, is a complex, contradictory, multi-faceted, dynamic place. I hope they will see that the struggle for political reforms and social change in Iran has been going on for a long time, and that women have been central to that struggle. I would like readers to see how important it is that Iranians determine the future of their society on their own terms, without the different kinds of dangerous interventions “on behalf” of Iranian people. I hope they will be inspired by and learn something from the activists I profile, from their persistence in the face of many odds, from the cultures and practices of hope, love and solidarity they have built. I hope readers come away with the sense that many different kinds of feminisms exist in the world, and that some of the most innovate and exciting feminist movements are in the Global South.
Axis of Hope: Iranian Women's Rights Activism across Borders is available December 30, 2019. In Winter 2020, Sameh will teach the undergraduate courses Gen&Sex 60C – Gender & Religion and Gen&Sex 167A – Militarism & Gender.
Photo credit: Dex Ezekiel