"Women, Life, Freedom": An IJMES Roundtable
And other new publications in the MENA Academy Weekly Roundup #17 (1.22.24)
This week’s MENA Academy Weekly Roundup spotlights a fascinating roundtable put together by Neda Bolourchi and Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet for the International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies about (especially, but not exclusively) the diasporic politics surrounding the massive 2022 Iranian “Women, Life, Freedom” revolutionary protest wave. The roundtable originated in a provocative Middle East Studies Association conference panel at the 2022 meeting in Denver. Passions around the Iranian protests were hot at that conference — at one point I spoke on a packed keynote panel with Juan Cole, Nader Hashemi, Asli Bali and Sarah Leah Whitson about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its effects on the Middle East, and watched the panel get taken over (in a good and important way) by audience speeches and challenges about how academics should respond to the Iranian protests. Those who pretend that Middle East scholars only get worked up about Israel should have been there.
Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, one of the organizers of the roundtable, frames the discussion brilliantly with an account of the protest’s emergence, its historical foundations, and its resonance within the Iranian academic diaspora. Her short piece also offers an elegant comparison between the Woman, Life Freedom protests and the 1979 revolution which ultimately produced the Islamic Republic, focused in particular on the gender dynamics. She outlines the impact of the protest wave as such:
“The Woman, Life, Freedom (Persian: Zan, Zendegi, Azadi; WLF) uprising, which erupted in response to gender discrimination in the Islamic Republic, promptly embraced other social causes. What began as gender protests amplified people's strident cries against political repression in Iran. Despite raising awareness of a range of sociopolitical problems in Iran, the gender focus of this movement remains its singular achievement. This uprising, whose slogan (Kurdish: Jin, Jiyan, Azadi) gained inspiration from the struggles of Kurdish women fighters, has put gender issues center stage and restored women's presence as primary agents of change in Iranian society.”
Much of the discussion in the roundtable revolves around the intense internal political discourses about the protests in the diaspora, especially those involving activists, academics and policy analysts. From the same essay:
The demonstrations unleashed a flurry of contentious exchanges on social media and in real life, unmatched since the creation of the Islamic Republic. Years of pent-up frustration erupted against organizations and individuals who had seemingly been anointed as unofficial representatives of the Iranian public. Such figures and organizations found themselves under unwelcome scrutiny as they tried to fend off accusations of being regime sympathizers. Angry Iranian citizens who sat sidelined for decades hurled ad hominem attacks at “Iran specialists” they believed had ignored, silenced, or misrepresented their views. Now, much to their surprise, the world was finally listening to them. Despite the sometimes aggressive and intolerant behavior of regime opponents and Islamic Republic loyalists, the Woman, Life, Freedom uprising opened conversations about the dark legacies of a revolution that several of its advocates (some of whom included activists-turned-academics) had avoided.
The ad hominem attacks on journalists and scholars, and the fevered online discourse really did feel exceptionally toxic and counterproductive, even for those of us lucky enough to have basked in the glorious online discourse surrounding Egypt’s 2013 military coup/not-a-coup (it was a coup), Syria’s civil war, or anything to do with Israel/Palestine. I recall just retweeting something written by one of the targeted journalists and being barraged for days with aggressive tweets, direct messages and emails. For Iranian scholars, it was far worse and the stakes much higher: talks and panels disrupted, pressure put on employers and university administrators to fire or deplatform targeted scholars, high volume and often defamatory social media campaigns, harrassment and worse.
The contributors to the roundtable all recognize the issues, though coming to different conclusions in important and interesting ways. In her essay, Nasrin Rahimieh describes the online attacks and harrassment of Iran experts deemed insufficiently anti-regime as “aimed at isolating, shaming, and silencing perceived allies of the Islamic Republic and, by extension, denouncing the regime for its abrogation of women's and human rights. I refer to this phenomenon among diasporic Iranians as gasht-i intiqām, roving avengers, which reflects a frustration with the absence of justice in Iran and targets purported proxies for the regime.”
She offers a sensitive analysis of the reasons behind the anger and division, the deep pain of decades of abuse and exile by a brutal regime, but concludes with a gloomy analysis of diaspora engagement: “The anonymity, lack of accountability, and retaliatory nature of these attacks instill fear and produce a chilling effect in the Iranian communities abroad, as do the Islamic Republic's own propagandist efforts outside Iran. Even more importantly, the actions in question raise serious ethical questions about how diasporic Iranians engage with one another as they attempt to lend support to protestors in Iran. At height of the protests, when the end of the theocratic regime appeared realistic, the Iranian diaspora became more fractured. Ironically, the very possibility of a free Iran generated the most antidemocratic behaviors in the diaspora.” This, in my experience, is a not uncommon dynamic in revolutionary activist moments over the last decade, and an obstacle to building solidarities and sustaining movement coherence. She concludes with a powerful call for addressing “the powerful impact of painful memories of the past and the need for engaging with them to build toward a future for the Iranian diaspora less burdened by the politics of vengeance.”
Rahimieh’s critique of diasporic engagement should be read along with, against, and through Kashani-Sabet’s reflections on the genuine passions and desire to support revolutionary change by many of those participating in these public discourses:
“For some of us, the hurt that we have carried quietly has surfaced yet again. Although many of us remain far removed from our birthplace, forced out because of unwelcome impositions, we join the courageous women of Iran in this unfinished fight, to demand justice and to prevent future injustices against Iranians in the name of religion, morality, or politics. The uprisings in Iran that broke out after the undeserved murder of Jina Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic's morality police in September 2022 morphed momentarily into a global movement calling for women's freedom and an end to repressive regimes that have normalized the oppression of women. The spirited involvement of the Iranian diaspora in magnifying these protests exposes the deep pains and longings of the displaced community of Iranians abroad. Although first and foremost a global fight for freedom, tolerance, and gender rights, this movement is also collective catharsis for a scarred and wounded community that never imagined it could reunite, however temporarily and imperfectly, under the banner “Woman, Life, Freedom.””
But she too is troubled by the darker turns that this cathartic engagement sometimes took:
“Opposition and political groups outside the country, in demanding information about the flow of money; political ties; academic connections; and media relationships of Iran pundits in the US and the West, have exploited these basic demands by sometimes launching vicious and toxic campaigns of hate. Attempts at intimidation and silencing lead to self-censorship or a fear of open expression — as intended — concerns that are not unique to Iranian Studies…. Exclusionary crusades and shows of intolerance have taken place online and offline, among academics and nonacademics, as well as among those who condemn the Islamic regime or those who revile anything Pahlavi. Once again, individuals caught in the middle and seeking subtlety or other viable political alternatives are being silenced or forced to pick sides by the extremes of opinion, whether inside or outside of Iran.”
As I noted before, this will all be familiar to all who have watched or participated in political discourses on Palestine or other cases over recent years — which makes the open discussion, critique, and self-reflection across this roundtable especially compelling and useful far beyond the single case of Iran’s protests. It’s important (though in the heat of the moment difficult) to carefully parse out the different threads within that discourse, differentiating between the sincere passions of Iranians caught up in an unprecedented moment and the campaigns waged by state and non-state political actors, often involving large-scale coordinated inauthentic social media activity. The hard-won lessons which emerge from the roundtable’s painful and frank engagement with the diaspora engagement around Iran’s protests don’t necessarily translate perfectly to other contexts. But they should stimulate a great deal of thought about how to preserve the possibility of democratic participation, respectful scholarly dialogue, and constructive political action in such hostile conditions.
In her essay, Sahar Ravazi urges us to approach these intense differences through an agonistic lens, rather than attempting to silence them, paper them over, or demonize them:
“conflict is a not only inevitable but a necessary feature of democracy as a valued space for mutual engagement of contentious ideas. This process enables us to collectively build meaningful democratic social relationships and institutions. Therefore, it is incumbent on us not to reflexively shy away from conflict in these conversations even as they may be at times tense or uncomfortable. At the same time, the recent spike in hostilities within the US-based Iranian diaspora reflects a burgeoning of profoundly antidemocratic impulses in some corners of the Iranian American community. These impulses may be undermining the diaspora's ability to support the democracy for which Iranians in Iran are fighting. Therefore, it is useful to reflect on how we may collectively work to recalibrate our approach to one another in a way that ultimately strengthens the path toward our shared goals while honoring the inherent tensions of a truly democratic politics.”
She warns against antidemocratic trends and abusive behaviors within the diaspora while also endorsing calls for accountability — a tightrope walk which is common across so many contested political domains.
There’s a lot more to the roundtable than just the discussion of diasporic engagement of course. Yaid Hamidi’s contribution begins from the epistemic shock the protests posed to much of the scholarship on Iran - and how problematic the political construction of “women” in protest advocacy could become. She also highlights the processes of racialization of Iranian minorities and their marginalization from the nation, the state, and broader discourses of citizenship. Hamidi reflects that “only through the rhetoric of Indigenous feminism, not Iranian studies scholarship, can I make sense of what has happened.” Ladan Zabadari also warns against reductionist readings or appropriations of the life stories of these Iranian women. Farangis Ghaderi highlights the Kurdish origins of the protest in another essay in the roundtable) and the implications for citizenship and the state. Maryam Alemzadeh’s reflects on the possibilities of “normalcy" in revolutionary events, a tension which so many participants in the Arab uprisings have had to contend. Sarah Eskandari explores what she calls “internal colonialism” in the gender practices of the Islamic Republic, a fascinating theme which emerges in several other essays and deserves sustained attention of its own. Nahid Siamdoust discusses the emergence of musical forms among student activists (with some great video clips embedded). And Neda Bolourchi digs in to the heated debates over whether to label the IRGC a terrorist organization.
Overall, the roundtable offers a rich, thought-provoking collection which conveys some of the intensity of the debates and discussions in that critical juncture, and deserves to be widely read and reflected upon.
And now for the rest of this week’s MENA Academy Roundup! This week we feature a roundtable on consociationalism in Iraq and Lebanon from the ongoing project led by Toby Dodge and Bassel Salloukh; an intriguing study of “methodological nationalism” in academic writings on the 2011 Arab uprisings; an important study of repression and demobilization in the Egyptian diaspora since 2011; and a fascinating comparative study of “victime status” in world politics.
Toby Dodge and Bassel Salloukh, “Special Issue Introduction: Consociationalism and the State: Lebanon and Iraq in Comparative Perspective,” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics (January 2024). ABSTRACT: There is little doubt that the various scholars grouped under the banner of consociationalism, taking their lead from the path-breaking work of Arend Lijphart, retain a sizable influence both within Political Science and the policy community. As Dylan O’Driscoll and Irene Costantini argue in their contribution to this special issue (SI), with the upsurge in external intervention that greeted the end of the Cold War, consociational power sharing became “one of the leading mechanisms of conflict mitigation and governance introduced (often by external actors) in deeply divided post-conflict societies within the liberal peace framework.” But, as they go on to argue, this influence has been accompanied by a polarized academic debate, both for and against the veracity of the consociational power sharing approach. Michiel Leezenberg argues in his paper that the use of consociationalism by both academic analysts and policy practitioners has given rise to an accompanying tension between normative and analytical goals, further complicating the debate surrounding the utility and explanatory power of consociationalism, as both a theory within Political Science and as a toolkit for practitioners who have intervened to end violent conflicts. This SI aims to contribute to the on-going debate surrounding consociationalism by focusing on the academic side of the argument.
Jonas Nabbe, Ward Vloeberghs, and Maryse Kruithof, “Mapping methodological nationalism in Middle Eastern studies: Toward a transnational understanding of the 2011Arab uprisings?” Digest of Middle Eastern Studies (January 2024). ABSTRACT: This article assesses the prevalence and implications of the research foci methodological nationalism, methodological globalism, and transnationalism in publications regarding the 2011 Arab uprisings. We propose a new typology that contrasts state‐centered methodological nationalism with the cosmopolitan lens of methodological globalism as two opposite ends of a spectrum. Transnationalism is conceptualized in between these two, due to its sensitivity to multiple localities and cross‐border variables. We compare the merits and limits of these three research foci through quantitative research and content analysis. Our systematic review of one decade of scholarship on theArab uprisings suggests a consistent trend toward the dominance of methodologically nationalist research approaches in Middle Eastern studies. This is surprising because the multilocal nature of the Arab uprisings suggests that it can best be analyzed transnationally. This article, therefore, critically discusses the methodological nationalist bias to better understand and illustrate the trend. We conclude by highlighting somecomparative advantages offered by transnational perspectives on actors and processes in the Arab uprisings and its aftermath.
Arne Wackenhut, “Between (de-)mobilization, polarization, and transnational repression: the Egyptian diaspora in the wake of the January 25 uprising,” Globalizations (January 2024). ABSTRACT: More than a decade has passed since the Egyptian Uprising of 2011 resulted in the ouster of long-time president Hosni Mubarak. This large-scale protest episode mobilized not only tens of thousands of anti-regime protesters of various stripes in Egypt, but also inspired activism amongst Egyptians living abroad. These events, in combination with the turbulent post-revolutionary years that followed, affected deeply and were formative for many Egyptian diasporans. This article explores how these events influenced members of the diaspora both in terms of their intra-diasporic relationships as well as their transnational engagement with Egypt under the reign of the new president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Drawing on both primary and secondary sources, including semi-structured interviews with diaspora members and activists, it paints a complex picture of increased polarization – very much along the political fault lines found in Egypt – and overall lower, but still notable, levels of both national and transnational political engagement.
Alex Vandermaas-Peeler, Jelena Subotic, and Michael Barnett, “Constructing victims: Suffering and status in modern world order,” Review of International Studies (December 2023). ABSTRACT: What is the basis of status in world order? Status is assumed to come from strength, even if strength is reconfigured to be social and normative, not just material. Status, however, can also come from perceived weakness – it is conferred to those recognised as ‘victims’. We make four theoretical contributions to the scholarship on status in world affairs. First, we examine how the category of victim is produced. Two, we expand the possible sources of status in world affairs by adding the category of victim. Three, focus on victimhood status further demonstrates that status is independent of material power. Lastly, victimhood as status exhibits the paradox that power depends on perceived powerlessness. We illustrate these arguments with three features of victim status in modern international politics: the changing desirability of victim status in Israel, the gendered construction of ideal victim in the Congo, and the hierarchy of victimhood in Bosnia.
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