The peaceful exchange of ideas is the soil in which the very best periods, movements, and aspects of human civilization have historically taken root
August 15, 2005
This article is part of an ongoing debate which started with Golbarg Bashi's article "They know best: Iranian women's conference was more chaotic and verbally abusive than ever".
I read and write about politics, I participate in politics, I discuss, argue, and shout politics, but one thing I do not do is get into political 'scenes'. What's a political scene? The best way that I can sum it up is in a forgettable night that went down last year at Rutgers University here in New Brunswick, the jewel of New Jersey. In the wake of some heavy drama (namely, the most demoralizing election defeat in my memory), there was this kind of progressive community meeting that took place in the basement of one of the undergraduate dorms. I went there. Five minutes was more than enough time for me to know that I had no interest in being a part of the "progressive community" present.
Now that comment is bound to piss off some of the people who were there, and I should add that a lot of kids present that night are my friends, and I respect and love them very much. My problem was not with the anybody's political ideas, but with what they chose to do with them that night: forming this claustrophobic, incestuous crowd of the same kids seen at every protest, teach-in, vigil etc. and talking about how everybody else sucked... it was just lame. That appeared to be the purpose of the meeting: to bring the ‘progressive’ and leftist kids who already knew each other together and rehash old ideas. I found it pretty trifling and annoying. It seemed that I couldn't connect with anyone in the one setting where I would have liked to feel at home in.
Instead of seeming like a place where people were coming together to share their ideas and agree, disagree, and everything in between, the atmosphere was somewhere between a hippie social club and sitting down at a high school lunch table full of really popular kids when you're borderline popular. Being someone not officially in the progressive clique at Rutgers (and believe me, there is one), I didn't feel very welcome at all. Nor did it seem that we were getting anything done by hanging out with each other; we could have been talking about reaching out to other students and the New Brunswick community at large.
That night was a sampler of certain aspects that I dislike about one ugly way that social life and politics come together. Then there are other factors that come into play with this whole progressive scene in general that are just tiresome. For example, certain self-proclaimed radicals and progressives feel the need to present their activist credentials to you, to ask you for yours, as if the more stuff you've done, the more "for real" you are. There is the ever present ‘did you go to this protest?’ attitude, and if you didn't, they wonder how committed you really are to political change.
There's the ‘I'm a person of color and I understand oppression’ spiel that is so popular in the US, with all the white people who feel too guilty about being white to question whatever comes out of brown person X's mouth and think good activism consists simply of being a white apologist. There are the kids who, in the words of my brother, play the Oppression Olympics: whoever has had it harder in life with the discrimination and broken home and economic struggles wins. He/she is the one who can teach you a lesson about prejudice, politics, life in general, and damn you for questioning them. Lastly, we cannot forget the ‘I've read many, many books and use big words that you can't understand, so don't even try’ crowd that to me is the most annoying bunch of all.
It gets worse as people grow older, because youthful idealism ceases to be a relevant excuse for their behavior. Years pass, and in the course of building up their righteousness portfolio, certain people begin to think that their ideas are inherently better than that of others, that their worldview must prevail as the 'right' way of looking at things if a discussion is to unfold between them and people who think differently from them, whether out of ignorance or ideology. If you do not concede to their terms, then they simply will not bother with you, because you are
evidently just not learned enough to endorse their perspective.
And while they preach tolerance and radical thinking, they end up being just like any other group of dogmatic people: aggressive, ignorant, and prejudiced or patronizing towards the whole world. They cannot be questioned, their views cannot evolve, and they don't have time for people who they view as less informed and naive, namely everybody else.
In fact, they're so much better and smarter than everyone that should you try to put your own perspective out there, they don't believe that you have the right to finish what you are saying if they disagree. They actually have the right to interrupt you, to call you names, to associate you with the enemy's end of the ideological spectrum, because being able to silence and ostracize others when you disagree with them is how they construe what true freedom means.
Simply put, these people suck. From undergraduate student to associate professorship, these types of people devolve into knee-jerk ideological literalists in the proud tradition of Wahhabis, Born-again Christians, Neoconservatives, and Zionists. Their world is exclusively black and white, devoid of the changing grays that make defining reality an endless task. Their logic is infantile– 'disagree with me and you are wrong, dumb, dangerous, part of the problem,’ etc.
Let me get away from my personal experiences for a moment and contextualize the shortcomings of the political 'social club' mentality with the events that unfolded at the 16th annual Iranian Women's Studies Foundation conference in Vienna. For those not familiar with the IWSF:
The Iranian Women's Studies Foundation (IWSF) is a non-profit organization. It has no affiliation to any political or religious group or organization, and aims to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas on issues related to Iranian women, to disseminate information on Iranian women's achievements, and to establish a network of communication among communities of Iranian women the world over. The main activity of the IWSF consists of annual international conferences wherein a theme related to Iranian women is approached through scholarly presentations, art exhibitions, and artistic or dramatic performances... At these gatherings, academics and professionals interested in issues related to Iranian women congregate to share the result of their research, to celebrate the artistic accomplishments of Iranian women, and to exchange ideas and plans for the future.
The IWSF annual event sounds like a great conference, unless of course there are a bunch of people there who jump into other people's presentations, not only interrupting them but resorting to name-calling and crude accusations. Such was the atmosphere at the last conference. I have seen both Golbarg Bashi’s published comments (on gooya.com and iranian.com) as well as heard anecdotally from a few other women who attended the 16th IWSF conference; one thing common to all observations was the overbearing, disrespectful comportment of a certain number of attendees, who were certainly not characterized as "rare examples" of bad behavior (as Azar Sheibani puts it) by the women with whom I spoke.
Now this is common sense: whether one is a Marxist, Mujahedeen, monarchist, or misogynist, one must be respectful if he/she wishes to have a productive interaction with someone within or
outside the scope of her personal worldview. How Professor Mojab managed to interpret and extrapolate on this call for civility as a reinforcement of feudal-capitalist-exploitative-imperialist-big-bad-evil-man-ninja ideology, I'll never know.
I love this quote in particular: “in both feudal and modern patriarchal societies, politeness is gendered, and works as a form of the exercise of male power.” Whatever. I do find it interesting, however, that Mojab's "attempt to unpack Golbarg’s comments, criticism, and suggestions for future improvement of the organization of the IWSF annual conferences" consists of disdainfully labeling her political and intellectual views and dismissing Bashi's valid criticisms through denigrating these said views. This all sounds extremely familiar.
To me, it is obvious that Professor Mojab and her like at the IWSF conference simply have difficulty accepting any kind of constructive criticism, especially when they are called out in public. This is symptomatic of extremist, out-of-touch people across the political spectrum, the grown-up versions of the political scene kids at Rutgers. Of course, I am not suggesting that the students at Rutgers are anywhere near as politically involved or have sacrificed as much as the members of the Iranian student movements who have lost loved ones and comrades and have had to leave their motherland; what I am saying is that the tone and behavior of both groups is very similar.
It is sad to see people like Mojab, Sheibani, and the disrespectful group of attendees at the Vienna Conference wearing their intelligence, ideology, and activism like a merit badge and judging everyone else through their tunnel vision view of what constitutes correct and enlightened thinking; unfortunately, this has been and always will be a reality in tight-knit political circles.
Having grown up within a politically diverse Iranian exile community, I have often seen personalities with this holier-than-thou attitude who are unable and unwilling to connect with or listen to people of different political stripes and backgrounds. There are plenty of "long time-insider[s]" to the Iranian student revolutionary movements who abhor this elitist and self-serving behavior. Although they are definitely not one and the same, when I consider the attitude of Professor Mojab and Azar Sheibani, I cannot help but think of my own experiences with the crowd at Rutgers University.
Now the question: what implications does this atmosphere and defense of disrespectful and insensitive behavior have for the IWSF? The simplest answer is that it is going to lead to an inevitable decline in the diversity of the crowd, the breadth of the work presented, and consequently the quality of the annual gatherings. What I find most disturbing for the future relevance of these conferences is how certain people involved with the IWSF arrogantly reject both newcomers and well-known academics and activists, including the many women mentioned by Golbarg and especially internationally-known human rights lawyers Mehrangiz Kar and Shirin Ebadi (see Bashi’s article).
I can only assume that Mojab is speaking of such important contributors to public awareness of the women's rights situation in Iran when she calls the records of some of Bashi's mentors "a disgrace to feminist knowledge". Who says that these women are a disgrace to feminist knowledge? Who are you to say so, Professor Mojab? I personally find it far more disgraceful and deplorable that someone established in the field of women's studies so haughtily rejects people who have dedicated themselves to the struggle for women's equality and are simply going
about it in their own way. Sheibani thoughtlessly calls Dr. Zahedi's work "totally irrelevant" when it represents four years of well-documented research which can be used by various advocacy and human rights groups who are capable of achieving real change when given robust data.
The work of Zahedi and others is only irrelevant, it seems, to a handful of bitter intellectual elitists who are no longer interested in working with a new generation of people and ideas but instead opt to surround themselves with people and information which reinforce the walls of their ideological cocoon, eroding the quality of their own research and making themselves, as dogmatic and atomised intellectuals, even more irrelevant to the real world than they already are in the process.
The outstanding women who have been so foolishly ostracized by the so-called "radicals" at the conference (although 'reactionaries' is a better fit, considering their behavior) are the ones who are reaching larger audiences today and tuning the world in to their work. Like it or not, they are the relevant voices exactly because they are not filtering their audiences and colleagues through a "Marxist-feminist" lens.
Additionally, a lot of people in the Iranian political community have accused some of the more well-known women's rights advocates of being Nazis or spies, or collaborators with western governments/the Islamic Republic/both because they inform women of their rights and what they are legally entitled to in Iranian Shari'a law– zereshk. I have seen a couple of them in action and I guarantee that what they are saying and doing today is helping to both establish Iranian women's studies in academia worldwide and to empower women in their daily struggles. Mojab calls learning how to maximize your options in an oppressive society "negotiation" with the powers that be. Not necessarily.
Let me play Oppression Olympics for a moment to make my point clearer: having spent my whole life both in direct and indirect confrontation with racism and reactionary attitudes, having been in countless physical confrontations and at times daily verbal confrontations, continuing to deal with all kinds of institutionalized prejudice, and being a person with radical views on gender, race, and class among other things, I have my own legitimate experience with the forces in this society that a lot of people can't relate to.
I state this not to say that I have suffered as much as a female Iranian political exile or anyone else for that matter; I know that in comparison with most people in the world, I am currently much better off. I evoke my own experience because although I have always stood up for myself and what I believe in, I also learned that it is necessary to know the society that you live in and understand its workings in order to be able to live a healthy life.
Not every woman in Iran can become a Marxist-feminist overnight or stand in the meydan and scream "Death to the Islamic Republic!" because she senses that the regime is inherently oppressive. This kind of radical liberation (not that I am against it) primarily takes place when one has access to the economic, cultural, educational, or societal resources to make it happen. It can happen, for example, when you have enough money to leave Iran and become an academic in Canada. In the meantime, most women in Iran have no choice but to live in Iran; their children, their families have to live in Iran.
When one has no choice but to be who she is and where she is, the main struggle is to maintain her daily emotional and mental health, then deal with larger issues. Tell me how much Marxist-feminist thought will aid a woman in an ugly divorce case in Iran; on the other hand, a thorough knowledge of the limited civil rights Iranian women do have does help one’s living situation in the Islamic Republic. We NEED more than one perspective and approach to issues, because whether in New Brunswick or Tehran, one worldview has never and may never solve all problems.
It is critically important that we take perspectives aimed at achieving similar goals into consideration respectfully; the peaceful exchange of ideas is the soil in which the very best periods, movements, and aspects of human civilization have historically taken root. This conference is supposed to create such a fertile environment for both thought and action, but the irrational and/or hyper-intellectual defensiveness of some members presents a serious challenge to the achievement of this goal. If the IWSF annual conference is to be a forum with even the slightest impact, then the intellectual Balkanization and purges led by those whose missions are to 'speak for the masses' and strike everyone else down in the process must be stopped– demagogues prefer soapboxing more than struggling anyway.