Catherine Z. Sameh, Axis of Hope: Iranian Women’s Rights Activism across Borders (University of Washington Press, 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Catherine Z. Sameh (CS): I wanted to go beyond a number of impasses that emerge in discussions about Iran. One is the narrative about Iran as a static space that can only be understood through a repressive state apparatus. In thinking through women’s rights activism, we see that in fact Iran is a dynamic society with a complex set of social actors who are, in different moments, able to mobilize, contest, and negotiate power, be heard by the state, politicians, and fellow citizens, and deeply shape their society.

Another impasse that I see, and I see this in much of the scholarship I am indebted to and think with, is the idea that Middle Eastern, Muslim, Iranian women are ultimately only victims of human rights instruments. That because of the ways in which human rights are weaponized to maintain geopolitical domination, they are either a dead end or too fraught. I wanted to push against this, to see the master’s tool as having the capacity to be reconfigured, and to insist that women using this tool, while they might find themselves at times disempowered by it in certain ways, are negotiating its uses and its meanings.

Finally, I wanted to think beyond the notion that Iranian history ends, especially for women, with the 1979 revolution and its aftermath. In fact, in the decades that follow the revolution, women and men from all classes and all sectors of society see massive gains in their education, literacy, life chances, health, and well-being. What were most women doing in the 1970s, right before the revolution? They were procreating! The average fertility rate for Iranian women in the late 1970s was eight! Over many decades, it dropped to two and has remained there. This huge decline in fertility rates, women’s massive influx into education (they are the majority of university students), longer life spans, better health—all of these material factors expanded the middle class, produced women’s deep presence in society, and created desires and aspirations that cannot be completely contained.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

CS: The first half of my book is a study of the One Million Signatures Campaign to End Discriminatory Law, which emerged in 2006 in the wake of a rightward turn in the state after a decade or so of relative openness and reform under reformist President Mohammad Khatami. Rooted in Iran with branches spreading to the diaspora, the campaign sought to overturn women’s secondary status under the law—laws concerning things like marriage, divorce, inheritance, and citizenship. I make a number of arguments about the campaign: firstly, as an indigenous effort—that is to say, within an Iranian, Islamic, and feminist framework—the campaign framed women’s rights as compatible with Islam. Drawing on Iran’s rich culture of debate, activists engaged Islam as a long, rich, and polyvocal discursive tradition capacious and flexible enough to accommodate their vision of undifferentiated gender equality. Secondly, I argue that, by trying to persuade the state away from its discriminatory legal structure, activists articulated and were themselves a reflection of the fact that revolutionary and post-revolutionary Iran had created their very deep and broad presence in society, a presence that could not be contained and that made their secondary legal status ultimately untenable. Finally, and this argument extends throughout the book, I understand and theorize the campaign, and also the work of human rights lawyer and Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi and women’s rights activist Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, two women I profile in the second half of the book, as endeavors that seek to extend the revolution—its commitment to bringing more people into society, not just elites, and to democratizing society from within and on terms set by people on the ground.

Another dimension of the book as a whole is a puzzling through—with the campaign activists, with Shirin Ebadi, and with the Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh—the dilemmas of transnational organizing and the question of how activists create networks of affiliation and solidarity inside of conditions of violence and power—including imperialism, the global war on terror, the weaponization of human rights, sanctions, the demonization of Muslims, epistemic violence, and the discursive colonization of Iranian and Muslim women.

The book addresses gender, Islam, human rights, Islamicate feminisms, transnational activism, the war on terror, colonialism, imperialism, Islamophobia, new media, contemporary social movements, the politics of solidarity, and decoloniality. It puts Iranian women’s rights activism in conversation with other social movements like the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter. The literature it draws on and addresses includes Iranian and Middle Eastern feminist and women’s studies, Iranian history, feminist debates about human rights, transnational feminist theory, media studies, and social movement theory.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

CS: Axis of Hope is deeply connected to my interest in activism, particularly activism from below. So much of the everyday labor of activists, especially those outside the West, is hidden or underexplored. I wanted to really elaborate on what it is that activists do, and how they do it over many years, many decades, and against tremendous odds. The question of transnational solidarity is also something I have written about. We mobilize the term a great deal, but what does it mean? I consider how solidarity is robustly conceptualized and practiced by feminist activists in Iran and the diaspora in ways that challenge two positions: one, the dangerous interventions into Iran “on behalf of” Iranians; and two, the uncritical defense of the Iranian state in the name of anti-imperialism. My book shows that there is another path, a path that defends the sovereignty of Iran and supports women’s self-determination.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

CS: I hope a wide range of scholars, and undergraduate and graduate students will read it—those working in the fields of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; Iranian studies; Middle East studies; Islamic studies; religious studies; and media studies, to name a few. I hope any scholar, activist, or engaged lay reader interested in social movements, gender and feminism, decoloniality, religion, Iran, and the Middle East will read it. While the book is a particular study of activists in specific locations, I hope it will be widely useful to activists everywhere. I also really hope that Iranian-Americans, those who are hungry to learn about Iran and have a different relationship to the past and present of Iran than their parents, will read it and discover that Iran is a dynamic place with a long history of feminist activism.

For those who read the book, I hope that it allows them to think beyond some of the impasses I have outlined above, and that they begin to see Iran not as an exceptional and isolated space, but as a space of possibility, a place connected to the world, a place with citizens and activists who have contributed and are contributing to the world. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

CS: I have been working on feminist challenges to Islamophobia for the last few years, which I continue to work on. I have just begun another project on transnational foodways, migration, memory, and the politics of care and survival that will connect to my work on the Iranian diaspora.

J: Did the One Million Signatures Campaign succeed?

CS: While it did not succeed in gathering enough signatures and converting those signatures into a Parliamentary bill, the campaign, and Iranian women’s rights activists in general, succeeded in putting a feminist vision of women’s undifferentiated legal equality at the forefront of national debates and discussions. Presidential candidates have to address women’s rights. And new bills introduced by conservatives to restrict women’s rights in family law tend to fail in Parliament. Recently, children born of Iranian mothers and non-Iranian fathers won the right to apply for citizenship. Before this change, children of mixed nationality parents had only been able to get Iranian citizenship and its benefits if the father was Iranian. This is absolutely a victory of women’s rights activists, including those profiled in my book, who have been challenging patriarchal citizenship laws for decades. Iran follows Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco in reforming citizenship laws in the Middle East and North Africa.

Excerpt from the book (from the epilogue, pp. 141-145)

Throughout this book I have analyzed the discourses, practices, methods, organizational cultures, and transnational networks of Iranian women’s rights activists in Iran and the United States. Examining online, print, and oral accounts of women’s rights work, I have attended to the relations and processes that make up everyday activist life. Although activism often culminates in the grand gestures and important acts of public protest, of revolt and revolution, its more mundane and modest labors, its intimacies if you will, are rarely made visible or theorized. I have brought the efforts of Iranian women’s rights activists into view with the hope of expanding how we conceptualize a number of issues. While women’s rights activists have been unable to comprehensively overturn Iran’s discriminatory legal structure, they have nonetheless compelled those in power to, at the minimum, take them seriously as a constituency. In moments of uptick and hope, they have found their demands and desires for full equality reflected on the national stage. Far from insignificant has been their vocal participation in imagining a society capacious enough to synthesize national sovereignty and women’s self-determination.

This leads to questions of how we theorize success and failure in the political realm. There certainly has been much to mourn in the past several decades. The unwillingness of the highest bodies of authority to secure women’s full legal equality, and the framing of such a political demand as foreign interference, is a huge blemish on the face of a postcolonial nation that has improved women’s life chances and opportunities immensely. I finished writing this book as the fortieth anniversary of the Iranian revolution approached. Barely into my teen years in 1979, I witnessed my father glued to the television day after day, watching Iranians throw off a dictatorship that had exacerbated class divisions, repressed political debate and protest, and jailed and killed countless numbers of its opponents. Seared into my memory are images of the revolution and the deep emotion on my father’s face as an effervescent, proud, and broad swath of Iranians overthrew their much-despised monarchy.

Perhaps the most important legacy of the revolution was the creation of a vast social welfare state with programs and services that dramatically increased literacy rates and life expectancy for women and men, reduced the birth and fertility rates of women, and increased the percentage of women in universities. … These changes reflect the “redistributive character of the Islamic Republic,” which “readjusted the share of national wealth going to lower-income quintiles” (Halper 2010, 4). The introduction of “schools, medical clinics, roads, electricity and piped water into the countryside” (Abrahamian 2009, 13) further contributed to the overall improvement in life conditions and opportunities for Iranian women.

But, of course, the legacy is mixed. The discursive structures that offered women equality in “different but equal” terms has translated into women’s secondary status under the law. In addition, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, continued the repression, imprisonment, and execution of those, including many clerics and scholars wholly committed to the revolution, who critiqued this legal discrimination and the postrevolutionary government’s authoritarianism and curtailment of democracy. We can never tally the gains of the revolution without taking into account the horrific repression of activists and citizens that unfolded at different periods over the next forty years, or the fact that the autonomy and freedom of women and others was traded away to “secure” a postcolonial nation. Within this larger history of an anticolonial revolution gone south, however, there are other stories we must also tell. Less grand narrative and more a modest record from below, this book has considered the everyday acts of women’s rights activists as they have written themselves into the history of Iranian resistance, transnational feminism, and decolonial feminist world-making.

In building local and transnational networks, campaigns, projects, and discourses, the Iranian women’s rights activists profiled here reimagine notions of sovereignty within their national, transnational, and feminist locations. In an interview with Marcelle Maese-Cohen, Paola Bacchetta claimed that the de in decolonial feminism represents “the labor at the site of the intimate, an ongoing process.” The decolonial, she argues, is inseparable from coalition work. “One cannot build coalitions,” Bacchetta (2010, 182) asserts, “unless the subjects of the coalitions can recognize themselves and each other as subjects.” This book has demonstrated how Iranian women’s rights activists labor at many sites of the intimate in a decolonial and coalitional world-making project that insists on their recognition as self-determining subjects, unwilling to be defined through patriarchal nationalisms and colonial feminisms.

Within transnational feminist scholarship, we need more studies of how women from Muslim and Middle Eastern contexts challenge the discursive and material structures of coloniality that run through geopolitics and feminist movements alike. I hope that I have offered something in that direction. In amplifying the voices of Iranian women’s rights activists, and their experiences within both patriarchal and feminist spaces, I urge us to think about how the tools of critique often excise some women right out of history. There is no question that the human rights instrument has been weaponized to maintain geopolitical domination and colonial relations. But we must not revictimize Muslim and Middle Eastern women by ignoring how human rights discourses, when traced through the various sites where activists ignite them, can prove flexible. In the authoritarian moment the United States finds itself in, women’s rights discourses are being reconfigured once again, as American women look in their own backyard to confront a misogynistic culture and its patriarchal institutions. While I would never wish misogynistic authoritarianism on anyone, let us use this moment to remember that there are no normative and essential rights-bearing nor rights-needing subjects.

When Shirin Ebadi (2003, emphasis added) reminded the world in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech that “[a] quest for new means and ideas to enable the countries of the South, too, to enjoy human rights and democracy, while maintaining their political independence and territorial integrity of their respective countries, must be given top priority,” she evoked the long history of colonial powers using human rights and women’s rights as part of an arsenal to manage, control, and occupy countries and regions. Iranian women’s rights activists confront this history in the present when entering into political projects with and within the West. Considering the ways in which they shift attention away from their “oppression” and toward the different local patriarchies that affect all women, I have shown how Iranian women’s rights activists position themselves as insightful and savvy social and political actors with something to teach and offer American feminists and feminism writ large.

In looking at Iran through the network of activists in Iran and the diaspora, I gesture toward methods of thinking about “inside” and “outside” that take seriously different national contexts, politics, and borders, while imagining notions of home, community, and belonging in new ways. In conversation with the excellent and influential feminist scholarship analyzing how women negotiate their complex relationships to Iran and the diaspora, I have drawn attention to how an examination of gendered experience is generative for understanding patriarchal nationalisms, be they imperialist or postcolonial, and global politics. I suggest that the activists considered here are doing and thinking sovereignly beyond the nation. Of course, a big focus of their work has been in conversation with the state, which holds the power to give and deny them their legal rights. Yet this pragmatic approach has not muted a larger narrative about how to reimagine and remake a world free from injustice, war, patriarchy, and domination, a world decolonized. In romancing the decolonial, I have pushed it to accommodate the particular labors of love considered here. We need more generous, capacious, and useful language to think about decoloniality less as a final utopian destination and more as the many relationships, practices, and processes created through thinking of and being with each other.