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An American in Iran: Saeidi Discusses Her Work in the Middle East

by | Oct 31, 2019 | Multimedia, Short Talks from the Hill

Bob Whitby: Welcome to Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast from the University of Arkansas. I’m Bob Whitby, a science writer for the university. Today we’re talking to Shirin Saeidi, assistant professor of comparative politics and Middle East studies in the Department of Political Science. Welcome.

Sirin Saeidi: Thank you.

BW: So, you moved to the United States from Iran as a child, a very interesting story and it influences your research and your work. Tell us a little bit about your background.

Shirin Saeidi portrait

Shirin Saeidi

SS: Oh, sure. I was born in Iran right after the revolution and, I was born actually in Tehran and we lived there until the end of the war. My family though is originally from southern Iran and to be more exact they’re from Masjed Soleyman, and this is the part of the country where oil was first discovered in the Middle East. It’s also despite, you know, having a lot of resources, it’s a very underserved community that lives there, mostly of tribal background. So, both of my parents are from there and southern Iran was really the war front during the Iran-Iraq war, an important war front. It was also a place where there was a lot of lively leftist activist work during, after and prior, so I always say I’m from Iran which is a very highly political and dynamic country, but in particular from Masjed Soleyman which is a little bit even more fiery.

BW: You’ve written about topics as varied as the politics of love and war and Lebanon, you’ve written about driving culture in Iran, I think that might have actually been a book review, but common themes in your work are women’s roles, politics, Islamism and citizenship. So how does your background inform your interests and your research work?

SS: So, all of my degrees have been in political science and I was a political science student as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland in College Park. The way that political science was taught was very, you know, it was very much focused on U.S. interests, U.S. politics, American history, American interests in other parts of the world, and also very elitist perspective. So, talking about politics from the perspective of what will this political leader do, or how our decisions made rationalist calculations and so forth. I was much more interested in how politics affects people’s lives, so for me studying political science was about, one, changing the direction of political science in the United States and that’s one of the reasons that I went to the U.K. and did my Ph.D. at Cambridge, because they were taking a more historical and institutional perspective. I’m interested in bodies, in effect and human rights, citizenship, so anything that relates to people’s subjectivity and how politics affects the lives of people and how people can change the direction of politics. This was really where I was coming from.

BW: You’ve done some very specific types of research in Iran in the Middle East that seem to reflect, for lack of a better word, intimate looks at people’s lives and how they’re shaped by the state and the regime there. Can you talk a little bit about that?

SS: I understand myself to be a part of a generation of Iranian-American, Muslim-American scholars that really developed intellectually after September 11th. I was studying, you know, gender studies, minority politics, my undergraduate degree was political science, but I took mostly gender courses and African-American studies courses. But then after Sept. 11 happened I became interested in some ways in really re-engaging with my own history and background and to, you know, get to know this country that I came from and the language that I knew and the religion that I was born into. And so, this kind of forced me to go back and do fieldwork and spend extended amounts of time in Iran. And there’s a lot of people who did that, so there’s I think a whole generation of scholars right now who are just starting their tenure-track positions and university positions who really came from this perspective in the you know late ‘90s early 2000s. But like I said you mentioned intimacy I think that goes back to really my in terms of where I stand in the discipline, it would be feminist international relations. So, in feminist IR there is this idea that the personal is political and so I’m very much so interested in people’s individual stories, you know how people overcome difficulties not just to survive but to build an alternative worldview, to construct another way of being. And so, this required extensive amounts of fieldwork and time in the country, and again because my family was so touched by the Revolution and by the war I had a particular interest in the early first decade of the Islamic Republic. So, this is why I conducted a lot of interviews with women that were involved with the war, that experienced it, because this was something that I felt was missing in the literature. I felt that the war was, you know, a great injustice to the Iranian people. It’s set back the Revolution, it changed the direction of the Revolution and the state and so it was a really big deal in terms of understanding the post-revolutionary state. But also on a personal level I wanted to hear the voices of women who were involved in the war in different capacities, but then who were also impacted by the war once the conflict ends.

BW: Was it difficult being on the ground doing this research in Iran?

SS: It was difficult just because at the time conducting research on the Iran-Iraq war was considered a security issue, it was a security topic. Even later when I taught in Iran at the University of Tehran, I learned that even Ph.D. students, graduate students who are living in Iran, from Iran doing their degrees in the country, are not allowed to freely pursue this topic their own even. You know I’ve met women whose fathers were killed in the war but they were not allowed to do research on the war. The other aspect I think that made it difficult was actually finding these women, and I really would it would have been very difficult if it weren’t for the support that the state actually gave me. So, a lot of the women were introduced to me through this state institution called Hozeh Honari, which is basically it’s where a lot of the memoirs and books about the war are produced. It’s under the direct supervision of Iran’s supreme leader, but there’s it’s quite a dynamic institution and they work a lot with foreign researchers, so they facilitated my research for that book. And then, you know, friends and family. I used different relationships that I had to find people to speak with because I didn’t want all of my data to come from one avenue and that being like the voice of the state.

BW: How were you received as an American and a scholar, both in your research and your teaching in Tehran?

SS: As a woman and as a scholar people were … you are so respected, and this surprises many Americans because they think that professional women in Iran and places like Iran, religious countries, wouldn’t receive that level of respect, but the students and colleagues really do respect you a lot. There’s almost this understanding that you’ve worked probably twice or three times harder than your male counterparts, so I know there was a lot of respect in terms of, you know, being a scholar. And then my research topic was interesting for many people. That someone who’s living somewhere else would care about this topic. So yeah, I guess the difficulty for me was just, if I were to be really just honest about it, was confronting sort of my own cultural flaws and seeing how much better other people were in building relationships with me despite the differences than I was in building relationships with them. You know if we take the current context of all the tensions that exist between the United States and Iran, and really there’s a lot of conversation about the sanctions, but the sanctions have been, the people of Iran had been impacted by sanctions really since the Revolution, so you know when you think about sanctions that are really back-breaking, suffocating, they are preventing children with cancer from getting their medication, they’re causing students who are sitting on an airplane on their way to the United States to pursue their graduate education are, you know, literally being taken off of airplanes because of the sanctions. So, because of sanctions and the current tensions I was really surprised by how nice people were to me and how, you know, they didn’t really view it as an opportunity to take their frustrations out on this American who’s in the country. It was more they were really interested in dialogue and conversation and expressing what they’ve lived through. So, for me it was a very humbling learning experience that I continue to think about.

BW: As you mentioned, Iran’s in the news a lot lately. But I think for a lot of Americans the country is something of a mystery. What is it like there and what would you say to somebody who knows absolutely nothing about the country?

SS: When people ask me these questions I always say it’s like anywhere else really in the world in some ways. People get up, they go to work. A lot of the conflicts that you have anywhere else in any other state in terms of like political conflict you know, it’s all there. But I guess one way that it is different for me is really the creativity that the people have, or in the patience for encountering these long-standing issues that really develop out of the history of, really modern Iranian history with the formation of an authoritarian state with Western interference, with colonialism, with the rise of Islamism. Just all of these different aspects of contemporary history that have affected them in a negative way, how well they are at navigating that and trying to find peaceful solutions to their problems. I think that’s one of the things that would be very striking for an American that goes to the country. I can’t really say that there’s one thing that’s very exotic or different. The thing that always stays with me though is really the kindness and the compassion, the patience, the flexibility and really the excellent communication skills that people have in Iran, and that’s something that I always reflect upon. And I tell people, and I would urge your listeners as well, and I think I told you this when we spoke previously, if anybody asks me, “What were the greatest moments of your life?,” I would first say the birth of my daughter. As a mom, I think that’s the first thing I would say. But second I would say really the best part of my life so far has been the time that I spent in Iran.

BW: Finally, I want to mention that you have a book in the works, and the name is Women in the Islamic Republic, How Gendered Citizenship Conditions the Iranian State, and that’s coming out soon?

SS: Yeah, hopefully. I just finished my book so I will send it back to the publishers and hear from them. The book theoretically is written for an academic community, but I think it will also be of interest for people who are not academics and who don’t work in the university because really, what the book shows is that typically we hear about Iranian women and how they’re oppressed and, you know, how difficult it is life for them after the Revolution. But very rarely do we hear not just about how they’ve resisted what has happened, whether it was war or the rise of conservative politics, anti-feminist politics. Not only have they resisted, but my book shows how in the process of resisting they forced the Islamic Republic, their families, their husbands, their brothers, their male colleagues to change their policies and to change the way that they interact with women. So, the book shows that there’s this whole other side of life in the Islamic Republic and there are these spaces that women have carved out that I would say are actually much more radical than what we might see in women’s movements in the United States or in democratic countries.

BW: Interesting. OK. Well thank you very much for joining us.

SS: Thank you for having me.

Matt McGowan: Music for Short Talks From the Hill was written and performed by local musician Ben Harris. For more information and additional podcasts, visit Research Frontiers at uark.edu, the home of research news at the University of Arkansas.

About The Author

Matt McGowan writes about research in the College of Engineering, Sam M. Walton College of Business, School of Law and other areas. He is the editor of Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast of the University of Arkansas. Reach him at 479-575-4246 or dmcgowa@uark.edu.

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