Barnard held a lecture on the women of Iran featuring Nina Ansary on Friday night. We sent Daily Editor Asya Sagnak to check it out.
This Friday, the Barnard Center for Research on Women and the Middle East Institute at Columbia University hosted Barnard alum Nina Ansary in a conversation based off her widely anticipated book about the misunderstood story of women in Iran—Jewels of Allah. Joined by Richard Bulliet, Columbia Professor of History and Middle East Studies, and Debora Spar, President of Barnard College, Ansary discussed her view on the submission of women since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, challenging the dominant narrative of passive submission and instead shedding light on “an unprecedented surge in female literacy and a flourishing feminist movement against the boundaries of traditional religious prescription.”
As soon as Ansary started speaking, she began advocating for those she felt had been looked over – those whose stories had been untold. The subject of conversation quickly veered to a staple in the debate over Muslim women’s rights: the veil. “This is an example of a perfect storm”, she explained, putting air quotations around the phrase. “Context changes everything. Seemingly liberal measures can become oppressive, and seemingly backward measures can become empowering.” In the context of post-revolutionary Iran, the veil was welcome and comfortable, and Western efforts to “free” covered women were met with backlash from the women themselves. Similarly, the hasty push towards co-educationalism actually proved detrimental to female literacy due to conservative families who no longer felt comfortable sending their daughters to school. “They can not simply be expected to embrace the adoption of a Western lifestyle,” Ansary added. “It’s not that simple.”
It soon became clear that this was a trend – Western feminism can not be translated directly into Iran, and the assumption that it can stems from widespread ignorance about the way of live in Middle Eastern cultures. Bulliet contributed with a story about a group of unveiled Iranian visitors to the United States, expressing that many of the Americans had seen the women and assumed that the lack of veil meant the country had somehow achieved gender equality. As he put it: “You don’t change attitudes just by changing clothes, yet they didn’t know any better. Would anyone look at us Americans and be able to identify an Evangelical Protestant by clothing?” I found myself agreeing – born and raised Muslim, I could never compare New York to my native Istanbul, let alone directly superimpose its social policies, no matter how often I wish I could. So, there was one question on my mind: how can we attempt to further the liberation of women in such areas while remaining aware of their unique contexts?
Luckily, President Spar soon shifted the discussion towards transnational feminism. Ansary elaborated: “Academia and social media can amplify voices to create a platform of international sharing. This is how ideas spread from Simone de Beauvoir to a homemaker in Iran.” And in fact, the audience was the perfect example of this phenomenon – there were alums from the classes of ‘55, ‘67, ‘92, even a man who identified himself as “the husband of a ‘57 Barnard revolutionary.” There were Iranians standing up and sharing their stories, as well as women from Latin America, Europe, Africa, all contributing to the discussion. Ansary herself identified many of her old professors from the crowd and thanked them for their participation. The event itself became a perfect example of how to move forward – how to take steps towards the future without erasing native narratives, instead encouraging an atmosphere of open-minded sharing.
The final note of the evening was hopeful, drawing attention towards the progress made by feminists within Iran and discussing the achievements of women who had re-interpreted sections of the Quran to paint them in a non-oppressive light. Before concluding, Ansary had a moment of reflection. “I don’t know if anyone cares about women in Iran,” she said, turning to Bulliet, “but I care and you care and that’s good enough.” In response, President Spar turned and pointed towards the audience (of around 200) – as her gesture pointed out, we certainly cared, and we were motivated to continue caring. Hopefully, that motivation will only increase as the BCRW expands upon its efforts to bring more international women’s rights awareness to campus.
Photo courtesy of the event’s website