Shirin Saeidi, Women and the Islamic Republic: How Gendered Citizenship Conditions the Iranian State (Cambridge University Press, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Shirin Saeidi (SS): I wrote this book because it was a book I wanted to read. I came of age during a time when the images and discussions of Muslim women revolved around a trope of victimhood, and the urgency of international intervention in the region was a regular news headline. Unfortunately, we are seeing a resurgence of this discourse in relation to Iranian women among some oppositional forces in the Iranian diaspora today. By the time I was in my early twenties, I had witnessed four devasting wars in the part of the world where I came from: the Iran-Iraq war, the US invasion of Iraq, the US invasion of Afghanistan, and the ongoing war on Palestinian lives. I also made intellectual and affective connections between US foreign policy in the Middle East and the war against African Americans in the United States, which is most visible in the US prison industry, though the prowess of racial capitalism and empire can also be seen routinely on the streets of DC, Maryland, and Virginia. Due to the racial politics of the 1990s and early 2000s in Northern Virginia and a lack of in-depth ethnographic study of Middle Eastern politics by political scientists, I moved towards academia.
Living near Washington, DC, I had access to excellent universities and mentors, even though the syllabi were often quite narrow. A partial kind of privilege placed not only a sense of great anger but also responsibility onto me. Writing was my outlet, and so I decided to write a doctoral dissertation on the gendered effects of war not only on women but on the state as well. This book began as a doctoral dissertation at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. Aside from my personal commitments to social justice, I also had an intellectual question that I took great pleasure in pursuing: how do non-elite women, women not connected to the state or organized activism, influence national and international politics? As my friend and colleague Julio César Díaz Calderón recently reminded me, academia is a space for elites, and elites prefer to speak only with other elites. This created space for me to bring attention to the lives of women that were overlooked as a major political force not only by the Iranian state but also by academics and the international system.
Between 2007 and 2012, I made several fieldwork trips to Iran and interviewed non-elite women involved in the Iran-Iraq war, such as nurses and women who fought on battlefronts as armed soldiers. I carried out extensive archival research at this time in London and Tehran. I also conducted interviews in various parts of Europe with former leftist political prisoners now living in exile. My interviewees experienced incarceration during the 1980-88 period when the Iranian state was undergoing a civil war between Islamist and leftist revolutionaries vying for power. Between 2012 and 2014, I lived and worked in Iran, and this resulted in rewriting half of the dissertation, which later would become this book.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SS: A topic that in some ways motivates all of my research is how non-elite people not connected to the state or involved in organized political activism influence national and international politics. In an effort to engage with this topic, Women and the Islamic Republic examines Iranian women’s involvement in the Iran-Iraq war not just as nurses and fighters but also as partners or children of men involved with war. I also study how leftist women who were incarcerated during this period survived and loved as well as how they imagined the impact of their activism. The ways in which revolution and war fail to uplift at least some women’s lives is one issue that arises in this book. For instance, both women involved with the war and leftist activism recall the political motivation behind their marriages, and the long-term impact of their husbands’ untimely deaths. My book highlights the similarities that Islamist, leftist, and secular Iranian women shared at this time.
Women and the Islamic Republic also engages with a puzzle that occupies my mind and heart, which is the question of how we can better negotiate and work across differences as a nation. Additionally, I look at the legacies of conflict by introducing readers to the younger generation of Islamist activists working toward establishing an Islamic Republic in Iran. By highlighting how the state’s project of reproducing itself through undermining feminist projects has backfired and forged feminist citizens critical of its rule, my book demonstrates the distinct effect of citizenship in a non-Western context.
The literature I rely on to build my arguments include work on gender, citizenship, war, and state formation, but the study is interdisciplinary and crosses the boundaries between political science, anthropology, and sociology in terms of the methods and lenses used. I studied at Cambridge University and wrote this dissertation under the supervision of Glen Rangwala, who encouraged me to hold an expanded view of the literature and not to read narrowly or become too attached to disciplinary debates.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SS: Women and the Islamic Republic is my first book and touches upon only some of my questions and desires as a writer. It highlights my commitment to telling the stories of those who come into this world and leave it “with little trace of the lives they lived” or their contribution to national and global politics, as Siba N'Zatioula Grovogui recently stated at the annual International Studies Association conference. This book and the ethical aspirations from which it evolved are a foundation I hope to build upon and continue to develop.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SS: Of course, I greatly appreciate anyone who engages with my research. But my audience is primarily the people living inside Iran. Writing is how I stay connected to a nation I was separated from without consent as a child because of the intersecting ramifications of revolution and war for my family. I hope my research resonates not only with my colleagues based in Iran but also with people outside the academy. I equally appreciate critical activists and scholars based in the West where I work and teach. These are the two main audiences I write to and am in conversation with and whose assessment of my work matters the most to me. I am humbled by my colleagues’ praise of the book, especially those in political science. I hope the book will contribute to ethnographically grounded literature on the Middle East in political science and help us rethink the foundational myths of our discipline by seeing how notions such as citizenship develop and are powerful yet distinct tools for state-making in non-Western contexts. It is also my wish that the political labor of activists in Iran, especially women, is not only studied as a topic for upholding the human rights industry in the West but is also explored due to the globally informed and transformative capacities that the contributions of activists hold for the international system.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SS: I am currently conducting fieldwork in the United States and Europe to understand how the Iranian diaspora develops politically alongside the real-time effects of racial capitalism and empire. In particular, I shine a light on the healers in the diaspora—the ones who build connectivities despite differences, who bring people together in constructive and productive ways, and who have energy to keep going when everyone else disconnects. The recent contention within the Iranian diaspora has motivated my pursuit of this project because of the ways in which the community leaders, activists, and scholars with long-term experience in challenging the conditions that make unfreedom possible were made invisible. While certain states and individuals created divisions between Iranians since the September 2022 protests, there are also people in the diaspora working tirelessly to materialize another kind of world. The diasporic leaders and activists who exemplify the meaning of the slogan “woman, life, freedom” by enabling life have captured my attention and imagination. This is mostly because they are able to do the kind of care work I wish I could do better and more consistently. While in Women and the Islamic Republic I sought to understand the impact of women’s activism on the state, in my current manuscript I offer insight into how non-elite Iranians in the diaspora are pushing back against the effects of racial capitalism and empire by living outside of nation-state boundaries.
Excerpt from the book (from pp. 17-21)
Citizenship and State Formation: Toward a New Approach
Women and the Islamic Republic draws upon the more recent generation of state formation literature to construct an original theoretical framework for studying the art of statecraft through acts of citizenship. Popular claim-making efforts and the state’s cultural dimensions have been examined, particularly within ethnographic studies of the state, but without a lens on acts of citizenship. Additionally, studies of state formation have depicted the state as the “effect” of particular practices and stressed the importance of studying political practice “as it is”.
I argue that this unstable nexus between statecraft and particular enactments makes acts of citizenship integral to the state’s conditioning. Importantly, “the state then is not the focus of the story: the process of crafting the state, which is constantly being performed in a variety of ways, is the focus of understanding political authority and power. Statecraft is highly contextual and is a crafting, a process with a multiplicity of particular instantiations”. While we know that citizenship is about governance and an important attribute of the modern state, we also know that the subject-making process is contested during everyday life to complicate how citizenship is studied.
Women and the Islamic Republic retheorizes Engin Isin’s notion of acts of citizenship as a lens to understand how the non-elite women I interviewed conditioned the state formation process in post-1979 Iran. For Isin, agency on the local terrain results in intervening acts or the making of “scenes” that demonstrate self-actualization by disrupting the status quo or the regime’s governing tactics, as feminist scholars have rightly argued within Middle East studies and citizenship studies. Drawing on the work of Arendt and Butler among other philosophers, Isin argues that once an act is performed it produces unpredictable effects within society between “others” and the “Other.” This particular component of Isin’s theorization allows me to illustrate how agency constructs anything beyond one’s own subjectivity or disposition to external forms of oppression like patriarchy, which is an important feminist task in political science and beyond.
I understand Isin’s work to argue that citizenship can take different forms that might be considered more or less top down or bottom up but can become scripted and acts of citizenship interrupt those established scripts – but not necessarily from one direction or the other. I read acts of citizenship not necessarily as merely acts of agency or self-actualization because this suggests an intentionality and predictability that Isin argues may not be present. Isin contends that acts of citizenship are breaks or interruptions of established scenes or scripts, which may or may not have longevity or transformative effects in the longer term. We therefore must not overemphasize individual acts of citizenship and attribute an unrealistic level of influence to individual interventions. As such, I contextualize acts of citizenship within the broader historical contingencies that women encountered during different time periods in postrevolutionary Iran. As the Islamic Republic addressed women’s rights, roles, and responsibilities grounded in prevailing citizenry frameworks interwoven with republicanism, Shi’i reverence for female Muslim figures, and the Iran–Iraq war (and manipulation of its legacies), women and men also entered into this negotiation with the state.
I use acts of citizenship as a working concept that discloses how citizenship forms in momentary bursts through contentious politics aimed at the state and/or society. While Isin conflates acts of citizenship with “the right to demand rights,” I refrain from this approach. At least in the Iranian context, acts of citizenship are at times forged through commands that fall outside the “right to demand rights” framework. By looking at citizenship as appeals made to the state and its institutions, we place limits on women’s engagement with rights. For instance, in Chapter 3 I highlight spiritual acts of citizenship – interventions evolving out of the historical contingencies of the 1979 revolution and geared toward preserving the revolutionary citizen that one had created with care through familial and community support, as well as erudite poetry. In another illustration, as I show in Chapter 4, people sometimes exert their agency from within society with acts of citizenship centered on belonging and togetherness – not in the name of rights alone but instead grounded in moral assessments. Nevertheless, Isin’s notion of acts of citizenship and the attention he draws to claims of specific rights in contextualized moments permit me to consider the interventions of people living with irregular citizenry frameworks in relation to conditioning of the state formation process.
Each chapter illustrates the diverse, complementary, and conflicting notions of rights, roles, and responsibilities that the women included in this study express through their rights demands, pursuit of spiritual growth, moral calculations, and formation of belonging during different moments of postrevolutionary Iranian history. Moreover, each chapter demonstrates how in particular moments research participants’ acts of citizenship uphold, and in other instances destabilize, larger power structures in the Islamic Republic. Acts of citizenship, as I employ them in this book, do not collapse this insight with claims of a homogeneous identity for those performing citizenry acts in an effort to offer a view of an “essential self.”
The term “citizen” is used in official state newspapers and media productions daily by scholars based in Iran who write in Persian for an Iranian audience. It is also used to demand specific rights during assemblies. “Citizen” is employed by women’s rights activists today to defend their rights from behind bars. Young Hezbollah cultural activists also use “citizen” to discuss the subjectivities of male soldiers who volunteered in the Iran–Iraq war. There is even a chain department store in Tehran called Shahrvand (citizen). Yet, perhaps due to the nondemocratic elements that exist in the Islamic Republic, the non-Islamic roots of the term, or the academic tendency to connect citizenship to the state (instead of the city, for instance), the word “citizenship” remains controversial in contemporary Iran.
During my years of living in Iran and traveling in the country, I continually encountered people who expressed confusion over (or complete rejection of) their citizenry status. This happened despite documentations of contestations over citizenship rights and responsibilities in the postrevolutionary constitution, as well as such striking illustrations of citizenship theories and practices in Iranian society. The feeling among Iranians that they are not citizens has been addressed in novels such as Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel (2011). The novel addresses post-1979 Iran’s social complexities through the ordeals of a retired colonel who has children involved in Islamist and leftist activism. Two of his children are executed in prison for their leftist activism, one is martyred in the warfront, and one is confined to the house as a disappointed revolutionary. In this context, we encounter his daughter, Farzaneh, who is married to an abusive husband. She correlates her abuse to the experience of the nation after the 1979 revolution, finding a sense of commonality: “I’m a stranger in my own home! The tragedy of our whole country is the same: we are all alienated, strangers in our own land. It’s tragic. The odd thing is that we have never got used to it. Yet, woe betide us if we do”. The sentiment of not being a citizen but acting like one anyway came through in my fieldwork as well. My book captures this response to life in postrevolutionary Iran by imagining Isin’s notion of acts of citizenship through ethnographic research in a context “beyond the West.”
Acts of citizenship, as I conceptualize them, do not signify an identity or a reliable “map” for thinking through postrevolutionary Iranian politics. Citizenship and state formation are inextricably interconnected. Acts of citizenship, then, are not a “definitive concept” in Women and the Islamic Republic. Instead, I “merely suggest directions along which to look” when we explore non- elite women’s roles in conditioning the state formation process. Women and the Islamic Republic traces the endurance of the past in the present to consider the import of religion and warfare on the making of postrevolutionary Iran.
I locate my analysis at the intersection of the situated social circumstance in which people live, the real-time contingencies that they experience, and their individual capacity for creativity. Recognizing that people do not generally “invent an entire ontology of actions from scratch,” what follows reveals the situated historical contingencies that engendered my research participants’ variegated approaches to what are, at times, surprisingly unruly expressions of citizenship. Acts of citizenship, as I came to understand them during this project, are not “unilaterally imposed” by society. Instead, they “are transmitted and translated through negotiations with situated religious and citizenship norms”. The Islamic Republic’s political structures, Shi’i foundations, and political experiences cannot be sidestepped for a glorification of women’s desires, thoughts, and acts.