Political anthropologist Negar Razavi spoke to community members on Friday, Oct. 21, as part of the college’s response to an alumni petition for Amherst’s formal support of students in Iran amid ongoing protests.
Razavi’s talk, entitled “The Iranian Feminist Protests in Global Context,” was sponsored by the Office of the Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein and moderated by Professor of History and Asian Languages and Civilizations Monica Ringer. In his Oct. 12 letter to the college community introducing the talk, President Michael Elliott said that the conversation was an opportunity for students to “learn more about and discuss the situation [in Iran] and its ramifications.”
Held in Fayerweather Hall’s Pruyne Lecture Hall, the event featured among its attendees Elliott, students from Ringer’s seminar “Inside Iran,” and other students and members of the larger Five College community. Ringer kicked off the event by thanking Navva Sedigh ’21, who led the petition effort, for “mobilizing our college community around this pressing issue” and Elliott for his “thoughtful” letter to the community in response to Sedigh’s petition.
Ringer then introduced Razavi to the audience. Razavi is a postdoctoral research associate at Northwestern University’s Kaplan Institute for the Humanities; she holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in social anthropology from Oxford University.
Razavi joined the event via Zoom from Washington, D.C., where she bases her current ethnographic research on the role of D.C.-based experts in shaping U.S. foreign policy in Iran and Egypt. Her work also draws on the fieldwork she has conducted in Tehran and Cairo. She prefaced her presentation by emphasizing that her scholarship does not qualify her as an expert on the current protests — those experts are in Iran, “on the streets or supporting the streets.”
Accompanied by a slide presentation, Razavi first contextualized the protests through the “concentric circle” theory: that we can analyze the movement by considering varying levels of its political support. The smallest and most important of these circles is understanding what is happening on the “streets” — a proverbial, she said, for the people physically “frontlining” the movement. She emphasized elements that are distinct about this particular movement as compared to the 1979 Iranian Revolution or the 2009 presidential election protests, including its particular focus on female liberation.
“‘Women, Life, Freedom’ is the slogan that’s bringing everyone together,” said Razavi. “That’s very unusual.”
Razavi also noted the mass mobilization of Iranian youth, with whom she worked closely during her fieldwork in Iran — specifically, the lower-middle class youth of Tehran, Iran’s capital. “Wealthy minds dismiss [these] young people as either too conservative ideologically and religiously or too economically disenfranchised to protest against the government upon which many of them are financially dependent,” she said, and yet these very communities have now joined the struggle. Finally, protesters are calling for revolution, a fact that distinguishes these protests from those of 2009, which were reformist in nature, Razavi said.
The people making up the next level of support are those in Iran who support the protests, but aren’t physical frontliners. While no official statistics exist to gauge the percentage of non-protesters in Iran who support the revolutionary cause, studying previous revolutions can provide insight into what these numbers might look like, said Razavi. According to her, “fear factors” might stop people from protesting, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a “much larger population” that supports the streets.
The last two levels, the Iranian diasporic community and international support, respectively, are where Razavi focuses her studies. She has a vested interest in “the politics of knowledge production,” and how, “for better or worse,” outside interpretations of the movement in Iran are “mediated by diasporic forces.”
One upside of this, according to Razavi, is that diasporic forces provide a politically engaged international community willing to stand in solidarity with protesters. The group, Razavi said, is made all the more vital by the absence of international media stationed on the ground in Iran. Members of this diaspora, such as Sedigh and some of those who signed her petition, prompted the college’s initial reaction to the events in Iran.
The downside, she said, is that diasporic communities run the risk of misinterpreting or oversimplifying the demands of protesters; she referenced a recent call with members of a D.C.-based think tank during which a participant made a claim “on behalf of the 86 million people of Iran,” a clear signal for Razavi of the “forces of translation” that sift the news coming out of Iran.
Razavi said that the key idea she wanted audience members to come away with is that events happening in Iran are filtered through all these layers, which leaves many facts with the potential for misconstruction. She encouraged audience members to “trace the voices back” to their sources on the ground in Iran, and to question the potential biases in news sources.
Given the chance to speak directly to Razavi during the Q&A portion of the event, one attendee — University of Massachussetts Professor of Engineering Golbon Zakeri — asked whether the U.S. should take a more proactive approach in its support for Iranian protesters, especially considering the absence of free press and a democratic political party in Iran with which negotiation would be feasible. Zakeri also pointed to a recent statement made by former President Barack Obama expressing his regret for not taking a stronger stance in 2009 in support of the Iranian people.
“This is something that former politicians do a lot,” Razavi responded, “which is to say, ‘I learned my lesson’ after the fact ... that’s not a signal that U.S. policy is going to fundamentally shift.” She explained that to U.S. leaders, intervention in Iran is “not a simple calculation” — statements such as Obama’s only represent a perspective in an internal debate within the U.S. government, and doesn’t necessarily translate to action.
In an interview with The Student, Zakeri, who attended the event with her 80-year-old mother from Iran, expressed her concerns with Razavi’s talk. Zakeri attended the event hoping to become “enlightened in terms of what the U.S. government ought to do,” she said. Specifically, she would have liked to know what “morally correct” routes of mediation the U.S. government could take in line with its constitution and U.N. charters.
“I certainly did not get anything like that out of the talk,” she said.
Zakeri also expressed her doubts with what she perceived as a “slant” of Razavi’s that U.S. support would “taint” the uprising in Iran if it were to voice its explicit support for protesters. “This seems highly aligned with a very far-left point of view that says whatever the U.S. says or touches must be wrong.”
Feeling like the talk was a “missed opportunity,” Zakeri said that she wished the college had invited a panel to represent the diversity of opinion that might better illustrate the “spectrum of Iranian society.”
Another attendee, an Iranian student who wished to remain anonymous due to safety concerns for her family in Iran, appreciated what she perceived to be an “unbiased and realistic” account of the movement since the death of Mahsa Amini. Amini was a 22-year-old Iranian woman who was arrested by the Guidance Patrol for not wearing her hijab in accordance with the Islamic Republic’s official dress code. She collapsed in police custody, with several witnesses reporting she had been severely beaten.
The student also expressed similar sentiments to Zakeri; she had hoped that Razavi’s talk would be more action-oriented. “What should we do on the outside?” she asked. “How can we amplify the noise?”
She was disappointed in Razavi’s low expectations for U.S. support for Iranian protesters, referring to Razavi’s conjecture that “human rights have never been the center of U.S. foreign policy.”
The student’s impression of Razavi’s slant is that the U.S. “isn’t going to help [Iranians] anyway”, and therefore shouldn’t interfere with the protests, she said. She found this to be “unrealistic,” especially considering the oppressive nature of the Islamic Republic and the restricted internet and media access of its citizens.
“I think people [on the] outside are… as important as people [on the] inside,” she said. “because if it wasn’t for us… nobody would have known what the hell is happening.”