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Iranian-American Feminist - 2003-02-06

English Feature #7-37153 Broadcast February 3, 2002

The United States is home to an estimated three hundred twenty thousand immigrants from Iran. Today on New American Voices, you’ll meet one of them – professor, author and director of the women’s studies program at Boston University, Shahla Haeri.

Both personally and professionally, cultural anthropologist Shahla Haeri challenges the stereotypes regarding Muslim women. A petite, dynamic woman with large dark eyes and graying curls, Ms Haeri sees no contradiction between her advocacy of feminism and the Muslim faith in which she was brought up.

“It becomes a contradiction only for those who think like that about these issues, like the woman who found it an oxymoron for me to be a Muslim feminist from Iran. But my students by and large don’t. My colleagues at the Women’s Studies program don’t see it as a contradiction, either.”

Shahla Haeri believes that many Americans harbor misconceptions about Muslim women, whether those living in the United States or in the Arab or South Asian worlds.

“I think the greatest misconception is, first of all, the identification of women with the veil, the assumption that all Muslim women are veiled. Many of them are, of course, but many of them aren’t. But then, also, it’s this assumption about the omnipotence of religion. It seems as if religion becomes something genetic, instinctive, that we instinctively behave because our religion says so. Which is not correct. So many cultural factors are involved.”

Shahla Haeri grew up in a well-to-do, cosmopolitan family in Teheran under the Shah. When she came to the United States as a college student in 1968, she found that in America at the time, women – even young college women - were not all that liberated.

“In terms of not really being free in thinking about other people, other subjects, wanting to form relationships irrespective of, you know, whether they had a boyfriend or not. That was another culture shock. Everybody needed to have a boyfriend, and Saturday night was a terrible night if you didn’t have somebody to go out with.”

But Shahla Haeri’s student years coincided with years of student activism and social change in this country. This was the time of anti-war protests, of the civil rights movement, and of the growth of the feminist movement. Ms. Haeri found the atmosphere very much to her liking.

“I have to say, my life was very exciting here. I was independent, I was studying, I was reading, I was involved in all kinds of social movements, so really I just had a tremendous feeling of being alive, doing things, being a part of it.”

By the time Shahla Haeri finished her doctoral studies in anthropology at the University of California, she was married to an American, and the Revolution had taken place in Iran, blocking her return home. So she pursued an academic career in the United States, meanwhile choosing to specialize in an area of study that links directly to the culture of her native land. Ms Haeri has written and lectured extensively, both in English and in Persian, on religion, law and gender dynamics in the Muslim world. She has conducted research in Iran, Pakistan and India. And as head of the women’s studies program at Boston University, she has a continuing interest in the impact of American feminism on the self-perception of women in other countries.

“I think American women and the feminist movement had a tremendous impact world-wide, and many people tried to emulate them. I think on the whole the feminist movement has been tremendous in changing the public consciousness, the way people think about politics, about relationships, about family, about friendship, about love.”

Having observed the American feminist movement for the last three decades, Ms Haeri finds it somewhat surprising that present-day young women are not nearly as interested in feminist issues as their mothers were.

“One may actually observe a sort of a backlash to some extent. I mean, I teach, and I teach huge classes, and one of them has to do with gender studies, and I ask my students how many of them consider themselves feminists, and hardly ten of them raised their hands. Which is really surprising, given how hard their mothers worked to get them to where they are. They don’t realize that they are the great beneficiaries of what went on, you know, thirty years ago.”

Shahla Haeri recalls she was a foreign student here when she first encountered the principles she believes provide the foundation for the struggle for equality and women’s rights in America.

“I really was fascinated by the whole idea of freedom, opportunity, really, opportunity to do things that you like. Emphasis on individuality, that you as an individual count, mean something, can go and do something. I remember I read the Bill of Rights, and I was just fascinated by it, I still am, I think really it is the greatest political document that exists.”

Iranian-American professor, author and feminist Shahla Haeri says those same fundamental principles of American democracy gave her the opportunity – living in this country - to develop her full potential as an individual and as a scholar.