By Samira Damavandi, Research Assistant for the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies
“Delving into this research is a provocation to reimagine the diaspora today and rethink diasporic subjectivity and politics in our current moment,” says Dr. Manijeh Nasrabadi, Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College, when I asked about her research on the history of Iranian student activism in the United States.
Nasrabadi will be one of the panelists at the San Francisco State University “Forty Years & More: International Conference on Iranian Diaspora Studies” March 28-30 2019 where she will be part of a roundtable panel titled, “Children of Revolutionaries: the Afterlives of the Iranian Left.” Nasrabadi’s research focuses on “political cultures of the Iranian diaspora in the U.S., tracing generational shifts in subjectivity, transnational activism, and cultural production across the historical arc of U.S.-Iran relations.” In this fiftieth anniversary of the 1968 civil and students rights’ movements, it is fitting to point to Nasrabadi’s article, The Iranian Student Movement and the Making of Global 1968, which she authored with Dr. Afshin Matin-asgari, a history professor at California State University, Los Angeles. Her book, based on her full dissertation project, will be published by Duke University Press next year.
I first was introduced to Dr. Nasrabadi’s work as an undergraduate student when I attended the talk she gave at UC Berkeley’s Gender and Women’s Studies Department several years ago. UC Berkeley had a thriving Iranian student population throughout the 1960s and 1970s and Nasrabadi’s research draws from critical source materials that were part of the Confederation of Iranian Students organization, as well as interviews with activists who were part of the vibrant chapter in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Dr. Nasrabadi’s work is situated and influenced by her activism and background. She grew up in Washington DC at the height of the Cold War. Her father came from Iran in the 1960s as a foreign student in the earliest waves of students who came to the US for higher education in the aftermath of the 1953 Coup. Her mother is of Ashkenazi Jewish background and grew up in New Jersey.
Her political and intellectual journey began as a high school anti-war activist during the first Gulf War and continued through her organizing against subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. She is passionate about anti-imperialist and anti-racist movements and was not initially focused on Iran. After September 11th, however, she identified a “new feeling” due to the intensified climate of Islamophobia and racism that she, and so many other Iranians and Arabs, and other racialized people faced on an ongoing basis. This propelled a new sense of urgency about visiting Iran, meeting her father’s extended family, and learning more about a country that had been continuously demonized since she was a child. She booked a one-way ticket to Iran, visited her father’s hometown of Yazd, and studied and took Persian language classes. She has continued to visit her family in Iran nearly every year since.
Based on these visits, Nasrabadi began writing a memoir of her family and the influences on her own life. After diving deeper into Iranian history, she craved a larger theoretical framework with which to examine the production of the Iranian diaspora in the United States and that’s when she began pursuing a PhD in American Studies that had a particular emphasis on transnational American studies and the legacy of US imperialism. During her graduate studies, Nasrabadi became intrigued by the history of Iranian student activism in the 1960s and 1970s and its engagement with third world solidarity movements. Using in depth interviews and archival sources, she produced her original research on the Iranian student opposition to the Shah. One of the key questions was: “what was the process through which people became revolutionaries and how was it that this cohort of young people transformed from foreign students to committed activists?” Her research examines questions about who chooses to become involved with revolutionary movements, what shapes their choices, how they organized, and what their lived experiences of those events were.
Nasrabadi’s research fills in a major lacunae in the existing scholarship by utilizing feminist and queer scholarship to analyze the gender and sexual politics of diasporic and transnational social movements. As Nasrabadi explains, women played a significant role in fighting colonialism and imperialism, but we know very little about their experiences and investments in revolutionary student politics. By studying the everyday practices, affects and emotions circulating and constituting the Iranian student movement, she looks at how gender and sexual hierarchies were challenged, transformed and reinscribed.
“The places where we see Iranian students make connection between imperialism, patriarchy, and dictatorship and identify all three as sources women’s oppression become an important for charting a genealogy of transnational Iranian feminism,” states Nasrabadi.
Her work has been well received in the field of American Studies as it has been identified as “missing history” of 1960s and 1970s student radicalism. Her work also sheds light on an under-researched area of West Asians in the US and in Third World solidarity movements, and on the impact of US-Iran relations in the formation of diaspora consciousness and culture. “I find the most exciting part of my work is the opportunity to reimagine the diaspora and recuperate and reclaim a tradition of radical opposition to injustice,” she adds. “I want to pose questions about what it means to be living here in a time of unending war and economic crisis and what it means to have access to understanding the long intertwining relationship between the US and Iran. How can we refuse to play into dominant discourses that counterpose these two nations and instead imagine what new forms of grassroots transnational solidarity might look like?”
In addition to her book, Nasrabadi is working on several other projects that include the post-1979 generation’s cultural production and diasporic subjectivity that does not align with racial and nationalist categories.
We are looking forward to hearing more about Nasrabadi’s research at the upcoming conference. For a full list of speakers and the conference schedule, please see: https://ids.sfsu.edu/conference.
To learn more about Nasrabadi’s work, take a listen to the latest Ajam Media Collective podcast at: https://ajammc.com/2019/01/20/ajam-podcast-8-iranian-internationalism/.
*PHOTO CREDIT: “San Francisco State College Fists,” by Nacio Jan Brown.
To see more Bay Area Images from the 1960s by Nacio Jan Brown check out his webpage: Nacio Jan Brown, https://www.ragtheater.com.
Samira Damavandi is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. She received her M.Phil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Oxford, St. Antony’s College and her BA from UC Berkeley in Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies. She has worked with various Iranian diaspora organizations over the last ten years. Her work and research focuses on Iran and she is thrilled to have the opportunity to delve deeper into this field. You can follow her on Twitter at @samira_says .