By Niloufar Ketabi, Center Fall Intern
As scholar and activist bell hooks believes that “feminism is for everybody,” Professor Catherine Sameh believes that “transnational feminism is [too] for everyone.” From Sameh’s perspective, “you cannot help but think internationally, especially with global issues, such as the pandemic, wars, migration, conflicts in Afghanistan, Iran, and different parts of the world.” Regardless of where we live, the activist, scholar and transnational feminist says, “we are all impacted by these issues.”
Sameh was born in Seattle, Washington to an Iranian father and an American mother, both of whom were engaged with careers in the medical field. Her father eventually took a job opportunity in eastern Washington where Sameh was raised. They lived in the rather dry and desert-like climate of a small agricultural community in Walla Walla, leading a typical small town American life, aside from the important distinction that her father is Iranian. Sameh grew with a sense of connection to Iranian culture through her father’s cooking, his perfected tahdig techniques raising her own culinary standards. Even now, she aspires to one day make her own tahdig and ghormeh sabzi as her father does. But as a teenager in the 1970s, Sameh watched the Iranian Revolution unfold, witnessing her father constantly following news about Iran on the television set. As the events in Iran unfolded she became increasingly conscious of the ways that her family background and experiences were distinct from those of her peers.
Sameh believes that being half-Iranian has influenced her work in several ways. The first sparks of her thinking and scholarship around transnational feminism might have come from the fact that although she knew some Iranian relatives in the US, she met most of them in 2009, when she travelled with her family to Iran for the first time. With her family’s scattered locations and history, she constantly ponders the different histories between migratory patterns, as well as the different contexts that shape people’s experiences and genders. Throughout her career she has felt the responsibility to “do right by [her] father.” Her heritage made her deeply invested in breaking down the repeated negative representations of Iranians perpetuated by the West, and in the media, and felt compelled to make certain her work did not feed into Eurocentric ideologies and ideas. To Sameh, “all scholarship is autobiographical,” because in every discipline, she adds, “there are always certain questions that one answers about oneself.”
Sameh is an associate professor at UC Irvine in the Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, but her particular focus is transnational feminisms. Sameh identifies the source of her interest in this field as following on the heels of her undergraduate studies in 1993, when she considered but then hesitated to pursue her studies in feminist healthcare. Instead, she and a couple of her friends opened a feminist bookstore in Portland, Oregon. The store did not only sell books, but also became a space for non-profit community organizing that centered feminist events, meetings, and gatherings. After 10 years of community building, gaining experience, and reading about Iran and feminism, Sameh knew she wanted to pursue her graduate studies in transnational feminism.
In her own words, Sameh says that transnational feminism calls for “looking at the ways in which we are all linked through various forms of power and historical phenomenon. It is to push beyond those powers and think about how different global processes unequally link us through power, privilege, economy, and history. Nonetheless, they do connect us.” To her, transnational feminism is an important framework that demonstrates ways of making connections among the differences and similarities within various contexts of struggle. In her book Axis of Hope: Iranian Women’s Rights Activism Across Borders (2019), Sameh places emphasis on themes of accessibility, connectivity, and community-building between and among women and feminists. By contextualizing the “One Million Signatures Campaign” in post-2005 Iran and during the reform period, she argues that feminist activism in Iran has been built on decades of work by generations of women and their aim to fundamentally reshape society. Sameh writes about women who fought for and made accessible a certain kind of feminist discourse about women’s equality that in previous decades had mainly been discussed in elite circles of scholars, clerics, and women journalists. She highlights the fact that despite Iran’s discriminatory legal structure, in the last decades of the post-revolution period, women have enjoyed substantial participation in education, literacy, and overall health benefits. She adds that women in Iran are “active agents in their history,” emphasizing that “they are pushing the boundaries and building their society. They are building connections that challenge sexism and patriarchy.”
Similarly, Sameh believes that current issues in Afghanistan can be traced to “empire, the War on Terror, and the United States’ long involvement in that region.” However, the most important takeaway for her is how to be in solidarity with women in Afghanistan, who are extremely vocal about what they will tolerate and what they don’t. Sameh argues that long-standing feminist activism and the power of women’s agency in Afghanistan has directly forced the Taliban to respond to women’s demands, by publicly claiming they will not curtail women’s freedom while in power. Even though they may not follow through on those statements, Sameh says, their response alone is a testament to the effectiveness of Afghan women’s organizing efforts. Sameh says she believes that this moment presents an opportunity for us to think about not only how we got to this moment, but how we can respond with a thoughtful transnational form of solidarity.
One of the major focuses of Sameh’s work has been the fact that normal daily acts of citizens can bring about paradigmatic shifts in societies. To her, everyday life is a rich site for research. Though she understands that looking at state governments and societies is an important and respectful way of conducting research, she’s more interested in “on the ground, everyday life.” She believes that even when a government is repressive and economic realities are harsh, “we can examine how people are surviving despite these obstacles and how they are making an impact on their society.” Ultimately, she says, “there is power and hope in getting together.”