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Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Dr. Halleh Ghorashi of Vrije University On Building a Sense of Empowerment and Home

By Delaram Hosseinioun, Center Intern, Leiden University

Dr. Halleh Ghorashi believes that social barriers are meant to be broken. As a multidisciplinary scholar inspired by critical theory and as engaged scholar, Ghorashi has continuously pushed and broken barriers since she first arrived in the Netherlands as a political refugee after the upheaval in Iran after the 1979 revolution and the ensuing Iran-Iraq War. As an academic, Ghorashi has reflected on and sought to center the experience of minority groups in the Netherlands throughout her career. Her work to address inequity and discrimination has been recognized by many, including the Dutch feminist magazine Opzij, which in 2009, named Ghorashi one of the 100 most influential women in the country. She was also recognized by the national newspaper de Volkskrant in 2018, 2019, and 2020, as “one of the 200 most influential people in the Netherlands.”

Her path, however, was not an easy one. Like many others of her generation, the revolution in Iran offered a moment of hopeful transformation, but was soon met with disappointment and repression, particularly for women. Seeking an opportunity for democratic participation as well as to further her education, Ghorashi sought refuge in the Netherlands in 1988.

When Ghorashi first arrived and enrolled in a Dutch language course, most participants wanted to attend university. As a refugee, not knowing anyone and having no real sense of her future, attendance at a university seemed out of reach. “At first, I thought of becoming a secretary,” she says. But her teacher’s words, however, changed her mind. “Why shouldn’t you seek a university degree?” her teacher asked. “You are the best student. You can. You should be more ambitious.’’ That was the moment she asked herself, ”why not?” She says that her Dutch instructor was one of the most influential people in her life and believed in her even when she herself did not. “People like that have essential for my success,” she adds.  

Ghorashi says that, “since childhood her sense of justice was highly-tuned, always seeking the highest ideals for the society, equality, democracy, and freedom,” yet she also had to learn the theories that make these values possible, to actualize them beyond abstract concepts. This transition through her education made Ghorashi reconsider her approach and she realized, ”If identities can change and develop, why can’t the meaning of home be just as changeable?” Merging her sense of justice with those values and ideologies, she aimed to craft a new understanding of one’s home and sense of belonging for the marginalized.

 “At the time of my arrival, being a woman from an Islamic country was viewed by many in the Netherlands as negative; we were viewed as being un-emancipated, being suppressed by the men. And from the perspective of many Dutch people, the idea of being a refugee or an immigrant, was that I and others like me, didn’t have much to offer,” she explains. Refugees were seen as dependents rather than having qualities as a resource for their new society, she explains. “Over time, I saw no refugees or women of Middle Eastern backgrounds who were able to influence social policy. I was determined to change that perception,” she adds.

After thirty years of research, Ghorashi shares what also has shifted in the dominant discourse in the Netherlands. “Refugees and migrants from Islamic societies are not only seen as helpless and incompetent now, but also as potentially dangerous. Because such an image is actively negative, you are excluded. Then refugees are either solely see as people who are not able to contribute properly to society or if there is any active agency attributed to them, it has a negative connotation like being dangerous.” 

Ghorashi believes ”acts of exclusion and othering however don’t always have to go together with intentional forms of exclusion. In democratic societies such as the Netherlands seeing people as helpless and wanting to help can lead to exclusion in practice because the qualities of the people are ignored.”  She discovered this othering process during her PhD research, and she began applying academic knowledge to analyse how Iranians in the diaspora in the Netherlands and the US went about crafting a sense of identity and belonging for themselves. Her dissertation, later published as  Ways to Survive, Battles to Win: Iranian Women Exiles in the Netherlands and the United States, reflects some of the first comparative research on Iranian women in the Western diaspora context. Summarizing the ideas of Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, Ghorashi notes how “feeling at home is not only about the conscious choices people make, but also in choosing to be in an environment where they can feel at ease—a familiar environment that has features of their ‘embodied history or  habitus.’”

To create such an environment for herself, Ghorashi began by sharing stories about her own social activism in Iran with Dutch people. Through these conversations, she focused on ‘‘building new connections’’and thus undermining the image of Iranian female immigrants as “submissive” and needing to be rescued. Ghorashi says that her own work and process as both a woman and a researcher was enabled by a feeling that “there was enough space for her to be valued.” She says she believes “power is not only about holding a position, but is also situated within the discourses that are shaped by historical contexts and that are presented through the network of words and images around us. The way to change is to be reflective about it and narrate alternative stories,” she adds.

Ghorashi explains that ”it is important not to let the dismissive space own you. Society should not dictate how you act. It is a space to reflect on your own position. How this position shapes your thinking, is one aspect, but one must try to think differently.” For example, Ghorashi says that though “the Dutch regard themselves as emancipated and progressive, when you come from an Islamic country, they often think you don’t know much about democracy or emancipation. But we know that this far from the truth.”

Frequently, Ghorashi says, she receives emails from young talented Iranians coming to the Netherlands. “They have the benefit of knowledge that didn’t exist thirty years ago, but still, these newer generations, when they arrive here, are often confronted with the realization of how much they are ‘Othered.’” She explains that those who come from Iran or other Middle Eastern countries are viewed through the lens of the conflicts and social problems in their home countries. “Their talent and abilities are often overlooked,” she says. “Because of this, they fit within a discursive category of being the ones who need to be helped,’’ she adds.

This challenge is often met with inexperience of how to deal with these attitudes. As a result, “Either they struggle or withdraw, and often feel disappointed. These new generations miss the signals to change the context. In Farsi, we have this expression, Hagh dadani nist, gereftanie— the right or privileges won’t be given to you, you have to go after it. But this attitude of fighting for your right does not work here all the time. Then you think that you won the fight but an unexpected war of ignorance and marginalization starts,” she explains.

Ghorashi says that in a democratic society like the Netherlands where power is less visible than in repressive societies, it is more difficult to unsettle structural power which is often taken for granted. It is not only about focusing on fighting against the position of power to get your rights.  “Although we need social movements, like Black Lives Matter to claim justice, we also have to play the game and unsettle the subtle forms of power from within.” To challenge these subtle forms of power, she says, people need to know the subtilties in a game and must be able to play it well—something that is not easy for people who are new to this society. Ghorashi points to how in the Netherlands it is not appropriate to boast about one’s achievements, “but one  has to also show one’s quality.” She says finding the right balance is essential. “But this is very contextual since in the US, generally, when you are confident and show (off) your qualities you are more likely to be seen and appreciated,” she adds. Ghorashi encourages newer generations of immigrants to embrace the subtlety of how things work in each culture and society. “If they exclude you, it is important to find a way to change the dynamics,” adding that in the Netherlands, one can be successful as well, but the Dutch context is challenging and different from other countries.

Ghorashi knows something about understanding the dynamics of success in the Netherlands. In 2018, she was appointed as a crown member of SER (Social Economic Council), the most influential Economic and Social Advisory Board in the Netherlands. In 2020, she was appointed as a member of KNAW (The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences) and, in 2021, she received Amsterdam’s Science & Innovation Impact Award. Her vision, to break barriers and to undermine the negative images of migrants and refugees in the Netherlands, has by example and in her research created alternative possibilities for inclusion and has gained wider recognition.

Today, as she continues as a full professor in Amsterdam’s Vrije University, Ghorashi strives to inspire students in much the same way that her mentors and stories of women she has worked with and researched inspired her. She says that the idea of solidarity for her is a way to break the isolation and exclusion that can result from migration . Ghorashi says “we can hold onto small inspirations. I believe we are the creators of our own paths but not entirely on our own.  We need support structure to get inspired to pursue our paths. In doing so, I try to think about possibilities within the seemingly impossible structures that exist.”

She notes, ”solidarity, patience and resilience eventually pay off, even when things are discouraging— the secret is not to give up on the soft fight for justice. Things are indeed changing.” As an example, she offers that “previously, Dutch cultural organisations claimed to be inclusive, inviting groups from various backgrounds, but the goal was to help them become like them. Diversity was about changing and fixing the other,” she says. “But social movements such as the Black Lives Matter protests in the US together with untiring attempts by critical thinkers in past decades have also affected Dutch society. Although the diversity of perspectives and the lack of a polyvocality is still significant in the Netherlands, there are some structural changes that are noticeable as well,” she adds.  

Her personal experience as well as her academic career have permitted Ghorashi “to see a more positively engaging side of the society which was often rendered invisible in the media,” she says. “It has been a representation of immigrants and refugees that has mostly focused on the negative.” Ghorashi discovered that cross-cultural and cross-generation solidarity is crucial for all societies in order to not forget the power of connectedness in the struggle for more just and inclusive societies. “It is essential for diaspora communities to move beyond the individual’s own circumstances and think about empowerment in a relational manner,” she says. Ghorashi says ”the recent shifts  toward a more structural attention for diversity and inclusion make us realize that strict boundaries of self and other have been questioned more than ever before. And at the same time we see also more polarization in the society. But the growth of societal reflective capacity and engaged solidarity makes me hopeful.’’ For Ghorashi the diaspora ”is a possibility for engagement, relying on insiders as well as immigrant to change and reframe the often-prevailing negative discourses.’’

On the question of how she keeps going, Ghorashi says “if I focus on the growth of right-wing movements here, I get disappointed. Instead, I draw inspiration from those around me, young students with hopes and dreams, colleagues or the positive energy coming from engaging societal initiatives on which I conduct research.”

Ghorashi highlights ‘’every culture has its strengths and weaknesses but being part of a diaspora is a journey on which there are many intersecting paths. For many who leave their countries and resettling here, we are often caught in the negativity, remembering only the negative experiences. But I learned from Edward Said that the in-between position of a diaspora has great potential for originality as well. In-betweenness is also a concept I use in relation to discursive power. When you are challenged by competing discourses (like diaspora), the chance of taking one discourse for granted is less. So here is the potential to be original and that is a side of diasporic positioning which is often overshadowed by negative side of in-betweenness.”

As a public figure, giving lectures or appearing in the media, Ghorashi says she has received positive responses, but also garnered her share of messages of hate or even life-threatening ones. She says, of course, “when someone wants to kill you, that is indeed scary, but compared with positive reactions, you try to forget these negative responses.” She adds ‘’it is our choice to see what is happening. Instead of lingering on negative attitudes, the positive energy gives us, should give us, enough desire to invest in our own growth.” 

“Change is not always found in mass revolutions,” says Ghorashi, “but ins small point of inspiration. You can be one of the hundreds who come into people’s lives, hoping that they will indeed be that hope and help in someone else’s life.” Small acts do not always reap rewards immediately she says, but “after 20 years of teaching, current students might say the content I’m teaching is too abstract, but I think if only three students per year learn from me, it is enough,’’ she adds.

Ghorashi believes ”perseverance is the key” and sees the necessity of people (academics, artists, journalists) who have less privileged positions in societies (people with in-between positioning such as refugees and immigrants) telling their stories repeatedly. “If we don’t tell our stories, repeatedly, we cannot evolve and challenge the dominant discourses that are shaped by privileged individuals. Repetition is part of the change, because the power of dominant discourses lies in repetition as well” she adds.” My privilege is that I made my life story a point of investigation and research, my own identity. This gives me the opportunity to tell stories that are situated in academic knowledge and embedded in broader stories than mine.”

By taking time to contemplate and recharge in nature, Ghorashi says she can bring more to be helpful to others. During the more isolating months of COVID-19, she had to rethink, and approach new ways of connecting with others. “I try to connect with my students and fellow citizens by understanding the importance of ‘not taking hardships personally, but to understand them in a broader context, beyond one’s own suffering,” she says. “This can be a place of empowerment, and a place to build one’s sense of a home.”

All photos courtesy of Dr. Halleh Ghorashi.

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