Professor Homa Hoodfar and Academic Freedom

Caitlin McLaren - 4B Chemical
Posted on: March 25, 2017

Every year, the Department of Anthropology in the University of Waterloo awards a silver medal to an outstanding undergraduate student. (Congratulations to Bridjet Lee, the 2016 recipient). The presentation is accompanied by a guest lecture, usually by a prominent figure in the field of anthropology today. This year, the speaker was Professor Homa Hoodfar, Canadian-Iranian sociocultural anthropologist and professor emerita of Montreal’s Concordia University.

Professor Hoodfar is best known for her work in the area of women in Islamic societies. Last year, on a fairly innocuous trip to Iran during which she planned to access archival materials for research purposes as well as observe the election process, she was arrested by the Revolutionary Guards on suspicion of…essentially doing things the Revolutionary Guard didn’t like.

For three months, she was interrogated and accused of numerous things. Highlights included: “feminism” (theoretically not illegal in Iran; indeed, how would such a law be written), interfering with the election (somehow), and conducting her research on behalf of the CIA (who are doubtless extremely interested in the sociocultural meaning of the veil). Of course, all of these charges were baseless; as Professor Hoodfar discussed in her lecture, her arrest was more a part of the longstanding power plays between different branches of Iran’s government than because of any real suspicion of wrongdoing. Hoodfar described herself as a pawn, although the situation swiftly grew larger than the Revolutionary Guard had planned.

Initially placed under house arrest, Professor Hoodfar was later held in the notorious Evin Prison for three months. While she was fortunately not physically tortured, she was subject to long and harsh interrogations and kept in miserable conditions. An illness she contracted in prison damaged her vocal chords, limiting her ability to speak.

One thing that Professor Hoodfar could not be prevented from doing was thinking. During her incarceration, she considered the history of those who, like her, were persecuted because of their ideas. She began to write on the walls of her cell.

Because Professor Hoodfar was also a Canadian citizen, there was an international outcry over her arrest. In her talk, she pointed out that she was lucky; Iranian dissenters in a similar position do not have other countries pressuring the Iranian government on their behalf. However, although she was threatened with up to 15 years in prison, Professor Hoodfar was released and returned to Canada in September 2016.

In her talk, Professor Hoodfar discussed the stories of many historical figures who earned the wrath of the authorities by espousing heretical or dissenting ideas. Some, like Galileo or Olympe de Gouges, are familiar; Galileo, one of the giants of early modern science, was arrested for publicly declaring that he had proof of the heliocentric model of the solar system, which ran contrary to the positions of the powerful religious authorities, while Olympe de Gouges was a French writer, early feminist, and anti-slavery activist who was executed during the French Revolution for her then-radical views.

Hoodfar also talked about more recent cases, focusing on scholars and thinkers in the Middle East. They are less well known to a Canadian audience, but well worth knowing about: for example, the late Nasr Abu Zayd was a liberal Islamic scholar who was declared to be an apostate by the Egyptian government and forced to divorce his wife against both of their wills. Another memorable figure she discussed was May Ziade, a Lebanese-Palestinian writer and one of the earlier Middle Eastern feminists, who was put into a psychiatric hospital by her own family because of her views.

Professor Hoodfar spoke of these cases and more from the perspective of academic freedom. In restrictive societies, the powers-that-be often seek to limit what scholars can study. Some topics might be considered politically subversive and threatening to order; others may be banned for moralistic or ideological reasons. This, of course, limits human knowledge as well as freedom, and of course is not the behaviour of people who are truly convinced that their ideas will prevail. Nevertheless, in many parts of the world, academic freedom is restricted.

Furthermore, while academics in Canada do have the freedom to study and publish whatever they like (or at least, whatever they can get funding for), Professor Hoodfar emphasizes that we should not take these freedoms for granted. Like all freedoms, as long as there are authorities, academic freedom may come under attack. It is a liberty we should all be prepared to argue for and defend.