ZNet | Activism
A Genre in the
Service of Empire:
by Niki Akhavan, Golbarg Bashi, Mana Kia and Sima Shakhsari -- NA/GB & MK/SS; February 02, 2007
In a time of pending war against Iran, after the catastrophic consequences of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq (with more than 655,000 deaths in Iraq alone), a particularly lucrative industry of Iranian and Muslim women's memoirs has mushroomed in the aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities. These women's memoirs have assumed center-stage in appropriating the legitimate cause of women's rights and placing it squarely in the service of Empire building projects, disguised under the rhetoric of the "war on terror."
feminist scholars of
We identify this memoir genre as a part of industries of knowledge-production that reinforce and fuel the gendered and raced context of global capitalist relations, where the binarized notions of "freedom" and "progress" in the "West" are juxtoposed to "backwardness" and "barbarism" in Iran and in the rest of the Muslim world. Identified as an authentic and authoritative site where the "silenced" Iranian woman finally finds a voice with which to speak, these memoirs reproduce reductive but familiar narratives which pin the constructed "Third-world woman" against her male counterpart while setting the stage for what is presumed to be her salvation.
In this context, the patronizing language of women's rights as human rights presumes and actively constructs the category of the oppressed "traditional" Iranian woman, often unaware of her own imprisonment by Islam and patriarchy. The "sombre" woman, in this narrative, must be trained to realize her rights as an individual, imagined as a "modern woman" who embodies an idealized middle class norm of Euro-American consumption.
Once the favored tale of "civilizing missions", the contemporary rescue fantasy now has a new twist. Rather than being spoken for by ambassadors of "civilization", Iranian women are able to speak for themselves courtesy of international publishing houses. Women selected according to the resonance of their experience within this narrative become the mouthpiece for the "authentic" Iranian experience, making the current construction of the "rescue fantasy" more insidious than ever.
memoirs have proved widely popular in the mass market, while the mainstream
media legitimizes their authors as "
As an example, we call attention to the way that Hamid Dabashi's astute critique of the memoir genre, "Native Informers and the Making of the American Empire" (al-Ahram, 1 - 7 June 2006, Issue No. 797), was maliciously attacked and his arguments deliberately distorted by North American neoconservative outlets as an assault on Iranian women's struggle for autonomy, freedom and democracy. That Dabashi's critique was singled out while the works of women feminist scholars were ignored is a telling example of the sexist assumptions and essentialist gender and racial binaries that underpin the genre's popularity. Assuming a monolithic category of "woman," such binaries grant authenticity of voice to certain women such as Azar Nafisi, who are assumed to represent all "Iranian women," while denying legitimacy to Hamid Dabashi, who becomes the ideal type of the "misogynistic Middle Eastern man." Furthermore, by dividing the world into binaries of East and West and assuming an inherent notion of Iranian-ness, both the promoters of this genre and nationalist elites tokenize certain Iranian writers and make them the representatives of a homogenously imagined Iranian people and culture.
We deplore the marginalization of critical engagements with this genre and declare that the version of the romanticized and Orientalist portrayal of Iranian history and women's struggle depicted in the recent memoir industry is not only a gross distortion and undermining of Iranian women's active participation in political and cultural spheres, but it also deliberately represses working class and rural women's hardships, hopes, desires, and aspirations.
firm believers that historically, any militarist mobilizations, nationalist or
imperial have been to the detriment of Iranian women's lives and their
struggles against misogynistic laws as well as their aspirations for welfare
and democracy. We object to militarism imposed by "local" and diasporic nationalists, religious or secular
fundamentalists, or neo-colonialists and imperialists. We consider any bullet fired at the direction
A longer version of this article will soon be available at www.diasporawatch.com