04 June 2004

Iranian Studies Conference in Washington Draws Hundreds

Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi gives keynote address

By Elizabeth Kelleher
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- Several hundred people attending the Fifth Biennial Conference on Iranian Studies in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, viewed Iranian movies, listened to poetry readings in Persian, enjoyed Iranian-themed musical performances and bought books from vendors hawking titles in Persian and English on all things Iranian.

The conference ran May 28 to 30 and attracted professors, writers and graduate students from the United States, Iran, Europe, Japan and Australia. Several gave presentations on their area of expertise and then stayed to attend others' talks on history, religion, politics, art, cinema, literature, medicine and sport.

Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, gave the keynote speech. Currently on a speaking tour in the United States, Ebadi hardly needed the translator on stage; the mostly Iranian-American audience burst into applause several times before Ebadi's remarks were translated from Persian to English.

She began by congratulating the scholars for their service as cultural ambassadors. "In the era of globalization, as boundaries disappear, cultures remain. We shall remain through our culture, our language and our art," she said.

Ebadi is a lawyer, judge and human rights activist who has championed the rights of children, women and prisoners of conscience in Iran. The theme of her speech was that true democracy allows human rights to flourish. Ebadi said democracy in Iran is marred by an elections process in which the Guardian Council disqualifies candidates whom voters might otherwise elect.

And Ebadi said even a government fairly elected by the majority "does not reserve the right ... to neglect the rights of the minority." She faulted laws in Iran that discriminate against the non-Muslim minority in matters of inheritance, and she criticized an Islamic penal code that punishes acts like adultery more severely when perpetrated by non-Muslims than by Muslims.

Ebadi said democracy and human rights are endangered by Iranian laws that discriminate against women. And she blamed censorship in Iran for closing down 90 newspapers in less than two years and for the imprisonment of several journalists.

But the Nobel laureate saved some of her ire for the West. She said there is a form of censorship "specific to Western countries" -- lax antitrust laws, which, she said, allow "big media ... to try to guide public opinion through the news."

In a thinly veiled reference to the Iraq war, Ebadi said, "Military invasions, even with the idea of establishing democracy and human rights ... only hurt the chances of democracy and cause violence."

Much of the conference was less politically charged, as scholars delivered papers on everything from "Subject-Verb Agreement in Persian" to "Religious Theme in Iranian Cinema." Poet Simin Behbahani read from her work in Persian on Saturday night.

One panel took on the topic of the history of athletics in Iran, moving from a discussion of ancient practices to the success of modern-day Iranian volleyball. Houchang Chehabi, a professor from Boston University, said in the early 20th century, there was a temporary abandonment of traditional Iranian exercises with Indian clubs, bows and weights. They were replaced by Western pursuits -- tennis, gymnastics, football -- and by physical fitness requirements for civil servants. Chehabi said during this time many athletes would wrestle, but might just as likely start street brawls. By the late 1930s, he said, there was a return to the idea of athletes being principled and noble. Tradition returned in various forms, including a daily program on Radio Iran that featured drumming to guide listeners who would wield traditional Indian clubs at home as a daily fitness routine.

In another panel, four women writers talked of their struggles to find a new sense of home after being exiled from Iran.

Mahnaz Afkhami, who, before the Islamic revolution, served as the minister of state for women's affairs in Iran, talked about the difficulty of starting a new life in the United States. She said her situation hit her hard when she had to buy a new coat. She didn't know whether to choose a lightweight or heavyweight coat, a fancy or casual coat because she had "no idea" of where she would live or what she would do. "Who am I?" she asked herself. Afkhami took time to draw on lessons she had learned from her grandmother and mother and other strong women she had known and used their "strength and agency" to co-found the Women's Learning Partnership, which works in 15 Muslim-majority countries on women's empowerment.

Author Goli Taraghi, who wrote "A Mansion in the Sky" and "Two Worlds," said she has literature: "I try to make it home. It's not a safe home. I have to safeguard it all the time. The hand of censorship is trying to throw me out of the last home that I have made for myself," she said.

Azar Nafisi, author of the best-seller "Reading Lolita in Tehran," said she was there to "celebrate the act of reading." Young Iranians, she said, are retrieving identity by "talking about a Jewish white man called Saul Bellow, or an African-American woman named Zora Neale Hurston, or an English maiden who lived in the 18th to 19th century named Jane Austen."

Donna Shalala, a former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services and current president of the University of Miami, closed the conference. Shalala spent two years during the 1960s in a mud village called Molasani in Southern Iran, where she and roughly 40 Peace Corps volunteers worked on building an agricultural college. "I'm not pretending to be an expert on Iran," she said, "only a person whose affection for Iran has never left her."

Shalala said meeting Ebadi during the conference was "a thrill" for her. And she reported to the scholars, "American leaders in higher education have deep concerns about restricting attendance at international conferences and denying student visas."

It was a point that hit home. Haideh Sahim, the director of this conference, said that about 40 people from Iran submitted scholarly papers and applied to present them, but then canceled due to difficulties they had obtaining visas. "These respectable scholars would have added to our conference," she said.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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