Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

"Women Can Do Anything Men Can Do": Gender and the Affects of Solidarity in the U.S. Iranian Student Movement, 1961-1979

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

"Women Can Do Anything Men Can Do": Gender and the Affects of Solidarity in the U.S. Iranian Student Movement, 1961-1979

Article excerpt

The gender politics of anticolonial revolutions, and the new nation-states that emerged in their wake, have been at the center of postcolonial and transnational feminist critiques of nationalism and patriarchy. While significant scholarship exists on women and the Iranian Revolution, scant attention has thus far been paid to the position of women in the diasporic wing of the revolutionary movement-whether to the prevailing theories of womens oppression and liberation or to how those theories shaped the lived experiences of the women and men involved. From 1961 to 1979, while the United States flooded Iran with military and economic aid-and Iran became a stalwart defender of U.S. interests in the region-the Confederation of Iranian Students National Union (CISNU) organized thousands of Iranian foreign students throughout Europe and North America to undermine this "special relationship." According to historian Afshin Matin-asgari, the Confederation was "the most active and persistent force of opposition to the Shah's regime during the two decades prior to the 1978-79 Revolution" (2002, l).

CISNU's U.S. affiliate, the Iranian Students Association (ISA), grew in tandem with the overall increase in the foreign student population, and anti-Shah sentiment became dominant even among those students who did not formally join the organization.1 ISA chapters sprang up wherever Iranian students were enrolled, with the largest and most active located in northern and southern California, Texas/Oklahoma, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Chicago. Several thousand students participated in ISA demonstrations and annual conventions, while hundreds devoted themselves "full time" to building the movement.2 For this latter group, the ISA became an alternative family and a way of life. Devoted to making a revolution in Iran, this core of radicalized students was profoundly influenced by other national liberation movements and cultivated relationships of solidarity with anti-imperialist activists in the United States and around the world. In their turn, they had an impact on the antiracist and antiwar movements going on around them. Along with Arab diasporic activists, Iranian students helped to popularize a trenchant critique of U.S. empire in the Middle East within a broader progressive milieu at a time when most Americans did not know about the 1953 CIA coup in Iran and did not understand U.S. Cold War policy in the region as an imperial project.

This essay examines the affective and emotional registers of Third World internationalism as represented/exemplified by the ISA. In particular, I focus on members' attempts to construct solidarity within the ISA and on how affective attachments to revolution were expressed through gender performance and regulations of sexuality designed to facilitate both identification with the oppressed people of Iran and unity among men and women. The vantage point of diaspora offers a unique, transnational perspective on the Iranian Left's ambitious and flawed experiment in prefiguring egalitarian social relations, a crucial component of the revolutionary praxis of that era. Iranian student activists were influenced by the specific Iranian context as well as by other decolonization movements, searching among many contemporary examples-from the Algerian and Cuban revolutions to the Palestinian resistance-for models they could adapt and apply. Like other student activists in Europe and North America, Mao's Cultural Revolution captured the imaginations of these young Iranians as it elevated students themselves to central actors in the fight for a new society (Wolin 2010). Inspired by Mao's example, the leftist students who dominated the ISA attempted no less than their own cultural revolution.3 By the late 1960s, the increasing overlap between leading members of the ISA and the membership of a handful of diasporic leftist parties meant that many students had unofficially set their sights on the fundamental transformation of Iranian society (Matin-asgari 2002, 98). …

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