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Keeping going
Losing Parvin Paidar all too soon


Afsaneh Najmabadi
October 23, 2005

“Why is the measure of love loss?”-- Jeanette Winterson

When in fall 2002 Parvin told me that her melanoma had returned, after a twenty-year lapse, I could not but think it must be a mistake. Our friendship had its beginnings about the same time as her first bout of struggle with melanoma. How could it have returned to end our friendship? How could a mere dysfunction of a gene ruin a most precious life?

“Philipa begins with the possibility of survival. Surviving – that is the other name of a mourning whose possibility is never to be awaited.” (Derrida, Politics of Friendship) I had read this some time ago; at the time I only thought of it as yet another very smart observation by Derrida. Never did I think I would feel it in my inner inside, in every pore of my being until I heard that sentence, “my melanoma has returned.” Friendship is always, from its very beginning, structured by the possibility that one would see the other die, would be left to commemorate and to mourn – to survive.

Is it possible to write about the loss of a friend in a way that celebrates her life even as it mourns her death? Commemorating Parvin is after all what this piece ought to be. But reminiscing about Parvin is as challenging for me as she was in our friendship, begun from a very rocky start back in summer of 1980. We had both recently left Iran, both involved in the events of 1979 revolution through different left groups, both highly concerned about women’s rights issues and about the left’s abysmal record. This much we had in common. This was what had made one of the editors of Zed Press to bring us together to perhaps collaborate on a book. But we were also very different.

At the time, Parvin was the only secular left feminist I had come across who argued for building bridges to and collaborating with Muslim women activists. I, on the other hand, was an extremely anti-religious, anti-Islamic militant. Islam was inherently anti-woman. That was the beginning and the end of the story for me. The editor arranged for us to meet at the cafeteria of School of Oriental and African studies (London University). Having found each other, Parvin began by giving me a piece of her mind: She had seen my recent interview on BBC, she said, it was very journalistic and very BBC, she declared. I was taken aback, and as it is with me in such cases wanted to say “so what?” But I didn’t, and more politely asked her what she meant.

Thus began our two years of a contentious collaboration on a volume, In the Shadow of Islam: The Women's Movement in Iran (London: Zed Press, 1982). We had similar work habits – that made the collaboration easy. We found in each other organized, punctual, and trustworthy work partners. That trust later carried into our friendship. But we disagreed on everything else. We wrote separate chapters for the book. I had completed mine first, only because I used an earlier unpublished work as a first draft. I was infuriated to see my point of view critiqued in Parvin’s chapter and demanded the right to respond. Reading my response, Parvin wanted to write a response to mine. Clearly this was no easy road. The editor panicked that there was going to be no book at all. She convinced us to just do with our initial chapters. Then, of course, was the problem of writing a joint introduction. Well, if you have read that introduction, you know it was just a polite truce!

It was in the course of that work that I first heard from the Zed Press editor that Parvin had been hospitalized for her first melanoma operation. Recently, when a crazy holiday idea of Parvin’s took us both to Hawaii in August 2004, at a lunch with Farideh Farhi, Parvin was telling her the story of the beginning of our friendship – yet again. Both of us had often told other friends and each other the beginning story. We always laughed – pleasure of its happy ending – beginning of a cherished friendship. As Parvin recalled, after her operation for the first time I had made a personal gesture and invited her for dinner. She paused, “you softened then” touching the scars of her operation around her neck, “maybe this decease also set off our friendship.”

Over the next two decades we became closer collaborators and friends. With a group of Iranian feminists in London, Parvin was a key founding editor of Nimeye Digar. I say key advisedly. More than anyone else in that group, she knew how invaluable it was to bring feminists of differing politics into a working alliance, and keep that coalition working. Our group included feminists with no prior political activism as well as those who had been through intense experience of fragmented politics of many groups, including Fada’in, Mujahidin, Tudeh Party, Trotskyists, and others. What I learnt from Parvin there, about how to actually work across differences, remains my fondest political memory of Parvin. On the personal front, there are way too many precious remembrances to recount.

As years passed, our friendship of course was no longer merely a political alliance. Our lives went through many eventful changes as well. Knowing I had her always there, whether she was in north London, or Pakistan, or Uzbekistan, or Kabul, to turn to for wisdom and loving support saw me through many difficulties. She was generous in loving, even when she knew how much I needed her wisdom!

She faced the return of her melanoma with a feeling for life and living I could not have imagined. At times, it seemed that she was the one consoling and supporting her loved ones, including me, through the pain of knowing we were going to lose her all too soon. I asked her once if she was depressed, sad, angry at this situation. “Sometimes yes,” she responded serenely, “but it is surface. Something deep inside me has remained happy and that keeps me going.” That kept us all going.

I will not say much about her intellectual profile. Her book, Women and the Political Process in Twentieth Century Iran (Cambridge University Press, 1995) has remained unsurpassed. For me, however, her most important contribution was her vision. She passionately, and at a time when we (the seculars) all had every reason to hate everything Islamic, with remarkable insight, saw the necessity of working across the secular/religious divide, of reaching out to women’s rights activists who spoke and lived Islamic. I slowly came to share her vision; I owe it to her before and beyond all else. An interview carried out brilliantly and written skillfully by Roza Eftekhari, and published in Zanan No. 115, brings out some of her most moving personal and political sides.

In early October 2004, Parvin fell into a coma; I had been scheduled to be in LA around then and when I received the news my only thought was: Will I make it there before she is gone, will I be able to hold her hand one more time, see her peaceful smile one more time? Thankfully I did; miraculously she recovered.

First uncertain that she wanted more treatment, and in part out of concern for those who loved her and she loved, she agreed to further aggressive treatment that she had not wanted; I saw her again in late November 2004; that was a rather painful visit; she had just been operated on, yet another brain surgery, was disoriented, unable to concentrate on anything, distressed over her physical disabilities and her mental challenges; in a way I felt I had already lost Parvin my friend even though she was still physically there; selfishly I began to prematurely mourn inside me.

Remarkably, she recovered; she re-gained much of her physical abilities and mental alertness; she even began to work from home, a passion of her life, on gender-related issues with an international NGO. When I visited her in June 2005, she was that Parvin I had known for all these years. Unfortunately, this also coincided with yet another return of a bleeding brain tumor; we spent much time in Santa Monica UCLA emergency room; she was by then fatigued by all the months of struggle that suddenly felt pointless; for the first time, she seemed to feel defeated; she expressed regret that she had not been allowed to die in her coma some six months before. The next day she asked me to help her write a living will; I swallowed my tears and obliged. To help a friend to spell out how she wishes to die,... she kept expressing her gratitude to me for this; this was her way of telling me she knew how painful it must have been.

The last time I saw her was October 14-16, 2005. As it turned out, I had left behind my ailing mother, suffering from sever pneumonia. My mother died from congestive heart failure on October 15th, 2005. The next day Parvin went into a coma; her wish to be left untreated was respected.

Born on September 29th, 1949, Parvin Paidar passed away on October 20th, 2005. [Also see obituary by Nayereh Tohidi]

Afsaneh Najmabadi is Professor of History and of Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Harvard University [homepage].

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Book of the day

Crowning Anguish
Taj al-Saltana, Memoirs of a Persian Princess 1884-1914
edited by Abbas Amanat

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