I have been going to Iranian Women’s Studies Conference since its inception in 1991. IWSF’s annual meetings are usually held in different countries by rotating organizing committees. I have missed couple of these conferences and have always regretted it. Not the case this year! For the very first time, almost the entire conference – held in Berlin, Germany (July 2-4) – was broadcasted through paltalk. It allowed s participants to listen online, write emails one to one and/or to all participants in the chat room.
The only sections not broadcasted in the paltalk chatroom were the art performances. Although it was a pity not to be able to listen to Darya Dadvar’s mesmorizing voice – I had heard her singing before – as well as Fetneh, a band in Germany; being able to listen to all the presentations and the subsequent Q & A sections was truly a blessing.
Listening to the conference guests speak via internet, miles away from its actual site, was a unique experience. IWSF conferences bring Iranian-born women or those women who identify as Iranians by association from all over the world and provide a forum for dialogue, interaction and possible friendships. Women from Iran, the US, different European countries and Australia come together to discuss various issues pertaining to their identity in their original and adopted homelands.
I have seen women from various ethnic, religious or political backgrounds in these conferences and their encounters provide the most amazing lessons for women’s rights activists. Sometimes their worlds are so different that even a common language, namely Persian, is not enough to dissolve their communication barriers. No other panel brings out this challenge more than the “second generation Iranian women” panel.
Despite its short time life of four years, the Second Generation Iranian Women panel has become part and parcel of IWSF conferences. This panel allows Iranian women, ages 18-32, whether born in Iran or abroad to have a voice in a movement that has traditionally favored Mooye Sepid (white hair symbolizing wisdom). This year too, young Iranian women sat together and discussed ways in which modern gender roles clash with traditional ones.
This year’s guests from Iran, Raha Nasseri and Narin Kashani, each talked about the problems facing young Iranian women in Iranian Universities, workplaces and in the family. Both discussed feelings of shame and inadequacy with regard to women’s loss of virginity or any sign resembling their loss of “Nejabat”, traditional gender role expectations in today’s Iranian society. Narin talked about the psychological effects of traditional gender roles on young Iranian women which could at times lead to suicide, an alarming trend among young Iranian women in the capital as well as in the countryside.
Azadeh Zamiry-rad, Mehrnoosh Tarkashvand and two other participants who were born/raised in Germany talked about pressing issues such as France’s new legislation to ban hijab in public schools and lack of freedom of movement for young women in Iran respectively. Azadeh said that even though her parents belonged to the progressive left and she had been raised in a secular setting in Germany, she thinks Muslim women living in Europe should be given the choice to wear hijab. As was expected, this brought about an uproar in the audience and we sure heard it in our paltalk room.
But Azadeh stood firm on her ground and argued that she stands for freedom of choice and despite mounting disagreements from the audience, she stated her preference for a Europe that does not force its citizens to put aside hijab. In a calm and surprisingly unwavering tone, Azadeh stressed that she has no intention of persuading others to come to her side. She simply wants to let the older Iranian generation women, who in their right have felt oppressed by Islamic Republic of Iran for its law of mandatory hijab, to hear an opposing view from her and her peers. I could sense the tension rising in the conference from the comments expressed by the audience broadcasted in paltalk.
Listening to the presentations in the paltalk, away from the salon with 600 other participants, allowed me to be more self-reflective than usual. Every time a viewpoint favored by the audience was expressed, there was a standing ovation. On the contrary, when audience disagreed with the presenter you could hear “noch, noch” (a sound Iranians make in the public to demonstrate their disapproval) and other discrete sounds of discontent familiar to Iranians’ ears.
Sitting here in Los Angeles, unable to make any sound and limited to writing few lines in the chat room – with participants ranging from 140 to 160 during the live broadcast – I was forced to listen to the presenters and the subsequent question and answer period more carefully. As a result, questions asked by some participants on the ground appeared irrelevant.
Although the audience was tolerant in lieu of the fact that the conference was held in Berlin, a country in which Iranian activists from all political spectrum have historically had a visible existence, there was still room for more dialogue. Why couldn’t the participants ask relevant questions rather than announce their opposition? Is it a cultural trait not to engage in an actual dialogue with those who have opposite views from us?
Despite my initial enthusiasm, due to time difference between Germany and the U.S., I wasn’t able to listen to all the presentations and hope to do so in near future if they are re-broadcasted via paltalk.
I would like to make some suggestions to IWSF local committee for the next year’s conference:
1) It would be great to put a camera in the paltalk chatroom,
2) Repeat the whole broadcast in a week, so interested parties all over the world can listen to the conference,
3) Construct the chatroom in a way in which participants can ask questions to which the presenters can respond if they choose to do so. By extending conferences such as this to the realm of paltalk, we can all have a chance to become self-reflective and specially hear our own peculiar sounds.