Man of the enlightenment

Hammed Shahidian who died at the age of 46 on the 1st of October 2005 after a two-year struggle with cancer, was a researcher, translator and activist of the Iranian left and the feminist movement. He was Assistant Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Sociology/Anthropology Program at the University of Illinois at Springfield and in 2001-2002 Honorary Research Fellow at Glasgow University.

He was one of the founder editors of Iran Bulletin – Middle East Forum, a member of the editorial board of Sexualities, University of Essex, editor of Critique: Journal for Critical Studies of Iran and the Middle East, Hamline University. Between 1988 – 1992 he was on the editorial board of Porssa: A Persian Journal of Theoretical Research.

Hammed's extensive writings on Iranian Women were collected in two books in 2002. Women in Iran: “Women and gender in the Islamic Republic” and “Women in Iran: Emerging Voices in the Women's Movement”. In particular he was very critical of those apologists who argued in favour of “Islamic feminism”.

In the words of Professor Bridget Fowler: He was one of a group of secular thinkers who was of great promise for the future and who already had contributed a very great deal in terms of a perspective on Iranian society. This is at once one which was committed strongly to certain values – the socialist proletarianisation of the Enlightenment – and also of great complexity and sophistication in discussing the structures of contemporary societies and especially the significance within various fields – literary and political – of dissidents. He wrote especially about those societies, such as Iran, at the cutting edge of the disputed categories “tradition” and “modernity”, or “the clash of civilisations” – a term, by the way, which Bourdieu used in the context of the Algerian War, long before Huntingdon so infamously appropriated it – and in this respect he was particularly valuable.”

I first met Hammed in February of 1985 in Boston, when he was studying for  Ph.D at Brandeis University. The title of his thesis was: The Woman Question in the Iranian Revolution of 1978-1979. I was on a visit to all branches of the supporter groups of the leftist Fedayin Minority , trying to explain a series of dreadful events in the Kurdistan Branch of this organisation. Hammed like the rest of us had sensed that this was the beginning of the end for the organisation that had inspired so many of our generation  in the 1970s and early 1980s, yet his only consolation seemed to be the fact that at least they had sent a woman to explain these problems!

This was the start of a friendship that lasted until his premature death. Throughout these 20 years, it appeared as if whatever political turn I took, whatever mistake I made, Hammed was with me. I am not sure if this was a form of political allegiance or because he didn't want to end a lifelong friendship.

In 1987 when Fedayin Minority embarked on a final split that resulted in self destruction, Hammed like most other members and supporters of the organisation refused to join any of the emerging splinter groups, instead he embarked on a relentless effort to understand the causes of the crises of the left , not only in Iran but throughout the world. 

The journal Porssa (Boston- Glasgow 1988-992) was a project close to his heart and despite the short life of the journal , he remained committed to its objectives until his death. His research in the 1990s lead to a series of articles and book chapters including:

1994, The Metamorphosis and Emancipation of the Exiled, Journal of Refugee Studies 7(4): 411-417

1995, Islam, Politics, and Writing Women’s History in Iran, Journal of Women’s History 7(2): 113-144

1997, Women and Clandestine Politics in Iran, 1970-85, Feminist Studies 23(1): 7-42

1997, The Politics of the Veil: Reflections on Symbolism, Islam, and Feminism, Thamyris: Mythmaking from Past to Present 4(2): 325-337

1998, Islamic Feminism and Feminist politics in Iran, University of Illinois at Springfield

1999, Saving the Savior, Sociological Inquiry 69(2): 303-327

Hammed was a workaholic who translated books in his spare time. The Persian translations of Nawal Al Saadi's book, “Woman at Point Zero”, Edward Saiid’s “After the Last Sky”, Eli Wiesel's 'Night', articles and plays by Kafka,

Eli Wiesel's 'Night', Bertolt Brecht, Lukash and Anatoli V. Lunacharski amongst others. As amazing as it might sound he even found time to translate Shamloo’s poetry eloquently to English.

Four years ago, in fact on the 1st of October he came to Glasgow to spend his ’sabbatical’ year in the Centre of the Study of Socialist Theory and Movements and the Faculty of Social Sciences in Glasgow University. He had been communicating with Professors Fowler and Ticktin and although other universities in Europe had offered him better conditions and facilities he was adamant he wanted to come to Glasgow.  During this year he did the bulk of the research collated in two valuable books:

Women in Iran: Gender Politics in the Islamic Republic (2002)

Women in Iran : Emerging voices in the Women’s Movement (2002)

In Winter 2003 he phoned to say he and his partner Negar would be going to Egypt and he might come to London later in 2004. There was no news of him by late January and I got slightly worried, that is when he phoned to say he has been diagnosed with colon cancer, however he added immediately that he is lucky , it has been found in an early stage and he will be cured soon. From that day until he tragic death we had many phone conversations. I always hesitated phoning fearing the worst, but he was always so reassuring that he managed to convince me he would get better soon. Even when he was ill he wouldn’t give up on his research. Every time we spoke he was asking for a new article, a reference …

In early spring he was looking for an article by Aziz Alazmeh. I told him I am not sure if I can find an electronic version of this. He replied, there is an electronic version on Iran Bulletin/Middle East Forum site , you can email me that version. Following Negar’s suggestions I was looking for a revolutionary treatment of colon cancer in UK when they both told me that a hospital in New Jersey was likely to perform the operation. We were all full of hope and then we got Negar’s sad email. The surgeons thought nothing could be done.

I spoke to Hammed soon after this. He was as always full of hope and just to keep up his moral I said , “of course you realise in the tradition of the Fedayin you must defeat this illness.” Weeks later , when one could hardly hear his voice he told me in a serious tone ( but of course jokingly) : “Comrade Yassamine, I am well aware of my organisational responsibilities, I cannot and will not show weakness in the face of this illness.”

Indeed his brave fight against this horrible disease that humanity should have overcome by now (had it not been for wars/ military/nuclear developments..) is an amazing story. Our thoughts are with his partner Negar and his loving family.

Yassamine Mather is a member of the eitorial board of Critique, Journal of Socialist Theory, published by Centre for the Study of Socialist Theory and Movements, Glasgow University.

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