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New book studies narratives of Iranian women in the diaspora

Nima Naghibi

Nima Naghibi, chair of the Department of English, wrote the first full-length study of the life narratives of Iranian women in the diaspora.

Autobiographical stories are more than a simple recounting of life events, says researcher Nima Naghibi. They're also a powerful weapon in the fight for social justice.  

Chair of the Department of English and co-director of the Ryerson Middle East and North Africa Studies Centre, Naghibi is author of Women Write Iran: Nostalgia and Human Rights from the Diaspora (University of Minnesota Press). Named a “Great Read for Summer 2016” by Ms. Magazine, the book is the first full-length study of the life narratives of Iranian women in the diaspora.

In the last 25 years, there has been an explosion of life stories by Iranians, and especially women, says Naghibi. Those narratives focus primarily on life in Iran before or during the 1979 revolution, which toppled the monarchy and established an Islamic government. The stories also look at the challenges faced by Iranian women as they adjust to life in North America or Europe.

"I wanted to explore why women were turning to this particular genre of life narrative," says Naghibi, a native of Iran. "I was also interested in how these narratives were received with a degree of skepticism by Iranian scholars, but have been extremely popular with a general readership."

Naghibi studied autobiographical narratives across a variety of genres, such as memoirs, documentary films and prison testimonials. She was particularly struck by two acclaimed works – Tara Bahrampour’s 1992 book To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America and Marjane Satrapi’s 2004 graphic novel Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. Both women wrote about the Iranian revolution from the viewpoint of a nine- or 10-year-old child.  

"That was my own age during the revolution, and the writers' descriptions of how they perceived what was happening on the streets and within their families felt very familiar to me," says Naghibi.  

In all the stories, she goes on, it's clear the revolution created a "radical rupture" in the writers' lives and had lasting effects. What's more, a few key themes were prevalent throughout the stories, including nostalgia for places and experiences of the past and the idea of a lost future.

The narratives also contained examples of human rights abuses and suffering, with many writers detailing their experiences (or that of their parents) as political prisoners. Sharing those stories can be difficult, says Naghibi, but they also bring attention to historical injustices.  

"Learning about the lived experiences of those who were imprisoned or killed for their political beliefs places us, as readers, in the position of witness. It's also a form of remembrance, helping us to prevent the recurrence of similar atrocities."

For those reasons, Naghibi hopes to cast the narratives of diasporic Iranian women in a new light. "These life stories are more than just an offshoot of our contemporary 'age of the memoir.' I hope my book can draw attention to the importance of autobiographical stories – and storytelling – in the struggle for human rights and social justice," she says.