18 August 2016

#FreeHoma: Anthropologists in dangerous contexts

Anthropology is a discipline that was born out of colonial encounters and systems of power. Anthropologists have historically been complicit in supporting the people, systems and ideas through our research of often marginalized communities.

Today, however, many anthropologists critique and challenge the very power structures and relationships that our discipline in many ways helped to build. The topics that anthropologists research and the sites in which we conduct our research can put anthropologists in danger, including at risk of imprisonment by governments who read such research as threatening.

Dr. Homa Hoodfar
Homa Hoodfar has been imprisoned since March 2016 by the Iranian government. Hoodfar holds dual Canadian and Iranian citizenships, and has been a professor at Concordia University (Montreal, Quebec, Canada) since 1991. She has explored issues of gender, development, and politics especially in the Middle East, and especially known for her work on "Muslim women's ability to realize their rights within an Islamic framework, and for her critique of essentializing Western stereotypes about veiling."

As the authors of "Academics and Authors In Support of Professor Homa Hoodfar" explain,
"It is not clear what charges the Counter Intelligence Unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard might bring against her.  Any accusations against Prof. Hoodfar are undoubtedly based on a fundamental misinterpretation of the nature of her ethnographic research which has never been a threat to the Iranian regime. Instead, her arrest points to a renewed campaign to target and intimidate other scholars writing about Iran.
This can be a very real issue for researchers working in such contexts. In 2014, a University of Toronto political science PhD candidate, Alexander Sodiqov, was arrested during his field research in his native Tajikistan. Sodiqov was arrested and detained under charges of espionage and treason. As in Hoodfar's arrest, the "exact rationale for this charge remains murky, and may never be explained. But the wider context is anti–Western feeling and the fact that Tajikistan's security services are cracking down on domestic non-governmental organizations, emulating Putin's Russia." While Sodiqov was released, Hoodfar continues to be detained.

For instructors, these cases highlight how research, knowledge, can be considered a threat by regimes and potentially place the researcher in danger. How do we balance or value the insights of research and the potential risks inherent in conducting it -- for our participants, and for ourselves?

UPDATE 1 November 2016: Dr. Hoodfar's release from Evin Prison was confirmed on 26 September 2016. News reports following Dr. Hoodfar's release, underscored not only the resilience of this woman, but also how anthropologists can indeed find anthropology everywhere:
After a few days of intense interrogations, she decided to treat her time there as field work. Although lacking pen and paper, she used her toothbrush to scrawl her observations on the stone wall of her cell, prompting her cellmates to view her as a kind of mad professor, she said, laughing.
“My age and the fact I was an anthropologist and quite familiar with their techniques was a problem for them,” said Hoodfar, who now plans to write a book on the anthropology of interrogation.
(6 October 2016, Montreal Gazette)

Quick links and further reading: