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Safe Haven

Women scholars and activists who are under siege in their native countries for expressing their opinions are finding refuge—physical, emotional, and intellectual—at American universities, Rutgers among them, where they can pursue their scholarly interests without threat. By Wendy Plump


Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh in her office
For Rutgers, Iranian journalist Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh represents its first Scholar Rescue Fund Fellow, which is run by the Institute of International Education as part of its mission to provide scholars under threat with a professional home to continue their work. Since 2002, the institute has established short-term fellowships at 300 partner institutions for more than 525 academics from 50 nations. Photography by Nick Romanenko

When meeting Iranian journalist Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh in her office, enveloped by the supportive atmosphere at the Institute for Women’s Leadership (IWL), it might be hard for someone to imagine her having once fought for the Iranian revolution in 1979, a cause that later betrayed her, or having been thrown into jail in Tehran, several times, for her activism. Perhaps that is the impression given by any political refugee who has found some measure of peace as an exile, far from the tumult and violence of the home country.

But in a quiet voice, carefully choosing her words in English, her third language, Abbasgholizadeh gives testimony to decades of zealous, sometimes life-threatening advocacy on behalf of her countrywomen in Iran. That activism began when she was a young girl in a traditional Muslim household in Tehran, and continues today with her fellowship at Rutgers through the IWL and the international Scholar Rescue Fund.

For Rutgers, Abbasgholizadeh represents its first Scholar Rescue Fund Fellow, which is run by the Institute of International Education (IIE) as part of its mission to provide scholars under threat with a professional home to continue their work. Since 2002, the IIE has established short-term fellowships at 300 “safe” partner institutions for more than 525 academics from 50 nations. The one-year post at Rutgers was made possible by an anonymous gift of $100,000. Abbasgholizadeh is working through the end of the academic year on the New Brunswick Campus, where she is producing a documentary and teaching students at IWL, a consortium of teaching, research, and public service units at Rutgers.

“They provide me this nice office,” Abbasgholizadeh said during an interview. A computer behind her desk displays the latest videos shot for her women’s rights network, ZananTV. “You can see I work here. It is very good experience for me. Here is a huge space for meetings and talk about women’s rights in ways that are very new to me.”

But that is getting ahead of the story. Abbasgholizadeh’s narrative of activism begins with the 1979 revolution that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power. That revolution had promised equal rights for women once the nation’s leadership passed from a monarchy to a republic. When those promises dissolved under Khomeini’s harsh Islamic rule, Abbasgholizadeh took her first step away from Islam and the Sharia law of her youth. (Sharia law informs all aspects of Muslim life, including daily routines, familial and religious obligations, and financial affairs. It is mostly based on the Koran and the Sunna.)

Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh quote“Before that revolution, Khomeini had many promise for women and liberation, but after a few years we find that all things the republic of Islam say is not true,” said Abbasgholizadeh. “I had a private professor at that time, and I went to her for continuing my research in Islamic Sharia law. But one day she tell me, ‘I cannot work with you anymore. Today, your husband came and said he doesn’t give his permission.’ It was huge insult for me. You feel like nothing. Like a slave, that your husband can control you.

“I promised myself at this time not to let any woman be insulted by Sharia Islam. Because I said, this is not true Islam,” she went on. “This is a political system. I couldn’t accept that religion and God were against the freedom of women. So I believed that something is wrong. And this wrong is made by the clerics.”

In the years that followed, Abbasgholizadeh defied both the Sharia courts that sought to deny her right to raise her two children after divorce and the republic of Islam that gave her so few freedoms. Working as a journalist and editor, she had a platform that made her a prime target for the Iranian authorities. She was persecuted and harassed. Finally, in 2004, she was thrown into solitary confinement for a month in a Tehran jail for her activism, following a speech she gave at a women’s conference in Thailand that criticized the Iranian leadership and its treatment of women.

“You cannot believe how bad it was,” she said. “I was something like 40 then, and in that time my children were young. An interrogator told me if I didn’t cooperate, then maybe my kids will have an accident in the street. So it was very challenging. And it changed me from being a Muslim feminist to being a secular feminist.”
It was a transition she honored consistently, but with something less than a well-defined strategy. That became clear once Abbasgholizadeh arrived at Rutgers last June as a fellow of the Scholar Rescue Fund.

Alison Bernstein, director of the IWL, sees the hosting of scholars like Abbasgholizadeh as the sacred duty of a free society. “Public universities often don’t have the money to do this, but they have to do it because they have the public trust,” said Bernstein. “They have to be beacons of academic freedom. The issue is one of being a global university, being a university that takes seriously the development and dissemination of new knowledge, and the freedom of expression.

“The stars were aligned when we got Mahboubeh,” she added. “The IWL works to advance women’s leadership for a just world, and she exemplifies that goal.”

A circuitous path brought Abbasgholizadeh to her own safe haven at Rutgers. In 2009, she participated in the so-called Green Movement in Iran, in which two presidential candidates vied for power: Mir Hossein Mousavi, whom she supported, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who won what is widely viewed as a rigged election. Mousavi’s supporters were hunted down. Many were killed. Abbasgholizadeh was among those sought. After hiding first in one friend’s home and then another, she escaped over the Iranian border into Turkey.

“We have two kinds of escaping,” she said. “One is by illegal escape, just going without passport to another country. But I wanted to try a legal one. I had to be very fast. If you want to go over real border, it’s very far and very slow. The [authorities] must prepare a letter and fax this letter. I had just 24 hours to escape the country faster than the fax.” And she did.

After several days in Turkey, and a few months in Malaysia, Abbasgholizadeh arrived in the United States through the National Endowment for Democracy. The endowment connected her to the IIE. She has since been granted asylum status in the United States, happy to point out that both of her children escaped Iran years ago, with one living in Australia and the other in London.

While she has been at Rutgers working on a documentary about women’s groups in America, Abbasgholizadeh discovered a major flaw in her own activism. It was too narrow, and too dependent on one approach, she said. Her observation of how different demographics of women in the United States work collectively—ethnicities, socioeconomic groups, sexual orientations, and domestic realities—means she can pass new and crucial strategies to Iranian women through her network, ZananTV (“zanan” means “woman” in Farsi).

“Coming here, I understand different types of women’s movements. I translate this through ZananTV to women’s groups from all Iranian provinces. This is huge. Now we have debate on ZananTV: what is the intersectional issue that we have in common? If we are Arab woman, poor, in a small village, what is the different issue we have from a middle-class woman in Tehran? How I learned to think like this is from my experience here.

“A regular scholar comes here to learn and can say, ‘I have three good articles in the end of this fellowship.’ I don’t say that. I say, ‘I have new strategy for women’s movement: avoiding centralization of women’s demands and work on the different demands of different groups,’ and then how we can make a voice for all of these things to influence mainstream policy.

“In this way,” Abbasgholizadeh concluded, “I can transfer this knowledge. I give food to Iranian women’s groups. It’s like food. It’s like a new perspective.” •