Stanford University Press is excited to announce the new editors for our series Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture:
David Biale & Sarah Abrevaya Stein
Pardis Mahdavi, author of Passionate Uprisings: Iran's Sexual Revolution , has been featured in numerous articles and reviews recently, including appearances in The Nation, Financial Times, and The Australian.
Laura Secor's article in The Nation takes an extensive look at Mahdavi's research which includes 7 years of visiting, observing, and interviewing upper-middle-class youth in Tehran. The article discusses Iran's strict laws surrounding sexuality (i.e. unfaithful wives may be subject to public stonings) and how some younger Iranians are secretly circumventing those laws through orgies and cruising for anonymous sex partners. Despite the increase of sexual rebellion and promiscuity among Iranian youth, Mahdavi learned that sexual health education and knowledge was startling low.
"The birth control method of choice among Mahdavi's informants is withdrawal. Women who take the pill frequently lack the most basic information and take it only erratically, depriving themselves of almost all of its effect. Condoms are considered so filthy and embarrassing that even people who share florid details about their sex lives with Mahdavi blush at their mention, and no one wants to be seen requesting them at a pharmacy. AIDS, educated young Iranians tell Mahdavi, is transmitted through visits to the dentist or hairdresser, and other STDs come only from a certain unsavory sort of woman. While wealthy women can obtain abortions — illegal in most cases but common, thanks to poor contraception—from sympathetic doctors at vast expense, poorer women acquire on the black market pills or injections meant for animals."
Luke Slattery's opinion piece in The Australian notes the political underpinnings of Iran's sexual revolution, saying "the embrace of a liberal sexuality profoundly at odds with a repressive theocracy—make no mistake, this is a society where dissidents still disappear for their beliefs — is a gesture layered with deeper significance." Though Slattery remains realistic, referring to the increased sexuality as more of a rebellion than a revolution and contending that "this is a cruel regime, loathed by its young citizenry, but it will not prove easy to dislodge," while Mahdavi "is optimistic, nevertheless, that this passion for sexual self-expression will lead to greater liberalisation and, ultimately, real social change."
Passionate Uprisings, a new book by Iranian-American anthropologist, Pardis Mahdavi, is a fascinating, ground-breaking, and personal look into a society that is poorly understood—if it is understood at all—by the majority of Westerners today. Mahdavi's narrative provides a first-hand account and insider's portrait into the lives of the 20 and 30-somethings, urban Iranians, who make up a disproportionately high percentage of the country's population. Here is a video presentation on the book by Mahdavi.
The book describes the sexual revolution that began and took hold of Iran's youth over a decade ago with Khatami's election as president on a platform of political transparency and social reform. In the ensuing years, the social and sexual revolution has gained momentum as the country's students have managed to extract more freedom for themselves in their public and private lives. Surprisingly, as Mahdavi's book reports, this desire for social change does not seem to have dampened over the past few years despite a more conservative president in office. She candidly describes how Islamic dress codes, which would have women covering themselves from head to toe, are disobeyed. The book details public displays of affection between men and women, and late night orgies and trysts, premartial and extramarital affairs, behaviors which are all banned and punishable by law in Iran. While these personal/political/sexual rebellions of young Iranians, which Passionate Uprisings so vividly details, have not resulted in a dramatic showdown with the Islamic regime or even a relatively more liberal and democratic state (and it is impossible to predict what the tipping point will be), Mahdavi remains optimistic. She thinks we should not discount the impact of the sexual revolution taking place in the country, “one needs only to look to Iran’s neighbor to the north, the former Soviet Union, or even to the Czech Republic’s “Velvet Revolution”, to realize that so-called “soft” revolutions (which could similarly be used to describe Iran’s current social and sexual revolution) can result in the collapse of a state due to a lack of governmental legitimacy.”
The book describes the sexual revolution that began and took hold of Iran's youth over a decade ago with Khatami's election as president on a platform of political transparency and social reform. In the ensuing years, the social and sexual revolution has gained momentum as the country's students have managed to extract more freedom for themselves in their public and private lives. Surprisingly, as Mahdavi's book reports, this desire for social change does not seem to have dampened over the past few years despite a more conservative president in office. She candidly describes how Islamic dress codes, which would have women covering themselves from head to toe, are disobeyed. The book details public displays of affection between men and women, and late night orgies and trysts, premartial and extramarital affairs, behaviors which are all banned and punishable by law in Iran.
While these personal/political/sexual rebellions of young Iranians, which Passionate Uprisings so vividly details, have not resulted in a dramatic showdown with the Islamic regime or even a relatively more liberal and democratic state (and it is impossible to predict what the tipping point will be), Mahdavi remains optimistic. She thinks we should not discount the impact of the sexual revolution taking place in the country, “one needs only to look to Iran’s neighbor to the north, the former Soviet Union, or even to the Czech Republic’s “Velvet Revolution”, to realize that so-called “soft” revolutions (which could similarly be used to describe Iran’s current social and sexual revolution) can result in the collapse of a state due to a lack of governmental legitimacy.”
Last week Turkey’s top court announced plans to consider reinstating a headscarf ban in universities. The ban, which had been in place for many years and was even included in Turkey’s constitution, was overturned just last February, only to spark intense debate over the future of secularism in the country.
The headscarf is just as charged an image in the West as it is in predominantly Islamic countries like Turkey. The covered Muslim woman is a common image in Western media —often as a symbol of male brutality – and the debate over whether the headscarf is religious freedom or female oppression still rages in Europe.
But in all the debate over Muslim women, how are Muslim men depicted?
In Stolen Honor (May 2008), Katherine Pratt Ewing attempts to answer that question with an ethnographic portrait of Muslim men (coincidentally, mostly of Turkish decent) in contemporary Germany. Throughout her writings, Ewing focuses on the stereotypes and stigma these men face, arguing that “even when men are not mentioned directly, such narratives implicitly embed negative representations. These representations are particularly prominent in Europe and play a major role in the political process in many European countries, shaping public policy, citizenship legislation, and the course of elections.”
These negative stereotypes – compounded by the post-9/11 climate in which the Muslim man is seen as a potential terrorist – have created significant social problems for Muslim men living in the West. Moreover, Ewing asserts that “the stigmatization of the masculinity of a minority such as Muslim men often goes unnoticed because of the blind spots and silences that surround this stigmatization. This sometimes invisible or implicit process of stigmatization is linked to intertwined national and transnational imaginaries that rest on a foundation of fantasy.”
With Stolen Honor, Katherine Pratt Ewing looks at the creation of masculine identity and the struggles Muslim men face in the Western world, and in doing so, quietly turns the discussion of gender in Islam on its head.
The Texas and Ohio primaries are coming to a close and many speculate that the results could clinch the democratic presidential nomination for either Senator Barack Obama or Senator Hillary Clinton. Both candidates have been seesawing in terms of votes in a very unpredictable year of primaries and caucuses. But Obama has been on a winning streak, sweeping the last eleven primaries straight.
Many speak of Obama’s charisma and his campaign of hope that has enthralled disillusioned citizens. Hip-hop artist Will.I.Am composed a music video featuring clips of Obama's "Yes We Can" speech and a multitude of celebrity cameos. To date, the video has received over 5.5 million hits on YouTube. In January, Caroline Kennedy Schlosser wrote an Op-ed in the New York Times, endorsing Obama and likening him to her late father, perhaps the most inspirational and hopeful president in our nation’s history.
But not everyone is swept up in Obama mania. Hillary Clinton has criticized his campaign for relying on false hope and rhetoric instead of experience and a track record of successful policy. According to a MSNBC article, Clinton is quoted as saying, “I think it is clear that what we need is somebody who can deliver change…And we don't need to be raising the false hopes of our country about what can be delivered."
Stanford University Press author Hirokazu Miyazaki disagrees. Miyazaki, a professor of Anthropology at Cornell University and author of The Method of Hope: Anthropology, Philosophy, and Fijian Knowledge (2004), has focused his research on the question, “How do we keep hope alive?” In a guest column for the Ithaca Journal, Miyazaki analyzes Obama’s campaign and contends that Clinton and others are perhaps underestimating the American people’s hunger for hope.
He says, “Research on hope in diverse cultures shows that one individual's hope often can replicate itself, in a specific way, in the lives of many other individuals. The rhetoric of hope may seem general, abstract and intangible; but the effect of hope is often quite specific, personal and substantive.”
“Imagine what would happen if every American who has long endured disappointment, fear and hopelessness suddenly regained hope about the future. By that very fact, the most radical change imaginable would already have happened.”
The policy vs. hope debate and the presidential primaries will continue on through the end of June.
The New York Times reported today on the growing movement against female genital mutilation in Egypt. This practice, also known as genital cutting, excision, or female circumcision, is performed within a number of African cultures, mostly lying in the triangle between Egypt, Kenya, and Senegal. Its roots lie in antiquity, provoking the conflict between opponents of excision, who argue that it is a dangerous infraction on basic human rights, and supporters, who point to its cultural history and significance.
In her recent book, Between Rites and Rights, Chantal Zabus gives us unprecedented access to women’s writing about the experience of excision. Presenting texts from throughout Africa, Zabus shows how women have found spaces outside of their traditional cultures within which they can voice their experiences. Their writing is eye-opening, often chilling, and always moving.
When Harry Potter was told he was a wizard (in J.K. Rowling’s universe, a wizard is a male witch; in Naming the Witch, witches can be masculine or feminine, as wizardry is perceived as a very different phenomenon from witchcraft), a new world opened up to him, one in which he felt more at home than the normal, non-magical world. Unfortunately, historical and modern accusations of witchcraft often lead to harassment, imprisonment, and death.
In Naming the Witch, James Siegel argues that explanations of witch-hunts have too often overlooked the extreme violence they entail, focusing on their social functions. Siegel grapples with the violence and takes the beliefs inherent to witchcraft seriously, bringing to the reader a sense of the fear and uncertainty driving those who kill witches.
What makes this book truly immediate is its focus on witch-hunts within the last decade. Today, people who are accused on witchcraft in Cameroon are judged in state courts. Much of Naming the Witch focuses on the witch-hunts that ensued in Indonesia after President Suharto left office in December 1998. Over the next three months, around 120 people were killed by mobs who believed them to be witches. Witch-hunts then continued on a smaller scale.
What causes people to torture, murder, and mutilate someone who has been their neighbor their entire lives? How is it that, while Americans immerse themselves in the world of Harry Potter, people are still being killed as witches? Naming the Witch delves into these disturbing questions and provides surprising answers.
In a review of America’s Kingdom in the London Review of Books, Tariq Ali writes that, “Critical academic works on the Saudi kleptocracy are rare. …Which is why America's Kingdom comes as a pleasant surprise. Robert Vitalis, who teaches political science at the University of Pennsylvania, has produced a scholarly and readable book on the interaction between Saudi society and Aramco, the US oil giant that had its beginnings when the Saudi government granted its first concessions to Standard Oil of California in 1933. Combining history with political anthropology, Vitalis sheds a bright light on the origins and less savoury aspects of the Saudi-US relationship in its first phase, when oil production was accompanied by the manufacturing of myths that prettified the US presence."
Robert Vitalis not only provides a historical basis (spanning more than seventy years, three continents, and an engrossing cast of characters) for understanding this “special relationship” between the United States and the Saudi monarchy, but he also argues that despite the constant media scrutiny after 9/11, the special relationship continues today. And there’s plenty of evidence going around. The Wall Street Journal reports in an article today that instead of taking explicit measures against a powerful Saudi bank in 2003 (or even earlier), which allegedly finances terrorist networks from the Middle East to Indonesia, the U.S. government has chosen to lobby the Saudi royal family quietly about its concerns, with little success so far.
The book points to a major divergence between the official “myths” (perpetuated by both the U.S. and the Saudis) and the political and historical realities in the Middle East. It shows how the development of Saudi Arabia’s oil under a racist and unfair US-owned company generated a lingering resentment and hatred against the West. As Tariq Ali's review suggests, these feelings persist in our times, even among Saudi elite.
As we're all focused on the e coli investigation around spinach, it may be a good time to think about where our food comes from, and why we choose to eat what we eat. Why would farmers in Guatamala, who refuse to touch broccoli themselves, dedicate their precious farmland to the cultivation of broccoli, all of which is exported to the United States? And why do Americans eat so much broccoli? This book takes a surprising look at the hidden world of broccoli, connecting American consumers concerned about their health, body image, and diet with Maya farmers concerned about holding onto their land and making a living.
Read a great summary of the book here.