University
Donya Ahmadi Photo by Reyer Boxem

Interview with Donya Ahmadi

‘Nobody can say I didn’t do my due diligence’

Donya Ahmadi Photo by Reyer Boxem
Iranian Donya Ahmadi thought she could safely study Iranian feminism from her position in the Netherlands. But it didn’t quite go as she’d hoped. ‘I need to see it through to the end, even if it is extremely difficult.’
26 March om 17:06 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 26 March 2024
om 17:06 uur.
March 26 at 17:06 PM.
Last modified on March 26, 2024
at 17:06 PM.
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Door Giulia Fabrizi

26 March om 17:06 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 26 March 2024
om 17:06 uur.
Avatar photo

By Giulia Fabrizi

March 26 at 17:06 PM.
Last modified on March 26, 2024
at 17:06 PM.

The past few months have taken their toll on assistant professor of international relations Donya Ahmadi (34). ‘My research has suffered, my teaching has suffered, my mental and physical health have suffered. I haven’t had panic attacks in years, but they have come up again.’

Ahmadi, a prominent academic in the field of intersectional feminism, has been defending the research she put into one of her recently published articles since November. The article was published in the academic journal Women’s Studies International Forum in May 2023, and details the politics and internal dynamics of the feminist movement in Iran. 

It’s the first academic article about the Iranian MeToo movement ever. Because of this, Ahmadi described many of the retaliatory tactics used by Iranian men who’ve been accused of sexual assault. She used examples of men who, according to her research, are publicly known to have committed assault.

‘But now one of them is accusing me of defaming his name’, says Ahmadi. He wants the article to be taken offline. He’s already contacted the journal, used a lawyer to threaten to take Ahmadi to court, and filed a complaint with the UG about her academic integrity.

Full-time job

Because of this, she’s spent the last few months explaining her research methods to the journal, speaking to various lawyers, and preparing for a hearing with the committee on academic integrity. ‘Nobody sees the labour that goes into defending yourself’, she says. ‘The past month alone I have had a full-time job on top of my regular job just preparing my case for the committee hearing.’

Nobody sees the labour that goes into defending yourself

And all over an article that withstood peer reviews by multiple academics.  ’It pains me that this has made me lose time with my students. I love being in the classroom, even if my students grill me, which they do. But that’s the point. They have to be able to question my thoughts and the lens I use to study a subject. That’s how I keep learning and developing my research too.’

Demonstration 8 March

On International Women’s Day, during a demonstration that took place in front of the Academy building, a group of approximately a hundred students booed arts dean Thony Visser because they felt Ahmadi wasn’t being properly supported. The protesters demanded the university do more. 

Visser emphasised that people were hard at work behind the university’s walls. ‘You’re never going to meet those people and that’s okay. But many of them helped her, and are still doing their best to guarantee her safety’, she said.

Ahmadi herself doesn’t want to talk much about the protest. ‘I’m extremely grateful for the support from my students and the community’, she says. ‘I’m also grateful for the help from the university.’

Ahmadi welcomes any and all criticism on her research, as well as on her ideas. However, in this case, it’s not the contents of her work that are being called into question, but whether she acted professionally. ‘Nobody can say I haven’t done my due diligence or that my work is academically flawed, because I do my due diligence and I can show it.’

Violence and oppression

Ahmadi staunchly defends her work. Nevertheless, she wouldn’t call herself an activist. ‘You have to do activist labour to be called that’, she thinks. ‘I am a scholar. I do research, I teach, I talk to my students and essentially I just put out words.’

But, she says, it’s incredibly important that she has the freedom to do so. That’s one of the biggest lessons she learned in Iran, where she lived until she was twenty-two. The research on feminism in Iran that she now does is something she never could have imagined being possible. 

‘My parents both belonged to the Marxist opposition and had been vocally anti-shah before the revolution of 1978/1979’, she says. ‘Post-revolution, before I was born, they were both imprisoned for some time.’

Many people from her generation have similar stories to tell. Stories of violence and oppression during the first ten years of the Islamic Republic. ‘A lot of my parents’ comrades were arrested and tortured. Some were released, but they also lost a lot of them.’

Large-scale protests

Many of the memories she has of her early childhood revolve around the fear of losing her parents, she says. ‘Of them being picked up by the authorities and being put away. Having a materialist and leftist critique and paying a price for voicing those ideas was instilled in my upbringing.’

Talking about her parents’ activism was strictly forbidden. ‘We were in self-preservation mode, trying to survive as best as we could. And the fear paralysed me to speak about anything that may have been construed as activist’. 

Photo by Reyer Boxem
Paying a price for voicing your idea was instilled in my upbringing Photo by Reyer boxem

Paying a price for voicing your idea was instilled in my upbringing

Until 2009, when the first large-scale protests against the regime took place again. Ahmadi was one of the protesters. ‘We were non-violent and the organisers would tell us all the time: no chanting, no screaming, no pushing. Only hold up the victory sign.’ 

Still, the regime responded to the protests with arrests and violence. And even though this made Ahmadi stop coming, she also realised she could no longer live in a country where she was oppressed and living in fear. ‘It’s heartbreaking to think we were so mellow and people got killed by snipers’, she says. 

But leaving was easier said than done. No one in her family had ever been abroad. ‘It was also materially difficult and getting a visa with an Iranian passport was almost unimaginable.’

To Amsterdam

But then she was admitted to the master programme in urban studies at the University of Amsterdam. This, in combination with a two-year scholarship, makes the impossible come true. She moved to Amsterdam in 2010, entering an entirely new reality.

One in which she was allowed to foster her own views, without fear. One in which she was allowed to ask questions. ‘The programme wasn’t perfect’, she recalls. ‘All professors were male and not a single course offered anything on gender or inequality. But being able to sit in class with twelve students and openly discuss our ideas through our own lenses was such a stark difference to what I was used to in Iran.’

I was naive to think that here I would have protection

From that moment on, Ahmadi starts the journey to become the pioneering academic she is today. She found a PhD position in Delft. Learned about feminism, Marxist feminism, and anti-racism. ‘There I found explanations I wasn’t finding in the mainstream discourse of urban studies and feminist theories.’ 

She took the data from her PhD research and placed it in a new theoretical framework, becoming one of the first people to work from the perspective of intersectional feminism. ’In the end, my PhD was about diversity versus intersectionality and how diversity was used as this model to gloss over problems that have to do with race, class, and gender inequality.’ 

Dangerous

She has been researching intersectional feminism from her position at the UG since 2021. She wants to create an overview of feminism in Iran by focusing on the role that women played in the movement in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It’s a subject that’s still a taboo in the country, but which she has been speaking up about from the Netherlands for years. ‘But it has a price’, she now knows. ‘I can’t go back to Iran, not even to visit.’

As such, she knows how dangerous it can be to write about feminism in Iran. And yet. She had never seen this – the threats of a lawsuit, the complaint to her Dutch employer about her integrity – coming. ‘I was so naive to think that here in Groningen I would have the protection to work on this matter’, says Ahmadi. 

After consulting with her lawyer, she tried to prevent a lawsuit in January by offering to remove the man’s name, which is mentioned once, from her article. ‘It was a difficult decision’, she says. ‘But as a scholar I thought: this is the first peer-reviewed academic article written about the Iranian MeToo movement. It’s much more important for the article to be saved and the research to be published, than it is for me to keep his name in as an example.’

However, the man did not agree. That, at least, made it crystal clear what his intentions were. ‘His aim is not to get his name removed, but to get the whole article pulled’, she says. ‘This is an effort to make an example of me towards my peers who want to work on this topic.’

The message, she says, was as follows: you’re not even allowed to research these topics. Not within Iran and not outside of it. ‘If it got taken down it would not only be a blow to me, but also a blow to academic freedom. This is why I need to see it through to the end, even if it is extremely difficult.’

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