Sherene Razack holds the Penny Kanner endowed chair in the Department of Gender Studies, UCLA.
There's a question that's plagued me ever since my friend Dr. Homa Hoodfar was detained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran. This is the very prison where fellow Iranian Canadian photo journalist Zahra Kazemi was tortured and killed in 2003. It's a question from my 87-year-old mother. She asks, "What did Homa do? Why did she get into trouble?" My mother's questions deserve an answer, but I'm not sure how to explain.
My mother needs a plain answer and so does anyone considering writing a letter or signing a petition to free Homa. We need to know what we are fighting for when we demand that she be freed in the name of academic freedom.
Academic freedom is about the freedom to think, and to think critically without fear of retribution. When the #FreeHoma campaign asks for your support in securing her release, we say that her arrest is a violation of academic freedom. Today, when so many journalists, writers and academics around the world are imprisoned unjustly, it is hard to sort out what violations to academic freedom are all about.
Yet it has never been more crucial to know what you are fighting for when you sign a petition for Homa's release or write a letter supporting her and urging both the Canadian and Iranian governments to free her and to respect academic freedom. It bears repeating: academic freedom is about the freedom to think. In Homa's case, it is about the freedom to think critically about Muslim women's lives without retribution.
Homa's research seeks to make Muslim women real. Her research takes us beyond the stereotypes and helps us to understand how this stigmatized, yet richly diverse group of women, thinks. Her research on veiling is a good example. In one of her earliest articles, The Veil in Their Minds and On Our Heads, she made a simple point based on her interviews with hundreds of young Canadian Muslim women. Muslim women who decide to veil do so for many reasons, and they are not simply dupes of oppressive families and cultures. Indeed, many chose to veil in opposition to their family's wishes.
In her research on women's political participation, Homa pursued the same level of complexity she brought to veiling. She worked hard to get what the anthropologist Clifford Gertz called "thick description." What did women in Iran of various social background and status think about family planning? How did the state's policies actually operate on the ground? How do different women across the social spectrum understand their religious obligations?
This kind of complexity doesn't please everyone. In Quebec, for example, during the hysteria of the religious accommodation debates, the idea that Muslim women were more than dupes was highly unwelcome. The public and the media did not want to hear much about Muslim women's lives. It was so much easier to traffic in the stereotypes, and to indulge ourselves in an easy Western superiority. In Iran, too, there were many who did not like complexity, even when that complexity enabled us to see beyond the demonization of the Islamic state. It seems not to matter to the Revolutionary Guards that Homa's research shows that some of the state's initiatives worked to improve women's lives while others did not.
After more than a month, Iran's semi-official news agency has now reported that charges have been laid but neither Homa's lawyer nor her family have been notified about the nature of the charges. I should be clear here. There is little evidence that there was anything specific in Homa's research that caused offense. In fact, it seemed to have been a fruitless endeavour for the Revolutionary Guards to find anything seditious in her research. Homa's writing may be deemed seditious only if Quranic injunctions to treat women equally, and the rich history of Islamic theology itself, are ignored. If this is the case, then the Revolutionary Guards make the same mistake as is so often done in the West: they believe that Islam has nothing to offer women.
The freedom to make things complex is what the #FreeHoma campaign is fighting for. It is true that we are worried about our friend and colleague who is ill and who will not easily withstand the conditions of her imprisonment. But, equally, we stand opposed to arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, to legal grey zones where there is no due process.
Most of all, we stand opposed to a world that won't admit complexity of thought, and punishes it as a threat. This is a world where Donald Trump's call to "Ban the Muslims" is the basis of a presidential bid, a slogan that succeeds with those who see Muslims in overly simplistic and stereotypical ways. It is a world where Islamic State publishes kill lists of people who should be targeted for no rhyme or reason. This is a moral universe where free thought and scholarship are simply considered irrelevant, or worse, are treated as threats to arbitrary rule and punishable as crimes.
The kind of in-depth, thoughtful ethnographic research that Homa does is an important way to challenge those who do not believe in scholarship and who see intellectual work as irrelevant and dangerous. Homa's research helps to build a critical literacy. We learn how to think beyond the stereotypes of who Muslim women are. When we protect academic freedom, we protect this right to think in complex ways that challenges everyday racism and hatred against marginalized groups in every society, locally and globally.
Homa tells us things about Muslim women that some people would rather not know. She forces us to think. This is what she did. We can't let her die for it.