15.09.2009Shahla ShafighGlobalisation as a Prerequisite for DiversityIranian author and intellectual Shahla Shafigh stresses the positive aspects of globalization, for instance the possibilities of world-wide networking for global issues. A portrait by Fahimeh Farsaie
Change is the only thing you can rely on, says Shahla Shafigh Around twenty years ago, Shahla Shafigh had to flee her native country: the guardians of the Iranian revolution had included her on their list of people to be arrested. Since then, the 49-year-old has been living in Paris, but she still feels as close to home as ever. Not because she lives in a world of nostalgia, but simply because her relationship to her homeland is no longer primarily dependent on where she happens to be located.
In the age of electronic media, she can achieve an imaginary presence in Iran whenever she wants to, visiting chatrooms to discuss the development of the Iranian student movement with her compatriots, or communicating with colleagues by email about Islamic feminism. Shahla Shafigh, who has a degree in sociology from the Sorbonne, describes her situation:
"Opportunities like these represent the positive side of globalisation. They help me to maintain a healthy distance in my attitude to my native land and the country I choose to live in - and to take a constant, active interest in both. My contradictory situation in exile also plays a role in all this. Only in France did the importance of my origins become clear to me."
The Islamic revolution – a personal backlash
In 1979, after the Islamic Revolution, it was more important to the young student from Teheran to struggle for democracy in her native land than to think about her ethnic or national identity. Shahla Shafigh speaks emphatically:
"In 1989, after I had completed my sociology degree in Paris, I began work on my first book. Among the questions that interested me was this: why had I, as a young left-wing intellectual, worn the headscarf to demonstrations against the Shah's regime, despite the fact that neither I nor my family had any strong religious faith?"
Not even Shafigh's grandmother was a strict Muslim. In the 1920s, she had emigrated to Baku, and she still wasn't wearing the headscarf when she returned to Iran without her grandfather, who had been exiled to Siberia under Stalin.
Shafigh says: "Yet although my family history had been marked by the consequences of exile, emigration and return, when I first came to France I didn't feel any need to define myself by reference to my roots. And when I gave public readings, my audience pointed to this as evidence of my 'self-alienation'."
Reflections of the past
As Director of Education at an Inter-Cultural Institute, she discussed this self-alienation with reference to migration and to case-studies of immigrants in France:
"As an intellectual in the diaspora, and one from an Islamic world, I started to examine my origins closely, because this allowed me, to some extent, to define myself and my situation in the world. And this was also the reason why I attempted, in my third book, to describe the fate of my generation: a generation that rebelled against the Islamic government, and suffered harassment, arrest, execution or exile for doing so."
By engaging in dialogue with other immigrant groups in France, she also became acquainted with other strategies of self-definition:
"In discussions with people from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey and France, my books served as a basis for the study of Islam and Islamism, and the relationship between religion and politics. We talked about power and the way power is used, and about the position of the individual in Western societies. Our situation as exiles and immigrants is also a topic that's always connected with racism, violence and discrimination in the age of globalisation. In the course of these discussions, I realised that every country contains a collection of countries. There is a land called Iran, which is represented by Hisbollahis; and there is a land in which Iranians fight Hisbollahis. In just the same way, a humane and liberal France exists alongside a fascistic and chauvinistic France."
Globalisation - a world of diversity
Globalisation makes it possible for these liberal and humane communities in any one country to communicate with similar groups in every country in the world, with those who are working towards a world of diversity and who are fighting against abuses of human rights.
Shafigh remarks: "For such people, freedom means more than the freedom to consume. And when I write, I'm participating very actively in the creation of this new world."
Shahla Shafigh's writings include not just scholarly and academic works but two published collections of short stories, originally written in Persian. In her books, Shafigh attempts to put individual and national concerns into perspective by relating them to global themes. An awareness of belonging to one world permeates all her writings; and this awareness is what's new about the current phase of globalisation.
"By engaging in discussion with my colleagues and my readers, I try to find solutions that lead neither to ethnocentrism nor to alienation from one's roots," Shafigh says. "It's a process that's subject to constant change. And in this process of global communication, change is the only thing you can rely on."
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