Interview with Maryam DezhamkhooyGender Archaeology and the Women’s Movement in Iran

20 December 2022

Interview with researcher Dr Maryam Dezhamkhooy

We usually imagine archaeology as investigating historical finds. But you devote yourself to the contemporary past and modern material culture. What is the reason for dealing with modernity as an archaeologist and why is it so fascinating?

Dezhamkhooy: Archaeology was markedly influenced by the colonialism of the 19th and 20th centuries and there are still conscious or unconscious colonial practices in this discipline. That is shown, for instance, in Egyptology or Near Eastern Archaeology, when researchers in the West study ancient objects that are not available to the local population. In addition, the research topics of archaeology tend to be conservative in the sense that the objects examined are mostly very old, while investigating modernity is still not perceived as belonging to this discipline. And yet the archaeology of the present was founded as early as in the 1970s by the American scholar William Rathje. It was his aim to develop a line of research concerned with the problems of its own time. As a student, I wanted to find a new access to archaeology going beyond conservative approaches and interpretations, and so I ended up with the archaeology of the present. That way I can do research on present-day societies and work on current challenges of humanity.

Portrait Maryam Dezhamkhooy

One emphasis of your research is gender archaeology, which is about the role distribution of the genders in a society: what is this line of research about?

Dezhamkhooy: Gender archaeology is very varied and focuses on different topics depending on the context and the period. This research field arose in the course of the women’s movements in the 20th century and has since developed into a dynamic subfield of archaeology. As a researcher concerned with the Middle East and particularly with Iran, I’m interested above all in the critical interpretation of contemporary history. Iranian modern states have repeatedly manipulated the representation of the premodern history of the country and its inhabitants, particularly the role of women in society and questions of sexual diversity. The regime under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and, after it fell, the Islamic Republic, have had a great influence on the content of text books – both in the school and the university context. Consequently, official historiography negated the importance of women, as also happened to other oppressed population groups. With my research I would like to show that gender and role distribution are dynamic and ahistorical interpretations should be avoided in scholarly work. It is very important for the academic world to spotlight social challenges and problems, and to analyse them scientifically. Political structures and power relations are a major part of my research interest.

In your current research you are also focusing on the Iranian women’s movement at the start of the 20th century. You say that there is a false picture of women in Islamic countries in the western world. What can we learn from your research for the present situation?

Dezhamkhooy: First, it must be emphasised that the countries of the East are very diverse and that there is great cultural diversity within a country as well. Unlike the picture projected in the western media, there is no such person as “the” Muslim woman; women in Islamic countries do not form a homogeneous group.

If we want to understand the present women’s movement in Iran, we have to consider its historical roots. It is important to me to stress the active role of women in my research, as their engagement for freedom is still neglected. Women played a significant role in Iran both during and also after the first democratic revolution in 1906. Historical sources and documents prove that women organised support programmes, founded organisations and companies in order to contribute to the economic, social and political reorganisation of the country. During the 1979 Revolution women protested on 8 March – two weeks after the establishment of the Islamic regime – against being forced to wear a hijab.

So if you look back at the women’s movements of the past hundred years, the active role of women today comes as no surprise. Society has changed for the better and, after a long struggle for equal rights, women are taking a leading role in the current protests and men are supporting them. This is a sign that Iranian society has achieved a certain intellectual maturity. That is a valuable achievement, which has taken over a hundred years.

In the past few years people have demonstrated against the regime again and again, but there was less international visibility and attention than there is now. What is different about the current situation?

Dezhamkhooy: The current movement is deeply rooted in past protests – starting from the student protests at the University of Tehran in 1999, which were triggered by a ban on the liberal newspaper “Salam” and called for the protection of civil rights. Then there was what was called the Green movement in response to the result of the Iranian presidential election of 2009, which granted the previous incumbent an absolute majority. Intellectuals, students and the middle classes took part in the public protests and demonstrations. In 2018, 2019 and 2021 there were repeated demonstrations due to the economic crisis and because water shortages as a consequence of climate change were threatening the livelihoods of various population groups, such as farmers, cattle breeders and shepherds. The last wave of these demonstrations extended across the whole country.

To sum up, three aspects distinguish the current protests from the previous ones: they are taking place in the name of women’s and human rights; the main slogan is “women, life, freedom”. Across the country students and other population groups such as teachers and workers are showing solidarity with each other and protesting against the regime together. And the protests are lasting longer than earlier demonstrations.

Today the movement is determined by the following factors: the extent and duration of the protests, the related demands for women’s and human rights, and the current international interconnection. The Ukraine crisis and the role of the Islamic Republic in this war are key factors. In particular, the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic, which is characterised by close relations with China and Russia, opposes the interests of many countries, primarily those of European states. A further factor is the energy crisis, which is currently posing a great challenge to the western world. Iran could be a chief supplier of energy since the country has the second biggest gas resources in the world. In my view, Russia’s war against Ukraine and the accompanying energy crisis is impacting strongly on Iran’s domestic situation – both on the current protests and on the future of the Iranian population as a whole.

The protests rely on the support of the international community and here the political decisions of the European countries play an important role – e.g. relative to energy supplies and sanctions. If Iran supplied gas to Europe the regime would profit most from the revenue. Currently, however, Russia has a great influence on the Iranian government and is stopping gas supplies to European countries based on its own interests. The situation is equally complicated regarding sanctions, which are mostly hitting the ordinary population hardest, for example, because they are causing a shortage of medication. Sanctions should not be imposed generally but should aim explicitly at certain individuals in the Revolutionary Guard or groups loyal to the regime, if they are to have any effect.

What do you expect of the sustained protests for the future?

Dezhamkhooy: The changes in Iran in past years can be described with the words of sociologist Asef Bayat as “the quiet encroachment of the ordinary”. This “quiet encroachment” of the ordinary population means a kind of resistance to the power elite that is creeping ahead and is marked by episodic collective actions. Particularly young people, women and minorities are creating more and more space for themselves in the general public. This becomes clear, for instance, through women resisting the regulations of the regime: They allow themselves to be photographed without a hijab and are becoming increasingly visible in the public space. Furthermore, there is more and more discussion about the rights of minorities such as homosexuals. That shows that the Iranian population has profoundly changed; many no longer want to go back to earlier times. That is putting the government under pressure. Whether this pressure will suffice to bring down the regime is hard to say but in the long term, it doesn’t have a chance, in my opinion – particularly not if there is an increase in pressure from outside. The recently adopted United Nations resolution will contribute to that. It is intended to enable an independent investigation of the violence used by the Iranian authorities against peaceful demonstrators.

Personal information

Maryam Dezhamkhooy studied archaeology at the University of Tehran (Iran) and completed her doctorate there in 2011. In Iran, after teaching commitments at Shiraz Azad University and Larestan Azad University, she worked as assistant professor for archaeology at the University of Birjand for five years until coming to Germany in 2016 as an Alexander von Humboldt fellow. At present, she is an academic staff member of the Käte Hamburger Centre for Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Studies at Heidelberg University. There, her research is on the concepts of nation and nationality, and the women’s movement in Iran in the recent past.