Ryerson’s Nima Naghibi looks inside the lives of Iranian outsiders

The author of Women Write Iran: Nostalgia And Human Rights From The Diaspora, who came to Canada when she was 12, says many women looked at how the Iranian Revolution ruptured their lives.


Sometimes stories are so gripping, so in touch with the communities they represent that they’re almost too popular, and academia won’t accept them.

That’s what happened when Nima Naghibi began collecting written testimonies of Iranian women in the diaspora. The chair of Ryerson University’s English department and co-director of its Middle East and North Africa Studies Centre is fascinated by those stories, in part because they reflect her own experience.

She has published them in Women Write Iran: Nostalgia And Human Rights From The Diaspora ($36, University of Minnesota), being heralded as the first full-length study of life narratives by these women.

Naghibi recalls that many years ago she noticed a surge in life writing by Iranian women living outside Iran and wanted to explore why these women turned to this genre. But she got some push-back.

“What was most interesting to me was how many scholars rejected these narratives, but the stories were hugely popular among the general readership.” 

And so she persevered to get the book prepared and published, eventually by the University of Minnesota Press.

Naghibi, who moved to Canada from Iran when she was 12, noticed that a great many women looked at how the Iranian Revolution ruptured their lives. 

“I also noticed in these stories these expressions of longing for home and the pull of nostalgia,” she says.

One well-known example is Marjane Satrapi’s 2004 graphic novel, Persepolis: The Story Of A Childhood, which was adapted into an animated film in 2007.

Notions of a lost future emerge from Persepolis and other stories Naghibi collected in the new book, compelling her to wonder, “Who would I have become if the revolution had not happened?”

She is also intrigued by how trauma ripples through many of the histories. “Some of the writers give an account of atrocities that take place in Iran so we aren’t allowed to forget what happened. We’re forced to grapple with those traumatic events.”

What she found striking was this sense of needing to bear witness to the many humans right abuses women suffered in Iran. 

This isn’t the first time Naghibi has peered into the lives of Iranian women. In 2007, she published Rethinking Global Sisterhood: Western Feminism And Iran. Her thesis is that Western feminist intervention to protest the treatment of women in Iran 20 years ago actually did more harm than good. 

“Iranian authorities equated feminism with imperialism,” she notes, “and forced Iranian women to make a choice between the two. But it was an impossible choice.”

Beyond the books, her scholarly work on Iran has been published in such journals as ESC: English Studies in Canada, Interventions: An International Journal of Postcolonial Studies Radical History Review and Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly.

For Naghibi’s next major project, she plans on taking a sabbatical from Ryerson to investigate where Iranian Torontonians call home, most notably the area of North York called “Tehranto.” 

She’s unsure if her project will result in a scholarly volume tracking that community or another curated collection of autobiographical writings by Iranians living in the diaspora. 

Nestled deep within her, though, is another idea she’d like to make a reality. 

“I would love to write a fictionalized account of my family history, starting with my grandparents. My grandmother was an incredibly strong woman, an extraordinary force, particularly in Iran of almost 100 years ago. My grandfather was very involved in Iranian culture and politics during some pretty eventful and tumultuous times pre-1979. It’s a pretty complicated story, and I think there is great material there, verging on the soap-operatic.”

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