One stroppy Lady

December 21, 2007

Huw Richards meets the Anglo-Iranian academic who has recently been raised to the House of Lords.

Haleh Afshar had more warning than most new peers about her elevation to the House of Lords, but she was still surprised when it happened. Afshar, 63, professor of politics and women's studies at York University, was elevated as a crossbench "people's peer" in mid-October.

"It was first suggested to me about a year ago by Amir Bhatia," she says, "who is a peer himself. I agreed to put my name forward, but I didn't think somebody like me, who has always been gobby, interfering and argumentative, was the sort of person they would want. There was a long silence, and I thought nothing would happen."

Then came a call from the office of Lord Stevenson, who chairs the appointments committee. "I was invited for a 'conversation'. I was extremely opinionated in the meeting, and again there was a silence.

"Then I had another call from Lord Stevenson, who said: 'Are you still interested? If so, we'd like to put you forward. But it is up to the Prime Minister whether he accepts the recommendation.' Then a couple of weeks later came the call from the appointments office wanting my biography, my phone numbers and all sorts of other details. It suddenly hit me that it was really happening."

The people's peers scheme, which aims to diversify the House of Lords, can claim a success. A professor of politics is hardly a first, nor is an independent-minded woman. But an Iranian woman certainly is.

Afshar herself is wary of what she has described as "assigned identity". On the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the US, she wrote that "on September 11 I turned, unfolded, into a Muslim". She remains angry at "constantly having to explain what I am not - that I am not an extremist and not a terrorist".

For similar reasons, she is wont to describe herself as "Persian" - "The word 'Iranian' has taken on such negative connotations that it leads people to make assumptions about you," she says.

Whenever she passes through an airport she is grateful for the decision, made 30 years ago, to apply for a British passport. "I did not want to have a different passport from my children, who were born and brought up here."

The document, however, did not come without an argument. "When I was finally given a passport, it was made out for Mrs Dodson (her married name). I handed it back and explained: 'I'm not Mrs Dodson, but Haleh Afshar'. The passport officials were rather puzzled, as they were used to people being absolutely delighted when they finally got a passport."

Afshar is comfortable with dual nationality. "Identities are fluid. I see myself as British, and I've lived in Britain for a long time. But it doesn't make me any less Persian. I was born in Iran and raised there; I still love the country, the smell of its earth, its poetry and its language."

Her academic interests extend beyond Iran and the Middle East, and she has co-edited a number of books on women and Third World development. In Britain, she campaigns for the Muslim Women's Network.

"I was involved in setting up the network. Muslim women do very well educationally and, given the opportunities, are very successful, but they are invisible as a group. The aim is to give a large number of very keen, very capable people the links they need to be successful and also to make them visible to policymakers."

But given events, her intimate knowledge and a formidable range of contacts (she worked as a journalist for an Iranian newspaper for some years), her homeland has always loomed large.

One of her most substantial single-author works, Islam and the Post Revolutionary State in Iran (1994), was published under the pseudonym of Homa Omid. "The book was in the final stages," she explains, "when my father, who had been in exile, was invited to go back and spend some time in Iran. I realised that it could cause serious problems for him if I published a critical book, so I asked if I could publish under another name. A book with my name on it might have sold well at the time, so I was extremely grateful to my publishers for agreeing."

The book indicted the Iranian state for "theocratic fascism" and "abysmal failure" to create an effective government on Islamic principles. It was in keeping with a personal history of being "always a dissident, always a critic" of governments that dated back to her childhood. As an eight-year- old galvanised by a cousin's radicalism, she painted communist slogans on her family home. Her father immediately identified her as the culprit, noting that nobody else would have written at knee height.

She is unenthusiastic about Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "I'm very much against his politics, which are extremely damaging to Iran. At the same time, I find myself in a quandary about being critical when Iran is being placed under so much pressure. It seems like a repetition of what happened to Iraq, with the same slow build-up of criticism and demands."

She does not believe Ahmadinejad speaks for most Iranians. "Young people don't buy into the revolutionary rhetoric. They are aware of what is going on in the wider world. They watch al-Jazeera and the BBC, they listen to and trust the BBC World Service, and they look to the West. But that interest is not being reciprocated."

She also feels that the potential for liberalisation under Ahmadinejad's predecessor, Mohammed Khatami, was betrayed. She says: "If there had been any positive echo for those attempts at rapprochement, we would not be where we are now." Yet she is as critical of Khatami as she is of any other Iranian leader. "His government failed and was hardly a model of good practice. It contributed to its own downfall. But it had no chance, given the attitude of the Americans."

Exempt from her strictures is Jack Straw, the former British Foreign Secretary. She credits him with consistent efforts to change policy towards Iran. Rejection of his view, she argues, played into Ahmadinejad's hands: "It fed the nationalism he espouses and makes it easy for him to dismiss critics as agents of the Americans."

Afshar was aghast when France's President, Nicolas Sarkozy, joined the aggressive rhetoric on Iran - "I am particularly worried because so far the European Union has been a voice of sanity." (She has a long connection with France, having spent part of her childhood there, and she retains academic links as a visiting professor at the Strasbourg Faculty of Comparative International Law.)

She can see how such actions continue a pattern of ham-fisted Western interventions in Iran - which include the CIA-backed coup that removed the nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and installed Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1953 - but she remains puzzled by the West's, and in particular America's, inability to recognise the damage it does to itself. "The economic damage is clear, with oil prices rising and the dollar falling."

Her greater fear, however, is that the real victims will be ordinary Iranian citizens. "It makes me angry that people in the Middle East are not treated as equal to Europeans and Americans but are regarded as war fodder, collateral victims."

She will no doubt voice her feelings in the Lords. It might be argued that the Lords - an unelected body with conservative traditions that can reject the decisions of the elected House - is equivalent to Iran's religious Council of Guardians. Afshar dismisses the suggestion. "There's a big difference. The Council of Guardians doesn't admit stroppy women and lifelong dissidents," she says.

Like many a radical before her, she admits to being captivated by the Lords. "I think it is rather wonderful - somewhere where you are not dictated to by anybody but say what you think. It is rather like a university."

She is also impressed by the courtesy with which peers express strong views. This has not always been her style. "When I was younger I was very aggressive. But I was very struck by how effective my colleague Mary Maynard (professor of social policy at York) is, the tactful way she deals with disagreements, slowly and gracefully unpicking ideas, and I like to think I've learnt something of that."

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