My revolting past

November 19, 2004

After a kidnap false alarm, the appeal of Cambridge palled for Haleh Afshar, but 1960s York reignited her revolutionary zeal

Revolutionary activity got Haleh Afshar into trouble as an eight-year-old. Enthused by a Marxist cousin, she painted Communist slogans on the walls of her family's Tehran home. When her father remonstrated, "I asked him why he was blaming me. He pointed out that nobody else would have painted them at knee height."

That Afshar, now professor of politics at York University, would be both radical and feminist was probably preordained: "My grandmother campaigned against the veil, while my mother fought for the vote." It was less predictable that an Iranian whose first language was French, acquired while her father was ambassador to Paris, would end up in Britain. "I read Jane Eyre at the age of 14 and, although I spoke no English, insisted that I must go to school in England."

Four years later, she was intended for Cambridge University but an interview at Girton College changed her mind. Unfamiliarity with local geography led her to misinterpret the taxi driver's route. "We'd been warned that because my father was Minister of Employment we were kidnap targets, but I'd never taken it seriously. Suddenly I thought it was happening and wondered if I should hit the driver with my umbrella."

Delivery at Girton relieved that fear, but the interview brought new ones. "I hated the atmosphere. I was a party girl who loved going out and it felt like a nunnery."

Instead she was among the first 200 students at York: "There were no walls, no rules and a genuine sense of partnership."

Revolutionary politics were taken for granted - she can smile at the memory of herself "in a Chanel suit, standing outside the Rowntree factory trying to persuade the workers to go on strike".

Partying and politics left limited time for work. Just before finals she panicked and fled to Cambridge. Her tutor sent a friend, a young maths lecturer named Maurice Dodson, to retrieve her. The outcome was twofold, a good enough degree to secure postgraduate work at Cambridge - "I was always good at exams and had a photographic memory" - and a husband who is now professor of maths at York.

New Hall proved more congenial than Girton, even if principal Rosemary Murray was wont to tell her: "This is not Liberty Hall. It is not York."

Afshar refused to wear a gown, chafed at gate hours and missed the reading of the Riot Act at the Garden House siege only because of an ill-timed phone call.

Postgraduate work in Strasbourg involved her in the événements of 1968. "It seemed as though the whole student body was on the streets, whereas in Britain it was the awkward squad. There was a belief, based on French history, in the effectiveness of direct action, while in Britain it was more symbolic. And the police were much more violent."

Half a lifetime on, she sees a difference in her students. "We had a sense of optimism, a belief we could change the world, that my students have not been allowed." But she was delighted by their reaction to the Iraq War. "It galvanised student opinion, and busloads from York went on demonstrations."

She still believes in radical change, but historical perspective and experience of three revolutions in Iran, particularly the outmanoeuvring of the Left by radical Muslims post-1979, have changed her view of how it can be achieved. "I think you have to go the party political route. Revolutions end up destroying themselves."

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