Homa Hoodfar completed her PhD almost 30 years ago. But it was only earlier this year, when she was locked in a cell in Iran’s Evin Prison – nicknamed Evin University owing to the number of intellectuals imprisoned there – that she first fully contemplated the value and history of academic freedom.
“I don’t remember a single discussion I ever had within academia that explained what academic freedom is and the struggle the academic community had to go through in order to gain that right,” she said.
But during her 112 days in the notorious Tehran jail, reportedly for “dabbling in feminism and security matters”, Professor Hoodfar would contemplate the concept, “remembering how many people were burned at the stake for translating the Bible” or were “excommunicated for writing about ideas that other people didn’t accept”.
“I took academic freedom for granted,” she said.
The Canadian-Iranian professor of anthropology, based at Concordia University in Montreal, was arrested and imprisoned in Iran on 6 June, after almost three months of interrogation by the Iranian intelligence service.
Professor Hoodfar was released on “humanitarian grounds” in September after Canada, which cut diplomatic ties with Iran in 2012, worked closely with officials from Oman, Italy and Switzerland to secure her release.
More than 5,000 academics and authors from Latin America to South Korea signed a petition urging the Iranian government to free her unconditionally.
She arrived in Iran in February to visit family and undertake research in parliamentary archives. But after Iranian conservatives were defeated in the parliamentary elections on 26 February they were looking for people to blame, she said.
“Rather than seeing why they had lost the support of the public, they started to blame [the result] on the influence of foreigners. They had this theory that foreign states use their dual nationals to influence the election and to bring about a revolution,” she said.
She added that Iran’s government also sees dual nationals as “pawns” for negotiating with other countries.
At the time of her arrest, Professor Hoodfar was one of three dual nationals to have been imprisoned in the country during the past year.
It did not help that five years ago she co-edited the book Electoral Politics: Making Quotas Work for Women (even though the text did not include a single reference to Iran); and neither did her position on the board of the network Women Living Under Muslim Laws.
“Generally, social science research is considered criminal activity in Iran,” she said. “If the result of your research is not what the state (especially non-elected state) likes, then you are in trouble.”
Professor Hoodfar was locked in a cell the size of a double bed. Although there was a window, it was barred with metal, meaning that there was no natural light. Bedding consisted of two military blankets, one to roll under her head as a pillow and one to cover the floor. The only other item she was given was a toothbrush.
Interrogations would typically last from 9am to 7pm in the basement, she recalled, during which time she would be facing either a wall or a one-way mirror, unable to see her interrogators. She was blindfolded as she was taken to and from the room each day.
On her third day at Evin, she decided to use the experience to undertake “anthropological fieldwork” by collecting data on her observations.
“Every night when I came back to my cell, I would write with my toothbrush on the wall, because the act of writing helps you to think and memorise and analyse,” she said.
It was only after she was released that she realised that turning the experience into her own project “also helped me to survive”.
“It gave me a purpose of my own to be there and that helped me to cope with the lack of freedom,” she added.
Her understanding of the methods of interrogation – which she said usually involved attempts to make prisoners cry – also meant that she was better able to resist their techniques.
Although she was not abused physically, the questioning was psychologically brutal.
One day, they played the music that was played during her husband’s funeral two years earlier, after finding a film of the service on her iPad.
Two days later, they showed her a photograph of her mother standing at her father’s graveside.
“I was so furious,” she said. “I brought [the picture] upstairs to the cell and thought, ‘This is one proof of how they tried to break you’.”
Professor Hoodfar said that she hopes to use her experience to encourage more detailed examination of academic freedom.
“Academic freedom is not an individual right. It is a communal right. And communal rights mean we have to defend it everywhere,” she said.
“It is our responsibility in the West to talk about it and historicise it, and remind ourselves and others that it is a freedom that didn’t come about so easily.”
One problem, she said, is that many scholars at Iranian universities are trained in the West and do not see academic freedom as a “history of struggle everywhere”.
“They may be angry about it but not much work is done on historicising [academic freedom] and looking at it not as a Western import but seeing that Muslims have 1,000 years of history of struggling for expressing their views,” Professor Hoodfar said.
It is also crucial, she added, to view academic freedom as a global issue.
“I watched what happened to people after 9/11,” she said of life in universities in North America. “The professors had to watch what they taught, especially if it was on the Middle East and [the] Muslim context, or who they could invite to give a lecture or a public talk at the university.”
Professor Hoodfar believes these fears are still having a negative effect on scholarship in the West.
“If you don’t talk about it, people start self-censoring,” she said. “It becomes a trend that you don’t do certain research because it is too problematic.”
However, she said this discussion must take place among the general public as well as within academia, to show that academic freedom exists for “the common good” in order for scholars to be “at the service of the public”.
"It is because we don’t have those discussions that the anti-expert phenomenon [in the West] can resonate with people,” she continued.
Now that she is free, Professor Hoodfar plans to write about the anthropology of interrogation.
“I feel responsible to write it. I feel like it is part of my contribution to the current debates in Iran and outside Iran on questions of human rights [and] political rights but also academic rights,” she said. “I feel I owe it to the people who campaigned at such a scale to get me out.”