Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A School for Persian, a Center for Iranian Heritage


A personal look at the diaspora’s first accredited Persian-language educational institution.

When the Iranian School of San Diego was founded in 1988, I was only two years old, living in Shiraz following the Iran-Iraq War. Having moved to America, my experience with ISSD began in 2005 when I audited several classes and led a few as a substitute. I started teaching regularly at the school the following year -- as I had no formal teaching background, a few eyebrows were raised. Receiving a steady stream of résumés from impressive applicants -- many of whom have taught in Iran -- Ali Sadr, ISSD’s principal, identifies passion as a fundamental element that drives teachers to constantly seek to improve, to take and give constructive criticism, and most importantly to ignite the same fire among their students: a passion for discovering Iranian culture through learning Persian. Passion has been inscribed into the school’s DNA.

ISSD is a place where nobody’s talents go unnoticed. I was recruited to write for Peyk, the bilingual publication of the Persian Cultural Center of San Diego, the school’s parent organization. Later, I served on the Center’s board of directors. I jokingly warn my Iranian friends, “No matter what you’re good at, if you go near ISSD, you will be recruited!” Our strong alumni base attests to this tradition. Kourosh Baradaran, for instance, works both as a teaching assistant and santour instructor while attending conversation classes designed for alumni who wish to continue practicing their Persian. Back when I was pursuing a degree at community college, I had no idea ISSD would determine my ultimate career as an educator. Having left San Diego to pursue their own collegiate adventures, several of my former students visited me recently. It was the sort of reunion that suggests the importance of the ISSD experience, which inspires a community built around a common love: Persian language and culture.

Registered as non-profit, non-political, and non-religious educational institution, ISSD adheres to adhere to no religious, nationalistic, or politically partisan curriculum. While autonomy has many advantages, it also presents challenges. Chief among them is the question, Who evaluates the school? ISSD has had to rely on its own community for self-correction and growth, encouraging and sponsoring its teachers’ participation in training workshops at San Diego State University, New York University, National University, and other institutions of higher learning. During monthly meetings, the school’s entire teaching corps meets to discuss assessment and teaching methods.

Rather than rely on the standard Persian-as-a-second-language textbooks employed in the United States, ISSD has strived to design a curriculum crafted for the school’s unique environment. In the process of developing the advanced-level curriculum, I traveled to Iran in January 2009 to meet with Dr. Shokufeh Shahidi, the program director at the Dehkhoda Institute and International Center for Persian Studies. In Italy that August, I met with Riccardo Zipoli, professor of Persian language and literature at Venice University. Their insights and advice were invaluable to the publication of Advanced Persian Textbook for Heritage Learners (Persian Cultural Center, 2009), which has been adopted by many Persian-language schools worldwide.

Founded by Shahri Estakhri (principal, 1988-92) and Mozayan Bagherzadeh, ISSD is now the only accredited Persian-language school outside of Iran, keeping their vision of serving the whole of the Iranian community alive. With its expanding scope, the institution, whose original venue was a church, can now hardly be accommodated by its current host, Mount Carmel High School. Offering classes on various language levels, Persian music (setar, santour, daf, etc.), theater, dance, painting, and social activities ranging from parenting classes to stress management workshops, ISSD relies on a tireless body of volunteers in both its administration and PTA team. The school’s yearbooks, consistently growing in size, narrate one story: the community’s need for a center. Joined by other cultural organizations in San Diego, the Persian Cultural Center has started a campaign to raise funds to make a center that ISSD and its greater community can call home. While the institution itself is still renting for the moment, I call the Iranian School of San Diego my home outside of Iran.

Copyright © 2012

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Reflections on a Photograph of a Mother and Child


A mirror held up to an entire world of women’s issues.

A photograph of Licia Ronzulli, an Italian representative to the European Parliament, taken in September 2010 was recently recirculated online, generating much discussion among young Iranian feminists. The bone of contention seems to be what a feminist should think of the image. On one hand, it is a loving picture of a mother and her newborn that cannot but generate sympathy. On the other, the fact that the young mother is a politician and is captured here in a public forum -- a parliament session in Strasbourg -- seems to be jarring to some feminists. Those who are offended apparently wish to project and affirm professional personae unencumbered by patriarchal models that define women as properly mothers alone, like that celebrated and imposed, for example, in the Islamic Republic of Iran (in many ways a gender apartheid state).

Feminism, in any of its many variations and whatever its other goals, strives to empower women. Women's reproductive rights are obviously crucial: if women have the civil right to form families and voluntarily bear children when they choose to, then it becomes imperative that they are able to nourish their children in ways that correspond with their overall situation. While most of us are acutely aware of patriarchal value-systems (religious, secular, or ideological) that abuse women’s reproductive ability to bear children to curtail their rights and confine them to lesser roles, it is also important to remember that while we fight for equal rights in the realm of law and society, we must not forget that if and when women voluntarily choose to have children, then those same laws and norms should apply to their need to, for example, breastfeed wherever they may happen to be.

Until recently in many cultures, breastfeeding was deeply taboo and even explicitly prohibited in public. Often the same societies that have little practical qualms with capitalizing on women’s bodies in pornographic contexts, still deem it unseemly for a mother to openly feed her child in the most natural manner. A publicly bared breast is thus deemed acceptable for male recreational consumption but not for its primary biological function. Not long ago, female members of the British Parliament were asked to breastfeed in public toilets, while on the streets outside, the newsstands were draped with magazines promoting women’s naked flesh.

Increasingly, women have to fight the devastating marketing policies of breast-milk replacement companies such as Nestlé, which are reportedly responsible for the death of countless children around the world, to provide their children with their own milk, which is medically proven to give children the best start in life. Hence the introduction of sophisticated electric and handheld milk pumps that help mothers store and refrigerate their milk so, when they need to be away from home, someone else can feed their children nutritiously.

While I love the gesture in this picture -- that parenthood is an integral part of citizenship and the public workforce -- there is something here to take issue with: the fact that Licia Ronzulli is a member of Silvio Berlusconi's The People of Freedom, which is among the most right-wing, patriarchal political parties in Europe. Before we celebrate or dismiss Ronzulli's act, before we expect one thing or another of women, we must ensure that their rights are secured by law and social practice.

While naturally as a feminist, I too firmly believe that women’s role should never be confined to motherhood, and certainly not to the patriarchal readings of it that have oppressed women since time immemorial, I also believe that once we have won the fight to access free and legal birth control, reproductive health care (including safe abortion), and pre- and postnatal care, and won the fight for the right to work, a minimum year’s paid maternity and paternity leave on the Swedish model, and universal high-quality childcare and education so that parents can actually continue to work, then I see no problem with women choosing, voluntarily, to bring their children to their workplaces. God knows how many times my husband or I -- we alternate “babysitting” duties -- have wanted to attend a conference or an event if only it were child-friendly.

There is an additional class issue here. What Ronzulli did at the European Parliament was a luxury at best, since she could hypothetically pump her milk prior to leaving home and afford to hire someone to look after her child. But she has instead opted to bring her newborn with her to work, most probably because it would ease the delicate phase of early breastfeeding (for me personally, this phase was among the most painful and challenging things I have ever done). It is important to remember that contrary to the rare Scandinavian model, most professional women in Italy (where their numbers are still terribly low) and the United States leave their children with domestic workers from the first or second week after birth, because that’s all the meager maternity leave most employers allow.

The domestic workers that are left to look after professional women’s children have in turn left their own children in their homelands to work in "free market" societies where they lack any labor protections. Many are paid vanishingly small wages, many are abused, and their children back home suffer. Middle-class women's "right" to work is thus largely contingent on the oppression of impoverished Third World women.

The politics of motherhood is complex and before we dismiss or celebrate any aspect of it, we must first place it within the larger picture of women's full reproductive rights -- their right to be or not to be mothers, to choose or not to choose to stay at home with their children, to breastfeed or not to breastfeed, without any cultural or political pressure either way.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is a prime example of a state that has utterly politicized and abused the role of motherhood to the disadvantage of most women. It called on them to be revolutionary foot soldiers, and then to return home to raise martyrs and be servants of the state. So I can understand that from an urban, educated perspective, the issues surrounding motherhood may seem insignificant or even a realm that must be denied in order to reject patriarchy. Young women who have access to affordable birth control and reproductive health care may prioritize other aspects of women's rights and even belittle issues involving working mothers. But let us never forget that there are billions of women around the world who simply have no practical (or even legal) access to effective birth control and who simply cannot afford any form of childcare other than taking their children with them to work. We must remember that most women around the world have to work and have no choice in that matter whatsoever. The task ahead of us is huge, but well worth taking on. We all have much to contribute to our understanding of women's vastly different experiences, needs, struggles, and triumphs.

Golbarg Bashi is a feminist professor of Iranian studies at Rutgers University, mother of two young children, and a freelance photographer.