Scholars have spoken of the Middle East as a cultural and religious crossroads since the dawn of recorded history. This fall, and throughout the upcoming academic year, California State University, Northridge professor Nayereh Tohidi plans to continue building another type of Middle Eastern convergence in the heart of the San Fernando Valley.
Expanding a nascent Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies (MEIS) program that she built with the help of a diverse cast of faculty colleagues, Tohidi returns to campus this August from a one-semester leave — excited to educate more CSUN students about the political, cultural and religious challenges facing people in the Middle East.
Tohidi, a world-renowned professor of gender and women’s studies and activist for human and women’s rights in Iran and throughout the region, said her goal at CSUN is to build up the MEIS minor — offered through the Office of Interdisciplinary Studies — and create an Iranian studies program.
“There have been some articles on our program in international as well as local media reports — such as the Persian section of BBC and Radio Farda, which is part of (U.S. government-funded) Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty,” said Tohidi, who launched MEIS in 2012 in the College of Humanities, with a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in 2011. The undergraduate minor became available to CSUN students in 2013.
“Many students and faculty members interested in doing research or teaching and learning about the Middle East in particular — and the Muslim communities in general — have been excited about this new minor,” she said. “Many faculty and students of Iranian heritage, as well as some Iranian-American members of the community at large, hope that this new minor can facilitate the creation of Iranian studies at CSUN.
“That’s becoming a new trend in Middle Eastern studies — communities are using it as a regional-area studies umbrella, and later focusing on one country,” she said.
Tohidi is courting local and national community foundations for help funding and establishing an Iranian studies program at CSUN, which has a large and vibrant Iranian-American student population. Los Angeles boasts the largest Middle Eastern community in the United States, and Southern California’s population counts more than 600,000 Muslims.
“There are many Iranian-Americans in the community who are interested in starting an Iranian studies program here at CSUN — the MEIS minor can certainly serve this goal,” she said.
For the undergraduate minor, CSUN requires students to complete 19 units, including courses in Arabic or Hebrew or Persian (Farsi). The university’s Persian courses are always packed, Tohidi said, and filled with second-generation Iranian-Americans who want to study their “heritage language,” as well as non-Iranians who are interested in learning one of LA’s most-spoken languages.
Requirements for the minor also include electives in history, politics, religious studies and cultural studies — courses such as “Sexuality, Gender and Islam in the U.S.,” “Early Modern Middle Eastern History,” “Muslims and the Media” and “Near Eastern Art.”
The program’s development occurred over the course of almost five years, drawing on the expertise of former and current faculty. Faculty teaching in the program this fall include Jody Myers, professor of religious studies and Jewish studies, who teaches a course called “Israel’s History and Peoples,” journalism professor Melissa Wall, and art history professor Owen Doonan.
Students who have signed up to pursue the minor in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies are majoring in fields such as history, political science, anthropology, liberal studies, Jewish studies, journalism and religious studies.
Participating departments in the interdisciplinary program include modern and classical languages and literatures, religious studies, sociology, history, gender and women’s studies, anthropology, Asian American studies and political science, said Elizabeth Say, dean of CSUN’s College of Humanities.
Tohidi is eager and excited to invite the campus and surrounding communities to participate in the upcoming free programs. The plans include hosting visiting professor Mehrangiz Kar, a prominent Iranian dissident in exile who is based in Washington, D.C.
“She’s a phenomenal and amazing woman,” Tohidi said. “She was put in jail for a while [in Iran]. She’s also a friend of Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel laureate (recipient of the 2003 peace prize). I’m so fortunate that they both have been my inspiring friends since before they got so prominent. I knew them through their writings, and we had common cause — we worked together for women’s rights. When [Kar] got arrested, I was her international advocate.
“We’re hoping for [Kar] to teach one small, graduate seminar and give a few public lectures at CSUN, which would attract both Iranians and non-Iranians. She also would be a good point of convergence for some potential donors for the university to establish a foundation. That’s among my dreams: a foundation to help scholars who are in exile, who are at risk because of their advocacy for human rights. Maybe through our university, we can establish such a foundation specifically for Iranian scholars.”
Tohidi’s teaching and research at CSUN have been enriched by her travels and speaking at international conferences. She serves on the working group for the Nobel Women’s Initiative, founded by Ebadi and Jody Williams.
“They have biennial conferences, and I went to a few of them including the ones in Ireland and Guatemala,” Tohidi said. “I met Mairead Maguire and Betty Williams,” who shared the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for their work to end sectarian violence in their native Northern Ireland. “They were telling us how hard it was, and how patient they had to be — to bring about a just peace is a long process.
“That’s what Muslim women advocates for non-violence and peace should also be doing. There are some who actually are trying, both faith-based groups and secular ones. Many Muslim feminists have been subverting the old patriarchal systems from within, by highlighting non-violent and egalitarian components of the tradition and constructing modern, democratic and feminist interpretations of religion.”
With the MEIS minor and more campus events open to the community this fall, Tohidi said, CSUN professors and administrators hope to broaden Americans’ understanding of Islamic cultures and Muslim communities — here at home, and perhaps at the original crossroads.