Dowreh Series: Mimi Thi Nguyen and Minoo Moallem in Conversation

08 Mar 2021

Dowreh Series: Mimi Thi Nguyen and Minoo Moallem in Conversation

By Minoo Moallem and Mimi Thi Nguyen

March 8, 2021


Welcome to the inaugural entry in the Jadaliyya Iran Page’s newest series Dowreh, from the Persian word meaning (among other things) conversation circle or salon. In this series, we invite scholars, intellectuals, and artists to stage conversations from within, adjacent to, and beyond Iranian studies, with an eye to de-nationalizing our discourses and expanding the terrain of our conversations. In particular, this series looks to bring together intellectuals in both likely and unlikely pairings, asking them to address how they approach their work to make scholarly or pedagogical connections across disparate geographies, temporalities, or objects of inquiry. The first in this series features two U.S.-based scholars of transnational feminist studies, Minoo Moallem and Mimi Thi Nguyen.

– The Iran Page Editorial Team 


As a graduate student in the early 2000s at the University of California, Berkeley, working on an ethnic studies Ph.D. while teaching in gender and women’s studies, I was lucky enough to be around a Bay Area-based cohort of transnational feminist studies scholars, many of whom were co-authors of The Transnational Feminist Practices Against War statement. From them I learned that being a feminist in the university means building and transforming the infrastructure within these institutions that will never love you, to carve out other possibilities for being within it, around it. Though she was never a formal mentor, Minoo Moallem taught me so much about about “civilizational thinking,” fundamentalisms, and forms of gender (Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Cultural Politics of Patriarchy in Iran, University of California Press, 2005); she demonstrated just how to follow around an object of study to name those organizing principles that render intelligible its presumably indexical nature (Persian Carpets: The Nation As a Transnational Commodity, Routledge, 2018); and she shared her pedagogical practices when I was first figuring out how to teach as a transnational feminist studies scholar in the classroom. Suffice to say, Minoo Moallem has been a model scholar, teacher, and colleague – whose influence upon my own trajectory she might only be learning now. This interview was conducted in early 2021, during a coup, an inauguration, an impeachment, and an airstrike, and in it we discuss transnational feminist cultural studies as a field formation and an interdisciplinary method that can help us make sense of all of it. Introduction and interview with Minoo Moallem by Mimi Thi Nguyen.

Mimi Thi Nguyen: Minoo, I’m so excited to have this conversation with you! Perhaps we can start with a question of historical memory. The Transnational Feminist Practices Against War by Paola Bacchetta, Tina Campt, Inderpal Grewal, Caren Kaplan, Jennifer Terry, and you, of course, which was released as a collective statement in Fall 2001, as the U.S. prepared for the invasion of Afghanistan, and for the invention of a premise for the invasion of Iraq, after the events condensed as “9/11.” This statement made such a profound impact on me, and many, many others, as a model of scholarly feminist engagement. I am hoping you can tell the story about how this statement came to be and why it was important to all of you to release it. 

Minoo Moallem: Grateful for the opportunity to have a conversation with you, Mimi. We wrote the collective statement, and along with the joint statement, I wrote another statement called “Whose Fundamentalism?” Our collective statement and my own statement emerged from deep concerns about a new era of war, occupation, and militarism in the Middle East. September 11 became a site of justification for more militarism and occupation in the Middle East and racism against West Asians and Muslims in the U.S. and Europe. The discourse of Islamic fundamentalism that was in circulation since the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the juxtaposition of Islam with terrorism and religious fundamentalism — which I tried so hard to deconstruct in my work — provided a framework for justifying all kinds of violence. 9/11, as it was represented, became a catalyst for creating what I have elsewhere called “affective nationalism,” (2018, p. 32, 48, 117) where mourning for those who lost their lives was used to generate more death and violence. The lack of feminist responses made me even more concerned about the significance of transnational feminist practices. 

It was disturbing to witness so many feminists who claimed “global sisterhood” overtly or covertly siding with U.S. militarism and imperialism. The emotional load of what I (along with many others) went through at that time became unbearable, and writing a statement meant to think hard about what it meant to be a feminist and to live in a world where “here” and “there” are connected yet have succumbed to uneven power relations both geopolitically and biopolitically. Those friends who contributed to the statement had long been thinking hard about what it meant to bring feminism and transnationalism into the same framework. We had a lot in common to think about what was specifically emerging at that time. That is why we decided to write a collective statement to express our political concerns. It was also essential to have friends with whom I could politically engage about the issues we were facing. I felt more exposed to all kinds of violence because of the upsurge of racism against West Asians and Muslims in the U.S. and the further expansion of militarism and masculinist nationalism both in the U.S. and in the region. For me, theory and practice have never been separated from each other. While our statement was theoretically driven, it was also the manifestation of our feminist praxis, where some of us could think together, sort out the complexity of what was going on historically, and come up with a response. 

MTN: These statements created so much space for other transnational feminist engagements with U.S. liberal war and empire, including mine own. Your collective scholarship informed my work on the gift of freedom, as the justification of the practice of liberal war (The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages, Duke University Press 2012). In that work, I argue that where the presence (or absence) of freedom appears to be in the balance, its measure as an absolute value that is nonetheless calculable conceives and consolidates fields of knowledge and power whose function lies in the idea that freedom’s presence cannot manifest in the present of some peoples and spaces. In pursuing its interests, a liberal empire posits that such places are in crisis, during which an illiberal people might go one way or another, requiring intervention as a temporizing action — to act on history, in the name of progress. So the work you did (as a collectivity and as individuals) was both urgent, but also historically resonant and prescient. Looking back at both those statements, especially now during the waning days of an aspirationally autocratic administration that has pursued strategies of both “maximum pressure” on Iran while drawing down troops in Afghanistan and Iraq almost twenty years later, what resonates with you still, or differently?  

MM: Unfortunately, the past 20 years ending with the disastrous administration of Donald Trump has worsened the situation in West Asia (Middle East) and North Africa. Since 9/11, and of course, before that, the U.S. and its European allies have been involved in overt and covert military intervention from Afghanistan to Iraq, Yemen, Palestine, Egypt, Iran, Libya, and Syria. The imperial policies of the U.S. have devasted the region through military occupation, arms sales, sanctions (Iraq from 1990-2003) and Iran (from 1979 to present), the support of the apartheid state of Israel and the absolutist regime of Saudi Arabia, along with reactionary forces of the Taliban of Afghanistan from its inception, MEK of Iran, and many others. The massive funding of numerous think tanks and social media channels targeting regime change in Iran and other Middle Eastern countries, which often come in and out of the list of the U.S. enemies based on their alliance with the empire’s political agenda, are also by-products of this situation.

Indeed, we live in a world in which the empire relies heavily on both old and new forms of militarism and war by other means. With neoliberal capital’s institution of a vastly precarious and exploitative division of labor both locally and globally, along with the expansion of a shadow economy involving arms and drug dealers and their collaboration with the empire and the states in the region, it is hard to be hopeful about the future. Such imperial policies have invigorated the securitization and militarization of local states and regional forces. Perhaps what we have witnessed in the last few years under the racist and white supremacist administration of Donald Trump is that militarism, racism, and Islamophobia, which since 9/11 have been continuously exported to the Middle East (and other parts of the world), are now being empowered domestically. While it was good to hear Joe Biden referring to the concept of “domestic terrorism” in his inauguration speech, as it would be hard to deny the neo-fascist and white supremacist terrorism that have been targeting African Americans, Muslims, feminists, and queer of color communities (including abortion clinics, Muslim Mosques or Jewish synagogues), Biden’s nationalist desire for a unified “America” profoundly concerns me as the reflection of a liberal agenda that is unwilling to connect national issues with the international ones reinvesting in the continuation of the U.S. imperial agenda.

The politics of multicultural nationalism that I wrote about elsewhere when it started to be displayed during Clinton’s inauguration continues to feed bourgeois liberal diversity discourse. These politics have had no impact on the lives of the poor and working classes and racialized groups, including immigrants, masses of incarcerated African Americans, and other people of color. Also, while it is crucial to support democratic institutions in the U.S. and what has been achieved after a long durée of social resistance, the discourse of democracy could not hide its darker side, which is U.S. intervention and the interrupting and dismantling of democratic forces in other parts of the world. Of course, Iran’s case with the coup of 1953 and, later on, the failed Nojeh coup of 1980 are notorious examples. After all, we cannot separate the violence of neo-fascist and white supremacist groups in the U.S. from many years of brutal bombardment, war, sanctions, and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, massive investment in the military-industrial complex, and weaponization of democracy as justification for war and occupation. 

MTN: Your body of scholarship makes a powerful argument for a transnational feminist analytic that follows the flows (and the sometimes obstructions) of media, migrants, markets, and militaries. There is your work, of course, on the travels of the Persian carpet as one of the most traded commodities of colonial modernity, and a vector for the transits of nation, labor, and empire. But I have to say that Between Warrior Brother and Veiled Sister was hugely influential on me and how I shaped my own inquiries. The seed of my second book began with an initial effort to begin to make sense of the promise of beauty as a form of biopower, at the level of both anatomo-individual discipline and population health, recruited to liberal empire, and, as laid out so well in the Transnational Feminist statement, the clash with a liberal-imperial feminist agenda that gladly collaborated with state powers to “free” brown women from brown men. I wanted to write about a nongovernmental trade school called the Beauty School of Kabul, established in 2003 after the U.S. invasion, to consider the promise of beauty not just as an analogy for democracy, or a justification for war, but as itself the calculation that thoroughly imbues and materializes the genres of democracy, just war, and being human. Your conceptualization of “civilizational thinking” and its forms of gender (in BWBVS) was crucial to me as I grappled with how beauty bears the weight of much ideological management and pedagogy in its associations with humanity and its others. Thank you! With decades of gushing out of the way, I have two questions here, and I’ll start with the first one. What do you think a transnational feminist analytic offers as an interdisciplinary method?  

MM: Your critique of liberal-imperial feminist agenda in that project is crucial for transnational feminist scholarship. I like to elaborate further that, first of all, a transnational, interdisciplinary analytic, instead of what many scholars in the U.S. think, is not about “somewhere else.” A transnational feminist analytic is relevant to wherever one starts their inquiry. The U.S. prison system cannot be separated from the privatization and globalization of the prison industrial complex as theorized by Angela Davis, the imperial war machine, and militarism and policing within the context of modern nation-states. One can work on any topic in the U.S. and still use a transnational, interdisciplinary analytic to draw attention to what connects one to other sites, flows, and networks. In my work on Iranian modernity, I used transnational feminism to examine how race, gender, and nation were constructed in the context of colonial modernity and civilizational imperialism in the specific case of Iran. In the Persian carpet project, transnational feminist analytics enabled me to move from one location to another as well as from commodity to labor, and from the representational to the material or vice versa. I came up with the concept of extension to show how researching in a specific site always extended beyond it. By extension, I mean how a commodity moves in space, but its localization continuously integrates a relation to other sites. In other words, the ways in which the carpet spills over its frame aesthetically, requiring a new configuration of time and space.

Secondly, transnational feminist analytics ask us to interrogate relations of power as labor, capital, systems of representations, and experimentations circulating from one location to another, so both geopolitical and biopolitical power relations are involved in that process. 

Thirdly, transnational feminist analytics would enable one to go beyond any form of nationalism — cultural, territorial, and transnational — to explore connectivities, flows, ruptures, and intensities. Most of the time, feminist analytics get stuck within the nation-states’ constraints or various forms of cultural nationalism. Transnational analytics reveal how power works at local, regional, and global levels, investing in what becomes vernacularized and gets into circulation and what remains in place, sometimes abjectified and other times falling out of circulation for historical reasons. For example, some feminine or feminized creative labor, such as weaving (crucial to life itself), has been transformed into commodified exploitative labor since colonial modernity. Women weavers lost their power in generating “puissance,” or the ability to act by opening up possibilities, capacities, and intensities. 

Fourthly, transnational feminist analytics goes beyond victimization — or what I have elsewhere called “sisterhood in victimization” (2018, p. 96) — and recognizes both oppressive systems as well as transgression, resilience, and resistance. I have referred to the politics of sisterhood in victimization to challenge the most enduring forms of imperialist feminism in their investment in the spectacle of labor (the women weavers at the loom in the context of my book). In other words, I am critical of humanism in feminism, in the spectacularization of women laborers as passive victims, showing how political economy converges with the sexual economy and invest value in the image of women victimhood, suppressing women’s authorship and creative labor.

Finally, transnational feminist analytics are not claiming to be an emancipatory ideology, a final development in the progress narratives of modern feminism, as some scholars might argue, but a framework that enables thinking through both complicities and ruptures. We need to think of feminism as the active creation of concepts, analytics, and methods of inquiry prioritizing politics; we cannot stop this process since thinking is an activity of continuously evolving life, especially in the age of “smart capitalism.” My Persian carpet book is an example of how one could work with such a framework. In that book, I resist prioritizing capital or labor over commodities or representation systems, but as you know, I study them as flows and folds. As a method, in my view, transnational feminism does not stop at the boundaries of intersectionality. It stretches beyond to discover the productive force of differences and the possibility of other folds.

MTN: Over the years, you have chaired multiple gender and women’s studies departments (first at San Francisco State University, and then at UC Berkeley) and in doing so, you have generated curricular innovations that have informed how I too want to pursue program building and mentoring. (As you know, I wrote about your syllabus for “community-engaged scholarship,” in which you use the internship course to challenge “the ethics of help, the political economy of private volunteerism, and the limits and possibilities of different forms of social engagement,” in this co-authored essay.) So my second question is, how do you teach students to ask the necessary questions to begin to follow all these flows, transits, and circuits?  

MM: It was so thoughtful of you to include what I did to develop a critical perspective on community-engaged courses in your timely and important essay. As you know, the challenge in gender and women’s studies spaces is to work with students to develop an interdisciplinary framework. That does not come easy, since disciplines have a lot of power when it comes to research. They make it easy for students to access “the disciplinary toolbox,” which is legitimate and safe rather than unpredictable and risky. It is also challenging to ask students to be reflexive of liberal individualism. So much of that is part and parcel of our institutions, where research and writing become sites of an unexamined “I” or “we,” or a deep investment in modern humanism. Also, the will to do “transnational,” “intersectional,” or “decolonial” scholarship does not necessarily lead to a multilayered and complex framework. So, the desire to tell a transnational story is not enough; we need to continually challenge what we have inherited from national, colonial, and imperial narratives. 

However, we should not be afraid to take those well-developed theories and methods and use them for that which they are not made for, or against themselves, as suggested by Gayatri Spivak. Following flows, transits, and circuits is a serious undertaking significantly impacting how you study any research object. It would require risk-taking, dislocation, and distancing from what is familiar or examining what Maria Lugones (echoing Marlyn Frye) calls an arrogant perception, or “a tendency of those in power to arrogate others to serve their interests, not only in practice, but at the very level of perception.” 

To get back to your question, I encourage my students to grasp what it means to use transnational feminist analytics. It is always hard to ask students in the U.S. to distance themselves from the U.S.-centric or Eurocentric ideas. It would mean asking students to think carefully about lingual and cultural memory. Asking students to recognize that the export-import of ideas, theories, and concepts is not beyond power relations, but a by-product of them, is not easy. For example, I ask students to interrogate “sites of confinements” or, in Foucauldian terms, institutions in charge of disciplining, including the family, the state, the market, the media, and the factory, both in terms of intellectual and knowledge frames and specific historical contexts within which this disciplining is taking place. I also ask them to reflect upon free-floating modes of control that are traveling transnationally, especially when education has turned into a business. The challenge is that it is much easier to work with stable categories or canons and ask students to use them, rather than to encourage them to interrogate the processes and technologies of what is permissible and legible, to instead open up space for curiosity about what is unanticipated and surprising.