Portrait: She is asking who gets to call a place home

2017-02-16 13:19

To Fataneh Farahani, associate professor of Ethnology at Stockholm University, home is a complex concept that she struggled with both as a researcher and as a racialised woman in Sweden. Meet the researcher who problematises ‘the good ones’ in the West, knowledge production in academia, and how intersectionality can be used.

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– Being in Linköping brings many memories to me. I ended up here when I first came to Sweden from Iran. I recall a mixture of feelings of being homesick and isolated, of being in a rush to learn a new language, at the same time as my packed suitcase is laying under my bed, says Fataneh Farahani when we meet at a café in central Linköping.

The concepts of belonging and home are central in Fataneh Farahani’s research. How are the complexities in the concept of home characterised in different diasporic contexts? Who feels ‘at home’ within the different academic communities and settings? And who is entitled the power and privilege to ‘welcome’ others? These are questions she has explored and continues to explore.

In 2015, Fataneh Farahani was awarded the prestigious Wallenberg Academy Fellowship and started the project Cartographies of Hospitality, through which she examines conditions of hospitality in different multicultural European settings.

– It’s indeed a very privileged situation. A grant from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation enables me to do research for five years, which means that I will hopefully be able to build a network around the issues of migration, transnationalism, and globalisation, she says.

Thankful migrant

Her research project concerns the concept of hospitality in relation to migration and aims to examine the political, philosophical and cultural aspects of hospitality towards migrants in Europe through empirical research. By understanding hospitality as a set of shifting relationships that involves continuous processes of inclusion and exclusion, the study aims to examine the conditionality of hospitality and the power asymmetries between those who are constructed as the ‘host’ and the ‘guest’.

The conditionality of hospitality demands the setting of some limits beyond which ‘the guest’, cannot trespass. However, the risk of transgression by the guest can turn a hospitable host into an inhospitable one, she explains.

According to Fataneh Farahani, racialised immigrants are expected to be thankful. As an example, she reminds me that I earlier in our meeting complained about the café we are in playing (loud) Christmas music although it is only 24 November. She says she too noticed the music, but that she would have never brought it up.

– You always have to watch out. It feels like you’re forever indebted and always have to show thankfulness. It is like an ever-increasing interest rate, and I wonder if one can ever pay it back.

The subordinated position of a constantly thankful immigrant acknowledges not only the superior position of the white host, but also fills a function in reproducing the welcoming inclusive and generous hospitable white west that stands for solidarity and tolerance.

– The never-ending requirement to express thankfulness to those who happened to be born in the right place, at the right time and by the right parents, signals not only who owns the space and has the privilege of definition.

– The subordinated position of a constantly thankful immigrant acknowledges not only the superior position of the white host, but also fills a function in reproducing the welcoming inclusive and generous hospitable white west that stands for solidarity and tolerance, she says.

The responsibility of the Western World is transferred

The concept of hospitality is instrumentalised to not only remove Western share in the increasing global mobility and inequality gap, but also to refuse to take responsibility for the growing governmental hostility towards immigrants and refugees.

But, we’d like to keep portraying ourselves as ”the good ones” and eliminate the responsibility for the ongoing hostility and are, therefore, presenting the country’s far-reaching migration interventions as unavoidable and necessary.

She continues,

– Sweden is really facing a dilemma right now. We so badly want to keep thinking of ourselves as a humanitarian superpower. The country has accepted more refugees per capita than any other Western country and has a long tradition of neutrality in international contexts. Swedish exceptionalism engenders an understanding of racism as an expression of an extremely impolite behaviour towards foreign guests but not as part of an inherited ideology and structural and institutionalised settings. Moreover, by squeezing its policies to the minimum level in the EU, Sweden seeks to channel refugees to other countries. But, we’d like to keep portraying ourselves as ”the good ones” and eliminate the responsibility for the ongoing hostility and are, therefore, presenting the country’s far-reaching migration interventions as unavoidable and necessary.

The path to research not obvious

Fataneh Farahani’s academic path is a thorny one.

– When I arrived in Sweden, I thought – like many other Iranians – that I would return to Iran as soon as possible. I wanted to study something that would benefit Iran once I went back. I also carried a sense of guilt towards everything and everybody I had left behind.

With a sense of duty and an urge to revolt against a study counsellor at the municipal adult education centre, who recommended her to work as a nursing assistant because she was an ‘immigrant woman’, she chose, despite a lack of interest, to pursue a master’s degree in biochemistry.

– But while I was working on that degree, I got in touch with the women’s shelter in Uppsala. At the shelter, I met many other women volunteers who shared my interest. They became my first Swedish friends and my first emotional contact with Sweden. After that, I started to take some courses in gender and religious studies at Uppsala University.

After a while, she moved to Canada and eventually ended up in a postgraduate programme at York University.

– I often say that I learned to speak English via Judith Butler, she says and laughs.

She returned to Sweden to do the fieldwork and gather materials for her PhD project. At the time Sweden and Swedish media was intensively engaged with the much-debated murder of Fadime Sahindal, which made her decide to stay in Sweden and follow the development. Back then, she was at Stockholm University as a visiting PhD candidate from Canada, and decided to continue her research there. She ultimately obtained her PhD from the Department of Ethnology in 2007.

Diasporic femininities and masculinities

Her PhD thesis, Diasporic Narratives of Sexuality: Identity Formation among Iranian-Swedish Women, was awarded for the best dissertation of faculty of humanities at Stockholm University in 2007. Her thesis is an ethnographical account of sexuality among Iranian women living in Sweden. She has also studied construction of diasporic masculinity among Iranian men in London, Sydney, and Stockholm.

– My ambition has been to understand people’s experiences of migration through the lens of gender and sexuality: I analyse how and in what ways gender and sexuality are constitutive to migratory process and the other way around. By studying the construction of desirable heterosexual feminine and masculine subjects in different contexts, I have analysed how people relate to and challenge various norms and structures, she says.

According to Fataneh Farahani, women and men from the Middle East are viewed as exclusively oppressed and oppressor because of their culture. Moreover, the Swedish gender equality mantra is used to escape responsibility for the unequal and subordinated position of immigrant women. In doing so, their marginalisation, unemployment and etcetera is explained by their culture and not gender and raced based inequality in Swedish society. She tried to problematise this issue in her thesis, but feels that both media and other researchers repeatedly have used her research in a tendentious manner by cutting and pasting whatever fits the pre-existing image of ‘the immigrant woman’ as a victim, for example.

Only by becoming “Swedish” or “Western”, you could be treated/viewed as a subject.

– When I presented my PhD thesis, media focused on the women’s stories about virginity, veil, and oppression by other Iranians, without mentioning the resistance strategies that the women had been using while living in Iran. Those who didn’t confirm to the established stereotypes of the Middle Eastern women, were considered westernised or becoming Swedish. In doing so, only by becoming “Swedish” or “Western”, you could be treated/viewed as a subject.

She does not mean that there is no oppression system in Iran, but that there is more to the story.

– According to Nigerian-American author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichies, this is the danger of ”the single story” – not that it is not true, but that it is incomplete. It makes it so that one story becomes the only story.

The right to knowledge

Fataneh Farahani is also interested in issues regarding the process of knowledge production. Who can study whom, who can become an expert on whom, and which researchers and theorists are acknowledged as knowing subjects in our course literature and reference lists.

– All of these factors show who are considered to belong in the academic community. The compulsory Eurocentrism, to use the words of Stuart Hall, decides not only what knowledge is produced but also who are recognised as knowledgeable. By failing to orient yourself and your knowledge within an academic text, you get disoriented and deprived of your academic compass.

She continues:

– Just like Sara Ahmed, most of my antiracist and feminist killjoys and inconvenient experiences in the academic sphere have concerned situations in which I have questioned the seemingly obvious inclusions. I’ve done it by asking who are and who are not invited or by suggesting, citing or making reference to other producers of knowledge than the already acknowledged white academic or intellectual subjects, she says.

Intersectionality has become a buzzword

In 2004, Fataneh Farahani wrote an article titled Feminist & rasist (feminist and racist) in the major Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet. The article addressed Swedish feminists’ difficulties while adopting intersectional perspectives, something she still believes both activism and academia are struggling with.

– Sometimes, I think intersectionality has grown to kind of a buzzword or a catch phrase. Many people seem to use it without truly understanding what it means. It’s like they work their way down a checklist – ”now that I’ve mentioned all the different power structures, I’ve done my intersectionality analysis”. In doing so, intersectionality has been deprived of its politically transformative character. The way I see it, there are few examples in academia and activism in which the concept has been used in a thorough and meaningful way.

First and foremost, she says, there is a lack of self-reflection in relation to one’s own privileged position.

Many whites promote it without considering their own power position, which makes the application of intersectionality concept more decorative instead of a tool to achieve political change.

– White researchers often use intersectionality as capital. Many whites promote it without considering their own power position, which makes the application of intersectionality concept more decorative instead of a tool to achieve political change.

The interview is over and both Fataneh Farahani and I will soon leave Linköping, where we have attended the gender research conference g16 together with 400 other people. Before we depart, she says:

– The Fataneh I know has integrated the consequences of having grown up in a working-class family in Teheran, an Iranian revolution, a war, and several migrations – I don’t know who I would be if any of those things hadn’t happened. And if I had not ended up in Linköping. All of these has made me the person I am.

Author Anneli Tillberg, translated by Debbie Axlid.
Photo Anneli Tillberg.
Fataneh Farahani chooses:

Three favourite theorists: Avtar Brah, Ann Stoler and Stuart Hall.

Three favourite authors: Toni Morrison, Patricia Duncker and Jeanette Winterson. I also want to mention two poets, Forough Farrokhzad and Ahmad Shamlou!

Three favourite films: Sally Potter is my favourite director. I like everything she has done, especially Yes and The Tango Lesson. I also like Der Himmel über Berlin by director Wim Wenders.

What I like the most about working in academia: We are among the most privileged in the world. We get paid to read, talk, write, and teach things we enjoy. That’s definitely the most enjoyable part of being an academic.

What I like the least about working in academia: I don’t like the increasing bureaucratic trend and hierarchical structure in which merit justifies the exercise of power. This (re)establishes a vicious pushing system and makes people cruel to each other.

A person I couldn’t do without: Saga.

The best place for thinking: I often think best in a well-functioning group, when there is fertile dialogue and sufficient space for reflection, criticism and recognition.

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