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Academic freedom needs public support to flourish, Homa Hoodfar tells science forum

Public must recognize academic freedom as readily as freedom of expression, says retired Concordia professor recently detained in Iran.


The day after Americans voted in Donald Trump as their 45th president, Homa Hoodfar sat before an audience of policymakers and members of Canada’s science community to talk about human rights and academic freedom. The Iranian-Canadian scholar pointed out that it was in the aftermath of another recent election – the parliamentary elections in Iran, that ran from February to April – that she was locked up in that country’s infamous Evin prison. Iran’s conservative government lost ground in those elections and were looking for scapegoats, which she believes led to her detention. She remained in prison for 112 days.

On Wednesday evening, six weeks after her return to Canada, Dr. Hoodfar joined two other speakers as part of a keynote roundtable at the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Ottawa.

“I’ve been teaching human right for 14 or so years, but didn’t really have to think about academic freedom,” Dr. Hoodfar said. It wasn’t until her detention in Iran – under bogus claims of interfering with the election and “dabbling in feminism” – that the recently retired Concordia University professor was forced to reflect on a tenet of academic work she had long taken for granted.

A cultural anthropologist, Dr. Hoodfar has largely situated her work on gender and politics in a Middle Eastern context, but widened her regional scope in recent publications. In full-day interrogations, officials asked her about this research and pressed her to explain why she had changed course in her data collection and subject focus. “When it came to academic freedom, it’s like they hadn’t even thought about it. They didn’t accept that you could switch your topic of research without checking in with anyone,” Dr. Hoodfar said.

Dr. Hoodfar suggested authoritarian regimes get away with intimidating and silencing scholars because the academic community has failed to impress upon policymakers the importance of academic freedom by failing to make it a matter of public importance. “We’ve always treated academic freedom as an in-house issue,” she said. “When a scholar or academic is arrested … the assumption, especially outside of the West, is that they [the scholars] have done something wrong against the state.”

She pointed to the near-universal recognition of freedom of expression as a human right as a model academics should emulate with their message on academic freedom. “Everyone will talk about the novelist who’s been arrested for their work, but who talks about the scientist arrested?”

Speaker Viviana Fernandez, assistant director at the University of Ottawa’s Human Rights Research and Education Centre and a member of the Scholars at Risk network, added that the weak public profile for academic freedom goes hand in hand with a growing sense of insecurity in academic spaces around the world. A Scholars at Risk report published in October found 158 attacks had been committed against scholars in 35 countries from May 2015 to September 2016. A previous report by the group found 333 attacks across 65 countries from January 2011 to May 2015.

“When you see really random attacks – bomb attacks in Afghanistan, shootings in the U.S. – then you start seeing trends that are really worrisome,” Ms. Fernandez said.

According to panelist Irwin Cotler, the former federal minister of justice and current chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights as well as emeritus professor of law at McGill University, cases of state-sanctioned repression of scholars also share troubling patterns. Namely, they all include some combination of criminalizing innocent people; criminalizing fundamental human freedoms; the torture of detained scholars in order to coerce false confessions or to warn others against similar behaviour; the systematic denial of due process, or “sham trials”; the suppression of non-governmental organizations and civil societies aiding the targeted person; and harassment or detention of the detained person’s family. Dr. Cotler noted that Dr. Hoodfar’s case checks many of these boxes.

Over time, violent attacks and state-sanctioned detentions create a climate of fear that deters academics from pursuing potentially risky lines of research or travelling to certain communities. Ms. Fernandez suggested they might even impact teaching methods. “You have people with guns on campus just south of the border. … How does that impact the ability to be impartial?”

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  1. Lokis / November 14, 2016 at 11:49

    ask Anthony Hall at Lethbridge about this