By BROOKE CANTWELL
Published: April 18, 2012
Earlier this year, Fordham assistant professor of sociology and anthropology Heather Gautney traveled to Iran to speak about the Occupy Wall Street movement. On April 4, the Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) chapter of Amnesty International hosted the event #Occupy in Iran. The event centered around Gautney’s account of her recent trip and the criticism she recieved from media outlets upon her return.
The event was set up by FCLC’s Amnesty International president Sogand Afkari, FCLC ’12, and secretary Charlie Martin, FCLC ’14, who is currently taking a course in social movements with Professor Gautney. “She mentioned [her trip] and it caught my attention because Amnesty already had an event about Occupy Wall Street. I asked if she could come in so we could have this presentation and learn from the experiences she had as an academic,” Martin said.
Gautney said she was nervous to speak in Iran and suspicious of her invitation and the circumstances under which she received it. “It was an alarming time to be going to the country,” Gautney said. She wondered why she had been asked to travel to Iran, and if Tehran University, the university sponsoring her trip, was supporting Occupy Wall Street because they thought it was anti-American.
Gautney soon found out two professors from the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, where she received her graduate degree, had also been invited to speak in Tehran, Iran. Together they set up ground-rules: They decided not to engage in media interviews, she said, “We didn’t want to be put in the middle of whatever was going on.”
Everything Gautney had heard about Iran before her trip was negative. She said that it was, as George Bush famously said, “the axis of evil.” She was told the people were anti-feminist, anti-Semitic, and was told to delete all information on her phone and to leave behind her computer to prevent having her information stolen. She said, “I was told, ‘You really can’t say just anything.’” Along with these concerns, tales of detained journalists created a fear of making it out of the country. However, when Gautney arrived, she saw Iran was much different than she had been told. “We’d never been treated so well in our lives,” she said.
“The conference was really interesting because you had people who were really focusing quite heavily on the United States as an imperialist country going back to Christopher Columbus and really hammering in a powerful rhetorical way that America is a predator,” Gautney said.
Others compared Occupy Wall Street to the Islamic Revolution. “Occupy Wall Street was pretty different, it’s trying to stay away from mainstream politics and not couch itself as a political movement,” Gautney said. “We had a discussion about what was really going on and how wide spread Occupy Wall Street really was.”
For Gautney, it was difficult to see how America’s opinion on Iran affected the students there, “There’s a lot of propaganda which goes on on both side here,” she said. “All wars rely on propaganda, obviously. It was very troubling to see a young man distraught at being labeled a killer because of his faith.”
During her time in Iran, Gautney also visited the house of late Iranian revolutionary leader, Ruhollah Khomeini. “When I was growing up he was the face of evil,” she said. “It was very interesting to go to a place where people loved him. I didn’t know his real history of organizing people and I found that to be very interesting.” Gautney also had a chance to speak to his daughter, who was involved in bringing his writings into Iran during the revolution.
When Gautney returned from Iran, her welcome in America was not as warm. Shortly after returning, Gautney said, “I got a phone call from somebody at Fox News who wanted to know if I had said while in Iran that Occupy Wall Street signifies the downfall of the American government.” Surprised by the question, Gautney looked at a Press TV account of the conference, and saw the quote had somehow ended up in a headline on the website.
Gautney spoke to Fox News to clear up the situation and was surprised by the response of the Fox readers. “I got 80 comments and emails saying I was un-American, I should have acid thrown in my face, be stoned to death, that I wore a hijab when I was there and that I should being strangled with my hijab, and calling me weird slang names, things I don’t want to repeat. What they were saying wasn’t related to the interview, but to the fact that I went to Iran, and that I shouldn’t go there,” Gautney said.
“It did confirm some of my worst fears about going,” Gautney said. “There’s a strong element in our culture that can’t see beyond the comment about the axis of evil, and are very against Islam.” Gautney was also mistranslated by a paper in Iran and accused of saying terrible things about the professors at the University of Tehran. She began to feel that she was being used to incite anger on both the American and Iranian sides. “I fell right into the trap that I was trying to avoid,” she said.
Gautney, with help from professors at the University of Tehran, worked on fixing her reputation, which was damaged by the media both in America and Iran. She said her overall experience was very positive, and she and her husband would both enjoy going back to Iran. “There’s so much more to see,” she said.