Kate Millett arrived in Teheran in March of 1979, in the wake of one of the most significant revolutions in the twentieth century. Millett, the well-known US feminist, author of the ground-breaking Sexual Politics and critic of the just-ousted Shah, had been invited by Iranian women’s groups to address them on March 8th, International Women’s Day. Millett sought to record her own in-the-moment thoughts at this critical juncture, which she declared would be the moment when the autonomous Iranian women’s movement was born, and her partner Sophie Keir, a film maker, sought to ‘take some pictures for Ms Magazine,’ the US feminist glossy.
Accordingly, Millett and Keir came with luggage full of recording equipment. They brought with them ‘cans’ of 16mm film, ‘bags’ of film for those two cameras, two tape recorders including a portable one with a microphone, two still cameras, a Bolex film camera, cassette tapes and ‘more tapes, further batteries.’ They were ‘burdened with technology,’ and leaving New York in haste, they also carried with them bags full of wet washing, so they were truly laden down.
Millett’s thoughts on the tapes form the basis of the book Going to Iran (1982), but they have recently been re-used by Negar Mottahedeh for her Whisper Tapes: Kate Millett in Iran (2019). Along with her own whispered thoughts, Millett also inadvertently recorded the swirl of voices around her, the chanting at demonstrations, debates about politics in Persian as well as Millett’s telling interactions with her hosts. This cacophony of revolution was reduced to background noise by Millett in the process of writing Going to Iran and reanimated by Mottahedeh.
Mottahedeh begins with this aural marginalisation within Millett’s methodology, which then indicates a political marginalisation embedded in Millett’s work. In Going to Iran, Millett describes a demonstration on March 7th as ‘no celebration.’ Women speakers, including her, were denied a platform, she proclaims, by ‘patriarchal and fiercely arrogant men’ while the women in the crowd remained ‘frightened and docile.’ Yet, Mottahedeh suggests, Millett’s reading could not have been more out-of-sync with what is right there, captured on her own tape, where women salute one another confidently: ‘Darud bar parastar!’(The women salute the nurses as their sisters…); ‘Darud bar mohassel! (Salute to the [women] high school students.’). Millett did not speak Persian, but this misunderstanding stretches beyond the language barrier. Based on her experience in the US women’s liberation movement, Millett superimposed her knowledge of what it would mean to deny women a platform in the US onto the Iranian context and extrapolated from there. It is this well-developed lens that allowed her to see politicised women agitating for their own liberation, and for the continued liberation of Iran, as ‘docile,’ and to reduce their salutes to silence.
Mottahedeh’s reanimation of what is in the margins of Millett’s work stretches beyond the book’s own context, as fascinating as it is, to offer a methodological lesson to historians. Though we are working on vastly different projects, Rosa on a global history of the Australian women’s liberation movement (1968 – 1990) and Taushif on modern Muslim thought around the Indian ocean world (1866 – 1972), both of us have found this book instructive to our own historical research. Mottahedeh not only asks us to consider what lies at the edges of our own work but crucially also asks us to be reflexive about our role in creating and sustaining these edges, as we impose the pattern over the sprawl of archival sources we are faced with. What is right there, not hidden from view but in plain sight, not quiet, but silenced, by us? In both our cases, our research developed from a specific marginalization: Rosa’s from the marginalisation of ‘the global’ in women’s liberation history, and Taushif’s from the orientalist refusal to narrate Muslim intellectual histories on their own terms. Indeed, for both writers of this article these were the equivalent of the boldly saluting women in Mottahedeh’s book, silenced not because they were quiet, but because they had been tuned out.
Mottahedeh’s most intriguing methodological innovations have to do with the various risks she takes in terms of form. We are invited to read this history on different registers, bringing the implicit tension between sound and silence, and indeed between text and speech, into sharper relief. In this way, Mottahedeh embarks on a sifting exercise, one that is not dissimilar to what many of us who work with and through colonial and orientalist archives try to do. While Millett was an ardent anti-imperialist, her gaze as a white American feminist in Iran, auditory and otherwise, refracts an important and lingering conceptual-archival problem. Indeed, quite unlike the overflowing and increasingly accessible archives of more self-conscious canonized political thinkers, the twentieth-century intellectual history of Muslim thought does not always exist in the form of neatly a preserved treatise, nor does it necessarily lend itself to easily digestible interpretations for a western audience. While one may have a political tract or manifesto, one also has fragments; poetry, recorded speeches, commentaries on the Qur’an, pamphlets, letters, images, and actions. As scholars of global thought continue to forcefully argue, this particular history as well as the context in which it unfolded demands that we dispose of or at least blur the clean Euro-American distinction between political actor and political thinker. As with the radical Black tradition, and feminist and queer political movements, thought here exists on the move, as ‘imaginative, flickering moments of verve.’ The chants in the background, then, and the fierce debates Millett overhears but cannot participate in, were never simply noise. They were the very content and the impulse of the revolution, and Millett’s inability to truly hear them is a mode of illegibility that we continue to reckon with today.
But there is another side to this problem. Students of resistance movements and revolution, especially those who work on figures who are at once thinkers and actors, often must read, listen, and digest, counterintuitively yet productively, texts and media that were never meant for such a purpose. If self-reflexive revolutionaries compiled a lofty archive, the mujahids at the heart of Darryl Li’s most recent work, The Universal Enemy, had other concerns. Their archive is intimately linked to imprisonment, surveillance, and interrogation. As Mezna Qato notes in her review essay on Li’s methods of listening: ‘…many of these men were not interviewed by Li in situ, but on the run, or imprisoned, ensnared in a Global War on Terror that has no use for seeing them as anything but bodies for disposal, as excesses of war.’ These methods are at once both productive and unsettling, as Qato notes.
These formal moments of withdrawal and excess in the archive, of sound and silence, are present even when the archive heaves with source material, as the women’s liberation archive does. In this case, Mottahedeh is instructive for the way she centres what has been pushed, or left to lie, at the edges. In the case of women’s liberation and its historiography, one wonders how and why the global could have been marginalised when the shared text – literally – was such a crucial element of the story. In North America, Australia and New Zealand, Western Europe, Britain and Ireland, women read a shared repertoire of texts which were often discussed. But what is less present, archivally and historiographically, but no less important is the way women transported these texts across borders, in suitcases, ripping -or copying- out sections and reprinting them, sending them overseas, swapping them hand to hand; my Kate Millett for your Betty Friedan, my Female Eunuch for your Sisterhood is Powerful, my Spare Rib for your Ms for your Girls’ Own, for Our Bodies, Ourselves. But to centre this global edge was only to be faced with less obvious, but no less important, edges which reveal the impact of southern currents on the women’s liberation movement of the global north. While Millett, as Mottahedeh explores, was blinkered by her own ‘white feminism’ and unable to engage in reciprocity, this was not the case across the entirety of the women’s liberation movement. Consider that, consciousness raising, the technique of women’s liberation, where women met in small groups to collectively politicise their personal experiences, originally comes from Maoism and was translated into the North American movement by the New York Redstockings via their reading of China watcher William Hinton’s book Fanshen. As work by Quinn Slobodian and Christina Van Houten reveals, Hinton’s text formed a basis for the Redstockings’ Guide to Consciousness Raising, which was read widely in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and North America. Consider also the vivid and lively network Women for a Nuclear and Independent Pacific, established at Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. This network was inspired by the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific group which was led by Indigenous Pacific and Indigenous Australian people and has been explored so beautifully by the late Tracey Banivanua Mar. As its founder, the Irish-Australian Zohl dé Ishtar, told me in an oral history interview, this network raised funds and organised eighteen tours of ‘spectacular’ Indigenous Australian and Indigenous Pacific women to visit Britain and Europe based on the principle that it was always better for women ‘to speak their own stories, in their own voices’ and in their own ways. Oral history proves useful when centring these edges, and so we arrive back at the primacy of the aural, as Mottahedeh does too.
By sifting through and animating fragments, and bringing to the centre what has been rendered silent, Mottahedeh’s Whisper Tapes offers us a new understanding of one of the most important moments of the twentieth century. She also offers insight to historians who use similar methodology: to do this well, she suggests we ought to be both historian and contortionist: remaining on our toes, with our ears to the ground.
Note: This article was revised with minor textual corrections on 6 November 2020.