Mahsa Shekarloo (1970-2014), Iranian feminist, human rights advocate and MERIP contributor, lost her two-year struggle against lymphoma on September 5. She was laid to rest in Oakland, California, surrounded by numerous friends and her loving family, including her son Borna, 5, and her husband Sohrab Mahdavi, editor of the Tehran Avenue website, and also a MERIP contributor and prominent activist.
Mahsa was born in Iran, but grew up in the United States after her parents moved there for university study. Like many Iranian students of that era, her parents joined the opposition to the autocratic Shah. After the 1979 revolution, the family moved back to Iran and supported the left movement there, until in 1982 they were forced into exile by the regime’s repression of any and all opposition. Mahsa was shaped by her childhood memories of political engagement, which instilled in her a commitment to social justice, but also led her to question the tactics of her parents’ generation and the ideological antagonisms that plagued the Iranian exile community. Her struggles as an outsider in the US were also formative.
After completing her bachelor’s degree in political science and women’s studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Mahsa moved back to Iran in 1999, seeking to carve out a role in a country she barely knew. Iran was experiencing a period of relative openness during the first term of President Mohammad Khatami, and Mahsa threw herself into the reinvigorated feminist movement that was engaged in defending women’s legal and social rights while expanding gender consciousness. Initially living on her own and with limited Persian skills, she was undaunted in building lasting friendships and alliances with an expanding range of activists, artists and intellectuals. With modesty and wisdom, Mahsa saw that she could help rebuild connections between these Iranians and the world of activism from which they had remained fairly isolated during the difficult first two decades of the post-revolutionary era.
Mahsa’s early engagements were trendsetting. In 2000 she co-founded Badjens, one of the first English-language feminist websites based in Iran, as a platform for anyone writing on women’s issues and defending gender equality, regardless of ideological stance. Mahsa often translated submissions into English, allowing Iranian feminists to speak to interlocutors outside the country and affording those outsiders insight into Iran. She went on to help establish other pioneering institutions, such as the Women’s Library and the Women’s Cultural Center, both aimed at creating autonomous spaces for promoting greater social participation and legal gender equality. She was an assistant on international affairs to Shirin Ebadi, the lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner, and together with Sohrab Mahdavi translated several of Ebadi’s writings into English. She joined the One Million Signature Campaign that sought feminist changes to the Iranian constitution. She later worked as the UNICEF women’s empowerment program officer in Tehran. In 2008, Mahsa left Iran to pursue her M.A. from the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, Netherlands, and to birth her child under less medicalized conditions. She returned again to Tehran to work with the Norwegian Refugee Council assisting the 1.5 million Afghan refugees in Iran. In 2012, she was diagnosed with lymphoma, and came to the US for specialized treatment.
Mahsa became a remarkably effective feminist activist thanks to her boundless energy, but also because she made herself into a person of exceptional intellectual openness, genuine humility and great generosity. She never allowed ideology to hinder collaboration with others, working with secularists, Islamists, reformers, socialists and liberals for the causes of gender equality and social justice. In the process, she became a bridge builder within highly divided Iran, as well as between Iranians and outsiders. Her home with Sohrab in Tehran became a meeting place for artists, journalists and activists during the tumultuous period after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s ascent to power in 2005.
Throughout her medical ordeal, Mahsa kept her laughter and her buoyant sense of possibility. She also maintained her commitment to change, and helped organize One Billion Rising-Iran as part of the global campaign to end violence against women. Her joyous spirit leaves its imprint on all of us who had the privilege to know and love her.
—Kaveh Ehsani and Norma Claire Moruzzi
My friendship with Mahsa Shekarloo was formed at a special time in Iran, in the midst of the political and cultural opening brought on by President Mohammad Khatami’s first term in office (1997-2001). Maybe the time wasn’t so special for the country as it was for us, my generation of Iranian-Americans. We were in our twenties then; we had been raised in the US but had come back to Iran, ostensibly to work, study or do research. In reality, we had all come back to “find ourselves,” a term so apt in describing us then that it cannot but seem a cliché today.
Mahsa and I became fast friends, in the way that you do when you’re so young and so searching. My memories of those years in Iran are intertwined with memories of her and the hours upon hours she and I spent just talking — at each other’s homes, on the telephone or walking the streets of Tehran. What we talked about, I can now only guess: relationships with men, with parents, with friends; what we wanted from our lives and how to negotiate others’ expectations of us; politics, which at the time seemed so full of possibility; her belief in activism and my academic distance from it; our in-betweenness as people born in Iran, raised in the US and now back, wondering if we could claim a piece of the place for ourselves.
Much has been written about Mahsa Shekarloo as a trailblazing feminist and compassionate activist. That is all true. But, to me, Mahsa’s essence is that of someone who never stopped questioning. When I think about our conversations, I realize how often she began by asking a question. She was always genuinely interested in the answer. And when I think about her life, I realize that when many of us Iranian-Americans came to Iran during the grand opening of the Khatami years and then left, she stayed, still questioning, still finding herself against the backdrop of her social activism. And when I think about the future, I see Mahsa sitting across the table from me, with that smile that managed to be mischievous and shy at the same time, about to ask a question.
I am fortunate that my life intersected with Mahsa Shekarloo’s at multiple points and in many ways. Both of our families ended up moving to the Chicago suburbs in the mid-1980s, and for several years I regularly spent time with Mahsa, her siblings and family. I was an awkward teen, and she was slightly older and much cooler, so I distinctly recall being in awe of her.
A decade later our paths crossed again, this time in Tehran. I was a Ph.D. student and had been traveling to and living in Iran in the late 1990s and early 2000s to conduct research for my dissertation. I became part of a small, tight-knit set of graduate students, young journalists and people spending “gap years” in Iran before or after college. At the cusp of the millennium, Iran was “fluid” — or at least that is how we understood the country and wanted it to be. Mahsa was part of this community, but unlike many of us who were there for defined periods of time and in pursuit of specific professional goals, she was more willing to allow Iranian society and its energized cultural, political and activist circles shape her agenda and objectives. Time and again, I saw Mahsa listen, rather than lecture, and ask questions rather than offer solutions. As she learned from those she met, she found ways to collaborate with them and expand notions of empathy and social change. These are exhibited in the many projects she undertook related to women’s rights and the struggles of refugees inside Iran and beyond.
Since her passing, she has been deservedly remembered for her activism, institution building and humble generosity that was so readily visible to all of us who knew her. I will continue to assign her writings to my students because her approach to struggles for justice, as well as to Iranian society, is sorely needed. She will be deeply missed.