In March 1979, the white American feminist Kate Millett landed in Tehran, in the wake of one of the most significant revolutions of the 20th century. Just weeks earlier, the Shah—the monarch of Iran—had been overthrown. Millett arrived with a suitcase of recording equipment and her partner, filmmaker Sophie Kier. While there, Millett methodically recorded her whispered reflections on everything around her: the cups of tea with her hosts, the hours stuck in traffic, and the International Women’s Day celebration, which exploded into major protests against Ayatollah Khomeini’s new mandatory veiling laws.1
Millett’s whispers were the raw material for her own Going to Iran (1982), but they have been newly transcribed and examined by Negar Mottahedeh in her new book, Whisper Tapes: Kate Millett in Iran. With the same recordings, Mottahedeh does something in Whisper Tapes that Millett never could. She listens closely to the women speaking, yelling, and demonstrating in Farsi around Millett, centering their voices in a radically new and vital account of the revolution.
By exploring the complexities of what Millett couldn’t hear, Whisper Tapes also reveals the narrowness of her white feminism and her lack of reciprocity. Yet, there is no need to “cancel” Kate Millett (who profoundly contributed to both feminist and literary theory, not least in her pathbreaking 1970 work, Sexual Politics). Instead, it is necessary to explore her particular brand of white, Western feminism critically, asking what Millett’s brief time in Iran might offer contemporary understandings of feminist solidarity.
Millett’s disorientation remains a lingering yet productive paradox in Whisper Tapes; she is at once present and absent, Mottahedeh argues. But even while the book follows Millett closely, the pulse of Whisper Tapes is found in how it provincializes—and, so, destabilizes—its central figure.
This paradox—between the book’s centering and decentering of its subject—mirrors a wider paradox: the tension between the alleged universalism of Millett’s feminism and the increasingly particular way in which she pronounces it. We might read Millett’s paradox against and alongside a revolutionary slogan pulsing throughout Mottahedeh’s book—one that Millett only “provisionally understood”: “Azadi, na sharghist, na gharbist, jahanist,” or “Freedom is neither eastern nor western, it is planetary.”
Millett and Kier were in Iran for barely a week before the revolutionary government had them deported.
Kate Millett, a vocal critic of the Shah herself, was one of several guests invited to speak at Tehran’s 1979 International Women’s Day celebrations, an event previously banned by the state and so the first to be held in half a century.
The Shah’s authority had been cemented by a CIA-orchestrated coup in the 1950s, and his regime was, in many ways, a fulfillment of American and British Cold War imperialism.2 But the Shah’s regime didn’t just originate undemocratically; it also oversaw a period of mounting economic inequality and intense political repression.
In 1963, responding to pressure to reform, the Shah rolled out his White Revolution, which sought to “modernize” Iran—particularly the role of women—in order to maintain and embed his own rule. This brand of feminism was closely tied to support of the autocratic regime; after all, the Shah censured International Women’s Day, preferring instead that Iranian women commemorate his father’s ban on the veil.
Beginning in 1978, groups like the Women’s Organization of Iran, together with students, Marxists, and clerics, joined a popular uprising against the Shah’s regime and demanded, successfully, his departure. Within weeks of Millett’s 1979 arrival, the country voted overwhelmingly, in a national referendum, to become an Islamic republic, rejecting its previous constitution and ushering in a new one based on an unprecedented form of government developed by the political thinker and jurist Ayatollah Khomeini.
Millett and Kier were in the country for barely a week before the revolutionary government had them deported, their presence deemed part of yet another American attempt to redirect the course of history.
Clandestine recordings have, in a sense, always been integral to the history of this revolution (Khomeini’s impassioned speeches, for instance, were circulated around the country on cassette tapes while he was in exile). But in Whisper Tapes, Mottahedeh’s treatment brings out the particularly condensed aurality of the revolutionary soundscape: the voices and debates of Iranian activists like Kateh Vafadari, or the chants of students demonstrating at the University of Tehran.
The book itself is formally arranged around the Persian alphabet: the name of each chapter starts with a successive letter and references an important moment captured on the tapes (“A for Azadi [Freedom],” for instance). These moments—all of which are in Farsi—are translated into English, converting the allegedly fragmentary conversations, which Millett might have missed, into a legible narrative for readers.
Mottahedeh identifies the conceptual problem of misunderstanding—of a white ally who just doesn’t get it—largely as a problem of mistranslation. In an elegant anecdote, Millett is given some chaghaleh badoom, which she says on the tape are “beans,” while the women around her suggest—in English—that they are “walnuts.” In fact, neither translation is adequate, Mottahedeh tells us; the best approximation is “green, unripe almonds.”
A thirsty Millett struggles to comprehend going “through a whole revolution and not being able to have a glass of wine after it’s all over?” She declares Iran “joyless,” not understanding that there are so many versions of the good life, so many ways to be joyful. Millett can’t quite grasp why the revolution happened alongside, and so also included, men. “It’s important to ignore men,” she advises a demonstrator. “He is never gonna listen. Why waste your time?”
Millett’s unfamiliarity with Iran allows us, with the benefit of hindsight, to laugh at her presence as an awkward white woman. But this is not really the problem with Millett’s white feminism. What white feminism means, at least in the context of Whisper Tapes, is that Millett considers patriarchy to be the primary organizing structure in women’s lives, globally. This is despite the interactions she has with women who explain otherwise.
Millett reads Iranian women’s heterogeneous experiences of religion, demonstration, and revolution through this lens, and only this lens. It is this focus on patriarchy that allows her to quickly diagnose the women of Iran as being behind white American women on the path of liberation; the path that she herself, through Sexual Politics and her work in the women’s liberation movement, helped to pave. Millett’s white feminism means that she applies the logic and schedule of US women’s liberation to the Iranian revolutionary moment.
Mottahedeh’s careful treatment of Millett reveals that “white feminism” is not just a scolding charge. Instead, Millett’s white feminism is a generative and persistent world view that creates particular behaviors, blinkers, and blinds, while simultaneously proclaiming to be a universalist politics that speaks for all women.3 It means that Millett’s “ambitions and preoccupations are elsewhere.” She is always waiting for the moment of a radical global women’s uprising. She is “out of sync with what is right in front of her,” be it green-shelled, unripe almonds in their crinkled paper bag, or men’s crucial place alongside women in the ongoing Iranian revolution.
Kate Millett certainly does not understand that she is imposing a presumed universality steeped in the specificity of the American context. Indeed, this is just one of the things that she does not get.
Organizing alongside men, in 1979 Tehran, actually protected women’s demands from being seen as counterrevolutionary.
In the crucial week she was in Iran, Millett was waiting, recorder poised, for the moment when Iranian women would declare their autonomy from the men of the revolution. In Millett’s eyes, to strike out alone, as women, would be their next crucial move.
This expected trajectory was based on the moment in the American left when the women’s liberation movement came alive, splitting off from the movement against the Vietnam War, partly in response to routine and overt sexism. But Millett does not see the pressures on the Iranian women’s movement to disassociate their demands from the “rhetoric of state-sponsored feminism” that the Shah used to consolidate his own power. Organizing alongside men, in 1979 Tehran, actually protected women’s demands from being seen as counterrevolutionary, and it maintained the unity of a movement susceptible to foreign intervention.
But this decision was more than strategic. In Iran, as Mottahedeh explores, the family is different to The Family as theorized by feminists like Kate Millett. One of the great provocations of the women’s liberation movement was that the nuclear family was not a haven, but often—as Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique (1963) makes clear—a place of boredom and servitude for women, where they labored without pay.4 As other feminist thinkers exposed, the nuclear family was also a place of male violence and homophobia, under the weight of which many women—including Kate Millett—certainly suffered.5 As American feminists saw it, to begin to be free was to meet and talk with other women, outside the family.
In Iran, however, as Mottahedeh writes, being in the home means “being in the company of different generations of women, apart from men. It means being on one’s own, separate from men, all day long … all confiding in one another, and not just occasionally.” In the Iranian revolution women saw an opportunity “to communicate their ideas and hopes,” to “express their sexuality and desires” to men, in a different constellation of liberation.
By focusing on why Millett didn’t get it, we should not miss the richness of what she didn’t get. In seeing the Iranian context only as an addendum or asterisk to the narrative of a globally uniform women’s liberation, she ultimately did not get the very substance of the revolution itself, and, furthermore, the vocabulary of critique in which it was grounded.
For one thing, Millett seems to have missed how Iranians viewed the United States. One young leftist demonstrator she encounters, trying to translate for Millett from the Farsi, asks what the word for “criticize” is in English: “‘You [should] criticize Carter and the CIA, and the Pentagon!’ the young man insists. … He tries to underscore with this that Millett’s focus as an American anarchist and an international feminist in Iran should be on the ‘money men’ and capital, that she should direct her criticism toward the imperial and military projects of the US presidency, the CIA, and the Pentagon. Millett continues to ignore him.” The revolution offered specific advice to Millett—to get her own house in order and target American empire—which she ostensibly ignored.
Furthermore, the revolution in Iran was grounded in a radical and critical repositioning of the self. Revolutionary thinkers in Iran, from Ali Shariati to Ayatollah Khomeini, recast the stakes of politics, and, in a sense, redefined what liberation itself could mean.6
Michel Foucault, who also traveled to Iran to observe what “the Iranians [were] dreaming about,” described this radical departure and critique in his writings on the revolution—albeit in a very cursory way and with its own limitations—as “political spirituality.”7 Unlike Millett, Foucault understood that Iranians not only wanted freedom for themselves, but wanted to redefine the contours of that freedom: “to be included in and exit from History,” as Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi has argued.8 That Foucault might have learned from Iran in a way that Millett could not or would not reveals some of the limits of her global solidarity.
And the Women Shall Lead Us
Figures like Kate Millett continue to haunt the contemporary moment of leftist, feminist identity politics. Millett blundering about in Iran is, in some ways, instructive; her specter tells us what those who want to act in solidarity should not do, and that even the very best intentions ought to be interrogated.
But sometimes the question of what we may be imposing on those with whom we seek to show solidarity can spook us into paralysis. It may seem less harmful to just stay home.
Well, it’s certainly easier. But as Lola Olufemi writes in Feminism, Interrupted, as she thinks through solidarity, “Lessening … brutality requires us not to be so preoccupied with harming one another that we forget who our enemies are.”9 Perhaps, rather than becoming tangled in what we might unwittingly impose and obsessing about what we might not get, we should instead bring with us a sense of reciprocity—the belief that we have as much to learn as to teach.
If Millett had taken a sense of reciprocity, along with her cumbersome tape recorder, to Iran, perhaps she would have felt she had something to learn from this moment, and not just the next scenes from the feminist playbook to offer. Reciprocity would have disallowed her from seeing Iranian women as further back on the path to emancipation compared to their North American sisters, without flattening difference.
Reciprocity has the power to imbue relationships with a sense of equality, without requiring that people are, or aspire to be, the same. Such reciprocity might even have revealed Millett’s own understanding of universal feminist revolution to be decidedly particular—in fact, provincial—itself the product of British, North American, Western European, and Australian women’s liberation movements. It might have enabled Millett to “remain flexible in [her] responses and solutions,” which Olufemi suggests is crucial for the effective practice of international solidarity.10
Reciprocity would have given Millett’s rigid outlook some plasticity, like the resin that she remolds for her famous fat lady sculptures, in the scene that opens Going to Iran. Instead, she retreats into her bubble of expatriates at the Hotel InterContinental in Tehran, showing up late and confused to one of the most critical moments in the 20th century. The revolution carries on without her, of course.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.
- See Eskander Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, “The Post-Revolutionary Women’s Uprising of March 1979: An Interview with Nasser Mohajer and Mahnaz Matin,” IranWire, June 11, 2013. ↩
- On the Shah, see Oriana Fallaci, “The Shah of Iran: An Interview with Mohammad Reza Pahlevi,” New Republic, December 31, 1973. ↩
- We are indebted to the work of Chandra Talpede Mohanty here. Particularly her Feminism Without Borders: Decolonising Theory, Practicing Solidarity (Duke University Press, 2003). ↩
- See also, for example: Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, The Power of Women and the Subversion of Community (Falling Wall Press, 1975); The Politics of Housework, edited by Ellen Malos (Allison & Busby, 1980); Sarah Stoller, “Forging a Politics of Care: Theorizing Household Work in the British Women’s Liberation Movement,” History Workshop Journal, vol. 85 (2018). ↩
- See, for example: What is to be done about the family?, edited by Lynne Segal (Penguin, 1983); Erin Pizzey, Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear (Penguin, 1974); Anne Summers, Damned Whores and God’s Police: The Colonisation of Women in Australia (1975; repr., New South, 2016), pp. 656–61; The Radicalesbians, “The Woman-Identified Woman” (1970), accessed on History is a Weapon, June 22, 2020; Janet Ramsay, “Policy Activism on a Wicked Issue: The Building of Australian Feminist Policy on Domestic Violence in the 1970s,” Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 22, no. 53 (2007). ↩
- See Hamid Dabashi, Theology of Discontent: The Ideological Foundation of the Islamic Revolution in Iran (NYU Press, 2006) and, more recently, Arash Davari, “A Return to Which Self?: ‘Ali Shari‘ati and Frantz Fanon on the Political Ethics of Insurrectionary Violence,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, vol. 34, no. 1 (2014); A Critical Introduction to Khomeini, edited by Arshin Adib-Moghaddam (Cambridge University Press, 2014); and Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, Revolution and its Discontents: Political Thought & Reform in Iran (Cambridge University Press, 2019). ↩
- Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism (University of Chicago Press, 2005), pp. 203–9. ↩
- Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi, Foucault in Iran: Islamic Revolution after the Enlightenment (Minnesota University Press, 2016), p. 188. ↩
- Lola Olufemi, Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power (Pluto, 2020), p. 142. ↩
- Ibid., p. 137. ↩