Nayereh Tohidi, Ph.D.

Faculty | Northridge

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​Dr. Nayereh Tohidi, Director of the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Program at CSU Northridge, believes that activism is an essential part of a 21st-century education.

It was no small achievement when Nayereh Tohidi passed the rigorous entrance exam and was accepted into the ultra-competitive University of Tehran in the early 1970s. She had earned the second highest grade in all of Iran in her intended fields of study, psychology and sociology, and was one of only five students in her graduating high school class in natural sciences who would be going on to college.  

Some national newspapers announced the names and ranks of students who had passed the exam, including her name at the top of the list in her field. Her very religious extended family, however, had a much different view of Tohidi not only attending college, but one that was co-ed. “That,” she says, “was unheard of in my conservative Muslim family.”

A family member phoned her father to express his displeasure. “After all these years I remember it so vividly,” she says. “I can see my father’s face turning red, him losing his temper.” Later, he’d tell her what the relative had said: “Congratulations — your daughter has entered into the institute of prostitution.”

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“I Had to Fight Every Step of the Way”

With the encouragement of her father, a high school teacher and, later, a college professor, Tohidi would not only attend the University of Tehran but go on to earn a doctorate in educational psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Since 1997, Dr. Tohidi has been on the faculty of California State University, Northridge. Today, she’s a professor (now emeritus) in the Gender and Women’s Studies Department and founding director of the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Program.

An internationally recognized scholar on gender, Islam and feminism, Tohidi has consulted to the United Nations on the status of women, taught and held research fellowships at Harvard and Stanford, among other institutions, spent a year as a Fulbright scholar doing field work in the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, and published widely, in books and journals, on women, Islam and gender issues.

None of this came without a struggle. “I had to fight every step of the way to get to where I am today,” she says. Early in life, she didn’t enjoy the same privileges and freedom as her brothers. She’d be harshly scolded by neighbors if she rode one of her brothers’ bicycles (she wasn’t allowed to have her own).

And while she wasn’t ordered to wear a veil, as some of her cousins were, contact with boys outside her family was strictly forbidden. Spotted coming out of a movie theater with an older boy who lived down the street, she was pulled out of school and banished to her grandmother’s home for the “dishonor” she’d brought upon her family. Tormented by guilt, the young man killed himself. A couple of years later, Tohidi would flee a forced arranged marriage.

Heading West

Happier chapters followed. In college, she met her future husband, fellow student Kazem Alamdari. They moved to the United States together to earn their Ph.D.s at the University of Illinois. Dr. Alamdari, a prominent scholar, would also join the faculty of CSUN, teaching sociology until his retirement in 2012.

But first the young academics would find themselves in exile in the U.S. when the Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power in 1979 during the "Islamic Revolution." Unable to renew their Iranian passports because as advocates of human rights and secular intellectuals they were considered “anti-revolutionary,” they couldn’t return home.

And without a green card that allowed them to work in the U.S., Tohidi and Alamdari scrambled to find a source of income. Tohidi worked briefly as a cashier at Sears, she bought and sold items like tennis balls and fabric at flea markets. “We were stateless,” she says, “and it was a struggle. I hid that I had a Ph.D. because no one would hire me if they knew.”

Finally, she heard that there was a pressing need for teachers in Los Angeles, so the couple headed west, where they both got jobs teaching grade school.

“Any ideology can become very repressive if it is the only world view that you have.” – Dr. Nayereh Tohidi

A Gypsy Scholar No More

It was at CSUN that Tohidi finally found the home that had long eluded her.

“I was tired of being a gypsy scholar and feeling like a refugee for so many years,” she says. “I loved CSUN from the start. There’s a strong sense of community here. I have wonderfully supportive colleagues and deans."

Tohidi relishes the time she can spend with her students, "mentoring them and learning about the challenges they’re facing in real life," she says. "I also love the diversity of the student body and faculty and how many recent immigrants are here. There’s appreciation for teaching from a global perspective and that’s important to prepare students for careers in the 21st century.” 

Perhaps most important, Tohidi says, “CSUN has allowed me to be who I am,” embracing her commitment to integrating transnational activism and scholarship with teaching. 

“Some ivory tower universities look down on activism,” she notes. “They think it makes you not as serious a scholar. But at CSUN, far from being dismissed or discouraged, activism is celebrated. When you’re being evaluated for tenure, community service is counted.”

At local demonstrations and protests she has often raised signs and locked arms with her students. “I can’t even count the number of times I have marched alongside my students,” she says. “I have joined them at women’s marches, at protests against sexism and racist policies, against the atrocities of the Syrian government.”

As someone who has lived under dictatorship, Tohidi says it’s important for her to be part of an academic institution that believes in educating students to become engaged citizens: “At CSUN we encourage students to vote. We encourage them to be vigilant about protecting democracy.

“When you give students a civic education, making them aware of universal human rights, that’s a transformative knowledge that empowers them … That knowledge makes you a better citizen, a better human being, a more holistic individual.”



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