Victoria Tahmasebi-Birgani

Of Women and the Worldwide Web

Women and Gender Studies prof in the Department of Historical Studies investigates everything from feminist nonviolent movements in the Middle East to international digital activism

Professor Victoria Tahmasebi-Birgani
Professor Victoria Tahmasebi-Birgani comes across as very modest and humble, though she has the hard-working ethic of a true heroine with a history that has all the makings of a sweeping epic.

Having escaped post-revolutionary, war-torn Iran in the mid-1980s, when the new regime was cracking down on opposition groups, Tahmasebi-Birgani lived as a United Nations refugee in Karachi, Pakistan for two years before being sent to Toronto in 1988 as an emigrant where she has resided ever since. “I haven’t seen very much of Canada, though I have seen the rest of the world,” she says with a laugh. “But I am always intensely cognizant, both emotionally and intellectually, of my debt of gratitude to my new home, Canada. This is my home, ” asserts Tahmasebi-Birgani.

Unsurprisingly her past life in Iran forms the foundation for the “constellation of questions” she currently explores as part of her gender and feminist theory research in the Department of Historical Studies at U of T Mississauga.

“I always wanted to address the questions that I had, based on my own experiences being in the revolution,” says Tahmasebi-Birgani. “I witnessed, firsthand, how others were defaced of their humanity in order to be then easily and efficiently annihilated or murdered. In response, I have been fascinated, intellectually, with what happens before violence occurs. There are ways of thinking about, envisioning or even hearing the ‘other’ that lends itself to violence, exclusion and discrimination. Thinking about these processes has informed my intellectual journey and has driven much of my academic work.”

Tahmasebi-Birgani earned an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Women’s Studies from U of T before pursuing graduate degrees in Social and Political Thought from York University. While working on her PhD thesis, which explored “the intersection of ethics and politics,” she focused primarily on the work of French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, known as the ‘philosopher of the Other.’ 

“I looked at the ways in which Levinas’ idea of ethics can be applied to the nonviolent political movements, such as the Ghandian movement, and how it can deepen our understanding of nonviolent politics that we all want to strive for,” says Tahmasebi-Birgani.

In her book Emmanuel Levinas and the Politics of Non-Violence (University of Toronto Press, January 2014) Tahmasebi-Birgani provides the first examination of the applicability of Levinas' work to social and political movements. Investigating his ethics of responsibility and his critique of the Western liberal imagination, she advances the moral, political, and philosophical debates on the radical implications of Levinas' work. It is also the first book to closely consider the affinity between Levinas' ethical vision and Mohandas Gandhi's radical yet nonviolent political struggle. Situating Levinas' insights within a transnational, transcontinental, and global framework, Tahmasebi-Birgani highlights Levinas' continued relevance in an age in which violence is so often resorted to in the name of "justice" and "freedom."

She has also been strongly influenced by continental philosopher Luce Irigaray, who combines psychoanalysis, philosophy and feminist critical theory to assess the Western male, logocentric discourse and explore how political identity is formed. Tahmasebi-Birgani’s natural research progression has led to gender roles because feminist practices often adopt a nonviolent strategy when working towards social change, and, by way of example, one of her recently published articles explores how the feminine body informs a nonviolent intersubjective identity.

Her research is very theoretical, covering an impressive span of interdisciplinary topics, and incorporating critical theories of women’s movements in the Middle East and feminist theories as they relate to continental and transnational contexts, which increasingly factors in with access to online information raising awareness about worldwide issues.

Part of Tahmasebi-Birgani’s work focuses on online activism, which also organically evolved within her research with its apparent nonviolent approach. Tahmasebi-Birgani has since discovered however that there are several types of violence, such as visual or textual, associated with digital activism. “One image can be circulated, which will cause violence and injury to so many people,” she says. “You don’t have to physically hurt someone; violence can be enacted in other ways.”

With such a full research plate and busy life, Tahmasebi-Birgani finds it difficult to put work aside because it is a high-energy pace to which she has become accustomed over the years. She was a single mom, raising a child and working all while pursuing her studies. “This was my life and passion,” says Tahmasebi-Birgani, who also spent seven years as a hockey mom, shuttling her goalie son to games and practices around the GTA. Now in his second year of law school at UBC, her son has given back to his mom in many ways, not the least of which is his taste in music.

“I’ve been raised on rap,” she says with a laugh, having been introduced to the genre by her son. “I know all the artists, and am particularly fond of underground rappers such as Nas and Immortal Technique.”

Her predilection for rap music might seem a bit unconventional, but it actually reflects her scholarly and personal interests quite appropriately. Tahmasebi-Birgani’s downtime typically involves activities that require intellectual thought, including the imagery of rap, the challenge of figuring out the plots of detective novels and TV crime dramas, and “engaging with the visual aspect of thinking” through her love of documentary films.  

However Tahmasebi-Birgani finds it difficult to stray too far from her work because she gains a great deal of fulfillment and inspiration from the talented students, staff and colleagues she has encountered at the university.

“I love the U of T Mississauga campus and its intellectual and collegial atmosphere,” says Tahmasebi-Birgani. “I have found the UTM students, particularly the Women and Gender Studies students, to be engaged and engaging and enthusiastic. I enjoy being part of this vibrant community very much.”

- By Carla DeMarco