On June 6, 2016, news broke that a Canadian scholar had been arrested and imprisoned in Iran. Dr. Homa Hoodfar’s colleagues at the Concordia University Faculty Association immediately took action to campaign for her release. The Bulletin talked with engineering professor Ted Stathopoulos, president of CUFA, following Hoodfar’s release on Sept. 26.
When did you decide it was time to get involved?
When our colleague was sent to jail, we immediately knew we had to help. We didn’t know how, but we wanted to do something. We brainstormed. We had many ideas and one of them was to raise public awareness; so we decided to buy a full page ad in the Globe and Mail and Le Devoir. It was a fundamental issue of academic freedom and we needed people to know it.
What was your strategy to get the academic community onboard?
We did what we usually do when we want to get support for a strike vote: we asked CAUT, the Fédération québécoise des professeures et professeurs d’université, and other faculty associations for moral and financial support. The response was overwhelmingly positive, including from the university administration. In our campaign to free Homa, we understood that protesting was a good idea, but that we had to be careful. The idea was not to overdo it. If we were to call people names or be enraged, it could have the opposite result and make her life worse.
What was your next move?
We sent official letters to Canada’s Global Affairs Department, the Prime Minister, and the Iranian authorities. We knew it was important that those letters were signed by as many faculty associations as possible. We asked for support and, again, it was amazing, better than we ever thought with close to 70 associations signing the letter. In July, we decided to go with a second round of ads. Again, people started organizing protests. The little bit of news we got through Homa’s family was discouraging. The judge decided to drop her lawyer — the Iranian system is like that if you can believe it — because he was “not good enough” and the state appointed her a new one. That’s when they threw her back in jail.
How did you get the media to pay attention to this issue?
The first articles were published in student newspapers. Then, the administration sent news releases and we started getting calls from the Montreal Gazette and the national media. I was allowed to make an announcement at the senate and, once the media were interested, we were able to put pressure on the Canadian government.
When did you learn about Hoodfar’s release?
We were at our monthly union council when we heard the news. It was a little like a fairy tale. At first I thought maybe they had let her go because of health issues and I was worried, but fortunately it was not the case. She was set free and they gave her passport back so she was able to leave right away. She got back to Montreal three days later. Members of our executive went to the airport to give her flowers. It was a very emotional moment. Now she has to take it easy and recover.
Why is her personal experience important for academic freedom?
Academic freedom is a fundamental article in every collective agreement. This is what makes our profession different. It’s mainly why we have tenure, so we can investigate any topic we want and teach and publicly communicate our findings and ideas without fear of repercussion. In Homa’s case, it’s clear the Iranian government arrested an academic conducting research on issues it didn’t agree with. By releasing her, even if Iranians didn’t recognize they made a mistake, it is clear to me that academic freedom was the essence of this case and that we have to protect it no matter the cost.
Now that Homa is home, what have you and your members learned from the experience?
The by-product of Homa’s arrest is that faculty members appreciated what we did. We got a lot closer to them and I sense that we developed new feelings of solidarity. It was a very difficult time, but when it happens to someone at your institution, it makes the matter more real. A lot of people realized that if it happened to her, it could happen to them.