Tehran’s vibrant theater culture does not shy away from exposing the pressing global issues of our time. One particularly compelling production, which ran through March 20, 2017, in the Iranian capital’s formidable City Theater, is Manus, a play about refugees awaiting processing to Australia. Manus is the eponymous name for the island province in Papua New Guinea where the Australian government leased land in 2001 to build a detention center, as part of its “Pacific Solution,” to contain asylum seekers off its shore.1 Written and directed by Nazanin Sahamizadeh, Manus is “documentary theater” that presents verbatim the words of Iranian refugees, based on research and interviews the playwright conducted over a two-year period (Esmaeli 2017). Manus highlights the difficult experiences of refugees caged inside the island’s detention center. The refugees express their dreams and desires, even as they encounter an ever-diminishing welcome.2
Embarking on a similar trajectory of closure and inhospitableness, on January 25, 2017, the US president signed an executive order (EO) that, among other things, sought to limit immigration from seven countries with Muslim-majority populations and drastically reduce resettlement for all refugees, while halting it permanently for Syrians.3 Referring to the EO as a “Muslim ban,” as the president and his supporters, the media, and the lawyers who fought it have, one envisions the dehumanization of women and men in Muslim societies through the juridical act of placing a prohibition on a person’s body, reducing a human being to the status of bare life, Agamben’s (2000) term for someone who lacks any legal status and thus recourse to the protections of a state. This act of banishment exposes the failure of human rights protections in a world organized by nation-states, in which said protections can be enlisted only through the nation-state’s acknowledgment of a human as worthy of relief—an act that requires a state’s juridical recognition.
In the past some feminist scholars critiqued the politicized rhetoric of Western governments and institutions whose recognition of “the Muslim woman” seemed limited to appeals to save her from her “culture” or the men in her society. They argued that this depiction of Muslim women as victims was a cynical ruse to instrumentalize women in Muslim-majority societies for the broader project of intervention, whether ideological or military. Now, however, we look askance at the Muslim ban for its cruel disregard for the plight of both women and men fleeing tragic circumstances to which the United States has contributed, sometimes significantly—in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and Iran. In either case, the Western gaze reflects a privileged standpoint from which some lives could be brought into the scope of activism and support, and made to matter—to donors, funders, relief workers, scholars, activists, and ultimately, perhaps, the state.
The hostility with which the current US administration views Muslims, particularly those who hail from the countries subject to the ban, creates the need for a new politics of understanding the shifting worth of subaltern others—not just those who need support where they are, or those who have made it to our shores, but now those whom we have banned and who, as a result, in their state of indeterminate expulsion, make up the constitutive others of ourselves, forming a human border of otherness to our “usness.” Our recognition of our government’s complicity in creating the war or contributing to the instability that led to the outpouring of migrants fails to capture the contemporary moment. Now that “Making America Great Again” is measured by placing a ban on Muslims, it refracts the worth of our own lives through the very suffering of others: the willful misrecognition of the lesser worth of another human being produces that constitutive other.
For this reason, one of the most compelling components of Sahamizadeh’s play is the audience to which it was directed. While popular on social media, especially in Australia, the primary audience is Iranians living in Iran. Through the different stories told in the play, most days performed before a full house, the actors spoke to the audience from a context in which Iran is the sending country, albeit one that also hosts a million refugees, the fourth-highest number in the world (UN Refugee Agency n.d.). The stories of rape and death—due to untreated infection, murder, and suicide—in Australia’s offshore detention centers highlight the failures of the international refugee system to recognize the humanity of the people fleeing persecution.
In Manus, the audience hears the actual words of their compatriots who fled Iran but could not gain access to the freedoms they had envisaged. By portraying the Iranians as the ones in need of compassion, the production of the play inside Iran inverts the hierarchies of power and casts new light on whose lives matter. The play offers a perspective by Iranians, in this case a female playwright, on the lives of Iranian refugees abroad, while also holding a mirror to the Iranians’ treatment of their own refugees, mostly from Afghanistan. The play as social commentary speaks, moreover, to the broader, more epic failure of a global system that continues to exploit lives for labor but fails to protect the suffering of distant others because all protections still derive from the willingness of self-interested nation-states to be charitable and humane.
For decades feminist scholars writing about women in Muslim societies have debated how to write about their interlocutors. By adding nuance and specificity as well as historical, political, and economic context to narrate the lives of women in Muslim-majority societies, feminist scholars have laid bare and largely offset the politicized discourses of saving Muslim women. The Muslim ban shows, however, that the state’s discourse about women in Muslim-majority societies can and does shift. Inasmuch as the Muslim ban is offered up as a sweeping security measure, it is also a masculinist prohibition that targets men-as-terrorists, while erasing the women who make up the vast majority of refugees. And thus, as Manus depicts, it is no longer sufficient to ask, “Can the subaltern speak?” Now we must ask, “Can the subaltern live?”
1. Manus is also the site where Margaret Mead lived and conducted fieldwork for many years.
2. On April 26, 2016, Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court found that the detention center on Manus violated that country’s constitutional right to personal liberty and issued a ruling to close the center. Although the center has been closed, the asylum seekers remain, while the Australian government, unwilling to host the refugees itself, attempts to find host countries for them.
3. Federal courts blocked the January EO, and the president issued a revised version on March 6, 2017. The later EO, which was supposed to go into effect on March 16, sought to address the portions of the original order that the courts found unlawful. The revised EO exempted some visa holders and Iraqis from the list of people denied entry to the United States and removed the permanent ban on Syrian refugees, folding them into a 120-day suspension of the US resettlement program. On March 15 federal courts blocked this order as well. Then, on June 26, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and partly reinstated the president’s ban on refugees and arrivals from the six countries named until it issues a ruling on the case.