Free to Think features conversation with interesting, thoughtful, and inspiring individuals whose research, teaching, or expression falls at the always sensitive intersection of power and ideas. We’ll be speaking with those who have the courage to seek truth and speak truth, often at great risk, as well as with those who support them and share their stories.
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Episode 4: I was a hostage
Scholar Xiyue Wang on dynamics of academic hostage-taking in Iran
Free to Think talks with Xiyue Wang, a PhD candidate in history at Princeton University, whose research focuses on Imperial Russia, the Soviet Union, China and the late Ottoman Empire.
In May 2016, Wang visited Iran to do library and archival research in Tehran. Despite prior approval of his research plan by Iranian authorities, in August he was detained, falsely charged with espionage, and eventually he was convicted and sentenced to 10 years. He was sent to Evin prison, notorious for housing of political prisoners and allegations of mistreatment.
After international campaigns on his behalf, Wang was released in a prisoner swap between the US and Iran in December 2019. Wang talks with Free to Think about the complicated intersection between state hostage-taking and international campaigns for prisoners’ release.
Episode 3: ‘At risk’ or in reserve?
Free to Think talks with Asli Vatansever, a labor sociologist and author of “At the Margins of Academia: Exile, Precariousness, and Subjectivity,” which examines misconceptions and structural inequities in academic labor markets around the world, through the lens of scholars displaced from their home countries.
Vatansever was among the thousands of scholars in Turkey and abroad who signed a January 2019 public petition (the “Peace Petition”) demanding an end to fighting and renewed negotiations between Turkish forces and members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Vatansever, along with hundreds of other signatories, was dismissed from her post, banned from working, and forced to seek academic employment abroad.
At the Margins of Academia situates the path of academic exile—familiar from earlier generations of scholars–within the wider dynamics of contemporary academic labor markets. It asks whether displaced academics are “at risk” or “in reserve,” and whether these are two sides of the same coin?
Free to Think talks with Peter Biar Ajak, scholar, civil society leader, and democracy advocate from South Sudan.
As a child, Peter was one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan, who were displaced by the civil war and endured treacherous journeys to refugee camps. Ultimately, Peter was resettled in the United States, earning degrees in international development and international studies from Harvard and Trinity College, Cambridge.
Forgoing career opportunities in North America and Europe, he returned to South Sudan — the youngest sovereign state in the world where roughly half the population of 12 million is under the age of 18 — to assist in peacebuilding. His calls for “generational exit” –transitioning political power through free elections — quickly attracted a following among young people, and threats from senior officials. He was arrested, and jailed for 18 months in the notorious Blue House prison. After international campaigns on his behalf, he was released in January 2020.
Free to Think talks with Marcia Ross and Jeff Kaufman, the team behind NASRIN, a beautiful and inspiring new film about Nasrin Sotoudeh, Iranian human rights attorney.
The film shows Sotoudeh’s courage and compassion, as she represents those who have been forsaken by a brutal regime: political prisoners, religious minorities, women, and children. Arrested in 2018, while the film was being made, she was sentenced to 38 years and 148 lashes for the “crime” of defending women protesting the mandatory headscarf.
Sotoudeh has been called “Iran’s Nelson Mandela.” The filmmakers show her as she is: a lawyer, activist, feminist, wife, mother, friend, and a central figure in an extraordinary generation of Iranian women who simply refuse to accept anything less than full and equal rights.