From the Material Culture in the Digital Frame forum of the November 2013 issue of Perspectives on History
Women's Worlds in Qajar Iran Digital Archive and Website: What Could Writing History Look Like in a Digital Age?
Afsaneh Najmabadi, November 2013
The 1970s through the 1990s witnessed an explosion of women's history and the gendering of historical research and writing, but this development had a highly uneven global scope. In Middle Eastern historiography, gendering histories of the nation has produced important works on Egypt, Syria, Iran, Ottoman Empire, and modern Turkey, but these works remain at the margins of the field. Histories of Iran's Qajar dynasty (1796–1925) continue to be produced in the dominant mode of political history. Social and cultural history in general, and histories inclusive of women and gender analysis more particularly remains all but nonexistent in this field.
The exclusion of women from histories of the Qajar period was all the more troubling because many Qajar women lived culturally rich and active lives-as writers and poets, calligraphers and painters, religious leaders, and in the final decades, as social critics and activists. Yet gendered analysis in historiographies of the period remained sparse. The main reason historians of Qajar Iran offered for this situation was that sources for doing Qajar history differently did not exist. It is true that historians of Qajar Iran do not have the institutional records and state archives comparable to those of historians of the neighboring Ottoman Empire. If the state didn't preserve statistics, legal records, and other documents in an archival style ready for our research, where might we locate alternative memory traces? Where and how, for instance, did people preserve necessary contractual information and life registers?
The paucity of sources then becomes not a question of absence, but of inaccessibility. For instance, prior to the late 1920s, when laws requiring the registration of births and other life events, and the recording of commercial transactions, were enacted, families recorded such information on the first pages of the family Qur'an or other cherished books and objects. Marriage contracts, endowments, wills, and other legal papers were kept at home or entrusted to local village headmen or neighborhood religious notables. In other words, these documents did exist, but not in state or national archives, nor in any recognized private library.
But how could any historian be expected to spend a lifetime going from family to family, from one local notable to another, from one cemetery to the next, to assemble a usable archive? The emerging Internet technologies seemed to offer a perfect tool for consolidation of these materials into a globally accessible virtual archive. Women's Worlds in Qajar Iran is a digital archive of 19th-century Iranian culture with a focus on the lives of women and issues of gender.
It took many years of slow incubation, maturation, and failed grant applications before a team of five Qajar scholars (Nahid Mozaffari, Dominic Brookshaw, Naghmeh Sohrabi, Manoutchehr Eskandari-Qajar, and myself) received its first major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2009. The early failed attempts reflect the challenge we faced in articulating persuasively an imagined project that did not have any obvious prior model and that offered possibilities for historical preservation and research beyond its own domain of Qajar women's history.
Unlike most digitized archives, Women's Worlds in Qajar Iran (WWQI) did not begin with a discrete collection, or even collections. Instead, the writings, photographs, and other primary source materials that WWQI is digitizing are dispersed across myriad locations and among numerous different owners. It is extremely unlikely that these materials would or could ever be released to research institutions en masse, in part because of their dispersed ownership, but also because of the personal value that many of these items hold for their present owners. Captured in digital form, they have become an archive-albeit one for which a unified physical counterpart in the traditional form of accession numbers and boxes would never exist.
Initially imagined as a modest project-we had anticipated generating some 3,000 images over the first two years-WWQI has grown beyond our wildest dreams thanks to the overwhelmingly positive response of families and institutions in Iran and elsewhere. As of April 2013, we have over 33,000 images recorded from 43 private family collections and 10 institutional collections. We are currently processing collections from 18 additional families and two additional institutions.
Selection of collections depended on availability and on the collaboration of families each of our team members happened to know. Once the project took shape and became known, we had the opportunity to discuss in our periodic workshops how we could more proactively overcome emerging limitations of social, geographical, and cultural diversity of the archive. For instance, we have addressed the issue of how not to be limited to the urban elite by reaching out to families with a line of local religious leadership, and digitizing the voluminous books of neighborhood registries they hold. We have recently been able to access a rich collection of documents from early 20th-century Kurdistan, and we have begun to work with Zoroastrian families to address the absence of that community's records in the archive.
The project has depended on teams of trained and dedicated assistants in Tehran and Cambridge, Massachusetts, including skilled readers of 19th-century handwriting, photographers, data processing staff (for tagging and creating digital items), and dedicated project managers Ramyar Rossoukh and Farshideh Mirbaghdadabadi. Digital images are preserved in perpetuity as part of the Harvard University Library's digital collections but are architecturally built in interaction with a public website that makes deployment of the latest smart search features possible, even on your smartphone!
The archive includes poetry; essays and treatises; travelogues; letters; marriage contracts and other legal documents; photographs; works of art; images of everyday objects; and a small collection of oral histories. The website is fully bilingual (Persian and English), and its search function includes filters for major categories like genre, collection, people, subject, place and period, allowing users to drill down into the archive and narrow their search results. Digitized images provide detailed views of each object with additional descriptive content.
The challenge of pushing at the edges continues to energize the project as we implement one idea and begin to see possible potential for yet other new ideas. Our current plans include building tools to aid collaboration among site users and creating interactive genealogies, timelines, and maps, which will streamline researchers' ability to establish connections between the disparate items within the archive.An obvious lens through which to examine our archive is one of social groups and networks. For example, a set of basic questions, such as the following, could help map out the broad contours of the social landscape of Qajar Iran: Who was related to whom? Which families were most important? Which individuals were members of multiple families? And thinking more politically: Who were the members of social movements (such as the girls' education movement)? How did these individuals meet or know one another?
All of these questions (and the infinite number of others like them) could also be examined against the backdrop of geography and time, adapting graph-based approaches already well-established in other domains.
Exciting as the project of fabricating the archive has been, the question remains: what could we do with it which was not possible, or even imaginable, without it?
Approaches to Cultural/Historical Studies
My idiosyncratic selection of cultural/historical studies that, in various ways, do this kind of work:
Mieke Bal, Reading Rembrandt: Beyond the Word-Image Opposition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Laura Wexler, Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Alan Bray, The Friend, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Laurel Ulrich, The Age of Homespun, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.
Lorraine Daston, ed., Things That Talk: Object Lessons from Art and Science, New York: Zone Books, 2004.
Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood and Race from Slavery to Civil Rights, New York: New York University Press, 2011.
Michael Amico, "Objects of Attraction at War: A Sword, and Two Civil War Soldiers," unpublished paper, 4/11/13.
First, at the most obvious level, it is our hope that the issue of nonexistent archival sources can now be put to rest. Second, the sheer mass of some of the documents makes it possible to pursue new kinds of historical research with ease. For example, we currently have close to 300 marriage contracts, ranging from that of the daughters of Fath 'Ali Shah (r. 1797–1834) to those of more modest families, including servants whose marriage contracts were held by the family where they lived and served. While a single marriage contract in one's own family would hardly lend itself to historical analysis, a large number of them make it possible to study the details of class and status among spouses, comparing amounts and kinds of bridal gifts recorded, and conditions embedded in different contracts. Moreover, since these contracts come from Muslim, Jewish, and Armenian families, it is now possible to compare the textual and illustration details of these contracts across various communities.
The more exciting possibility, however, is that by uniting multiple genres of sources-textual documents, visual material, everyday objects, recorded memories, etc.-in one virtual place, WWQI will make it easier to do history differently.
People in the past, as today, did not just write letters, books, and newspaper articles-all the usual textual material that comprises the vast majority of archival sources used by most historians. These texts were intimately bound up with, and acquired their meaning from, the practices of everyday life. Even when we cannot witness these practices firsthand, we can find traces of them in objects, photographs, oral histories, etc. Reading a text through related objects and spaces, in connection with sounds and memories, we can gain new insights that would be impossible to reach by reading the text alone.1 Recent works by cultural historians and interdisciplinary scholars have shown how fruitful this multigenre approach can be (see sidebar).
Several features of the WWQI archive enable building on these gains. As we meet with families and work through their holdings to choose what is relevant for our digitization, we listen and digitally record their small and large stories about these objects. These recordings become tagged as well, and they are preserved on our archives as audio clippings linked with an object, thus preserving something of the memory-context of the object-something that is usually not possible with regular archives. Digital technologies have not only made it possible for WWQI to virtually consolidate otherwise inaccessible sources, but also to provide online tools that allow users to explore and analyze these sources across genres. We hope that it will inspire researchers to pursue new ways of thinking and writing about history.
—Afsaneh Najmabadi, principal investigator of the WWQI project, is professor of history and of studies of women, gender, and sexuality, Harvard University.
1. For an example of how historians have used material objects to overcome the limits of textual archives, see Alan Bray's use of tombstones as a non-elite social historical archive in his monumental work, The Friend, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Toward an Interactive Mapping of Womens' Worlds
The tagging and search functions of WWQI allow us to construct (manually for the moment) parallel timelines of women's lives and influences. This can include links to objects in the digital archive, for example, the correspondence between Sadiqah Dawlatabadi (1882–1961) and her half-sister, Qamar Taj Dawlatabadi (1908–1992). Sadiqah wrote to Qamar Taj from Paris, advising her much younger sister about her education. Whereas Sadiqah was an advocate for women's education and suffrage, the Qamar Taj in her later years became intensely involved in the Azali community, eventually traveling to Cyprus to visit Subh-i Azal's surviving family members and writing a travelogue about the journey. Now imagine these lives represented by an interactive mapping multiplied among an ever-growing number of "objects" in a historical archive. This is what we hope to generate.