Q&A: “Social Movements, Sexual Rights, and Reproductive Rights” with Pardis Mahdavi

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The USC Law & Global Health Collaboration hosted Pardis Mahdavi, Acting Dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, for a talk on “Social Movements, Sexual Rights, and Reproductive Rights: #MeToo in Global Context” March 5, 2019.

In this Q&A learn about how she got involved in studying social movements around the world, her work building multidisciplinary degree programs and the three main takeaways from her talk at USC.

Tell us about yourself.

Pardis: My name is Pardis Mahdavi. I am currently the acting dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. I’m an anthropologist by training and I work on gender, sexuality, health and human rights.

How did you get involved in this line of work?

Pardis: I was studying international affairs diplomacy and world affairs and felt at a certain point that it wasn’t interdisciplinary enough and I wanted to look at this question of sexual politics in the Middle East and the way to do that for me was to study medical anthropology (of all things). I was at Columbia [University] and I had the very good fortune of meeting a woman named Carole Vance and taking a course on sexuality, health, and human rights and that sort of changed my life trajectory. I finished my Ph.D. in medical anthropology at Columbia and then I went to Pomona College where I taught anthropology and gender and women’s studies for 11 years. I started to find my way into administration but have never given up my love for understanding, really, the roots and branches of sexual politics.

What challenges do you experience in your work?


Pardis: The biggest challenge facing global health right now is the factions and the silos that people are getting into as people identify with focusing on one aspect — with maternal mortality, or sexual [and]reproductive rights and health, or migration. I think that we need to come together across disciplines and across areas of specialty because global health issues don’t know disciplinary borders; they don’t know state borders. These are transnational, transdisciplinary issues and I think we all need to come together to solve them. My small part of that has been to be in academia in an administrative capacity where I can build bridges between different disciplines, different people, and then build bridges between academia and the community.

What are you most proud of?

Pardis: I’m pretty proud of building some interdisciplinary certificates and degree programs at the University of Denver. We built joint degrees with the law school, with the school of social work and even with the business school,  and I’m proud of being able to expose students to different perspectives in solving some of the world’s most pressing problems. I think the best thing for students to do is to get a really deep understanding of the layers of problems but also to be really reflexive about your own position, right? And not reproducing problematic power structures.

What can people do to help?

“You need to be reflexive if you want to not do more harm than good. You need to be reflective of how you approach these issues..”

Pardis:  One of the things that happen so often in global health work around the world is people don’t do that work, that internal work, of being reflexive and understanding what is your position coming in from the outside into a community. You need to be reflexive if you want to not do more harm than good. You need to be reflective of how you approach these issues.

What are the three takeaways you want people to walk away with today?

Pardis: I think the three main takeaways that I would want people to get are: number one, there is a feminism reboot happening across the world where feminism and sexual politics are undergirding a lot of the social movements that we see today, like #metoo, #timesup, #enough. The second main takeaway I want people to think about is the fact that a lot of these movements have actually started in the global south but this feminism reboot has been going since the 2000s with a lot of organizing in countries such as Iran, India, Uganda and Chile. And finally, I think I would want people to think about how movements for sexual rights have actually undergirded transformational social movements and to think about sharing strategies of success and failure across borders.


Watch Pardis Mahdavi’s presentation, “Social Movements, Sexual Rights, and Reproductive Rights.”

This is part of the 2018-2019 Global(HEALTH+LAW) Series, hosted by the USC Law & Global Health Collaboration, supported by the USC Collaboration Fund.

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