Get real on fieldwork risk, says Iran captive Kylie Moore-Gilbert

Universities have the connections and resources for sophisticated risk management, not just ‘bureaucratic box-ticking’, says British-Australian academic

April 28, 2022
Source: Kristoffer Paulsen

Universities whose staff are detained by authoritarian regimes should treat government pleas for silence about their case with much greater scepticism, according to British-Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert.

Dr Moore-Gilbert, who spent more than 800 days imprisoned in Iran after being accused of spying, said that predicaments such as hers should be handled on a “case-by-case basis”. But she claimed that in her case, the softly-softly approach advocated by the Australian government – and observed by family, colleagues and university administrators – had been misconceived.

Canberra had warned that she would be “in danger or harmed in prison” if people spoke out. “That’s ludicrous,” Dr Moore-Gilbert told Times Higher Education. “Plenty of others in prison in Iran have public campaigns behind them. There’s no evidence that any of those people have ever been punished as a result – only evidence that they’ve benefited.

THE Campus resource: How to create equitable research partnerships across continents

“When my situation was made public, greater attention was paid to my medical care. I was able to see a doctor because there was a spotlight on how they were treating me. Things like this really make a difference when you’re in prison. Universities have a responsibility as academic institutions to robustly question and critique governments in general, and that should apply across the board.”

In The Uncaged Sky, published last month, Dr Moore-Gilbert – a lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Melbourne – recounts her ordeal. It began with her arrest and interrogation at a Tehran airport as she prepared to leave Iran, which she had visited – at a local university’s invitation – to attend an academic seminar on Shia Islam.

The “fairly innocuous trip” had taken a terrifying turn because one of her interview subjects “happened to be in with the wrong crowd. This person, who had been recommended by a contact in Australia, turned out to be affiliated with the Revolutionary Guard Corps, who arrested me.”

The encounter led to a 10-year sentence, cut short last November through a prisoner swap deal. While she admitted to having been “naive” about the perils of conducting research in Iran, Dr Moore-Gilbert had taken precautions by consulting widely with colleagues and obtaining a visa in advance from the Iranian embassy in Canberra – “to give them the opportunity to vet me” – rather than collecting one on arrival.

But she was inadequately prepared for the risks, despite the paperwork burden that confronts any academic embarking on overseas research. Forcing academics to fill out risk assessment forms before they travelled, she argued, was of “no practical use whatsoever. Removing some of those layers of bureaucracy and focusing on practical measures…would be a great step forward.”

Training on how to undertake research in “unpredictable” locations could be valuable, so long as it was “real training and not just some bureaucratic module you do online in five minutes”. Universities could also make better use of their foreign partner institutions and connections at the personal level. “Leveraging some of those networks to provide an extra layer of protection, or people to consult with to gain a bigger picture understanding of the situation on the ground in that country – that could be a fantastic practical step,” Dr Moore-Gilbert said.

Universities and governments also needed to tailor their training and travel advisories to the particular risks faced by people such as academics and journalists. “I was told in court by the judge that Melbourne Uni is a training ground for espionage. They can’t differentiate between journalism, academic research and espionage. In some of these regimes, it’s all one and the same,” she said.

Dr Moore-Gilbert’s comments echo those of Matthew Hedges, who the United Arab Emirates held in solitary confinement for almost seven months after accusing him of spying for the British government while he was a PhD student at Durham University. He told THE after his release that universities might be failing to properly assess the risks of academics visiting repressive regimes because of their close relationships with these countries.

But Dr Moore-Gilbert said her experience should not be taken as a “cautionary tale” that fieldwork research was simply too dangerous. “If I just said, ‘It’s not worth the risk,’ I would be doing a disservice to academic enquiry,” she said.

“There is no way a social scientist could get a proper grasp on a country or region without visiting it and learning the language. If we’re not prepared to travel, then we shouldn’t be in that discipline. There must be a sweet spot where you can balance that [risk] out – although in my case, obviously, it didn’t eventuate that way.”

Dr Moore-Gilbert described her departure from Iran, and the impossibility of returning, as heart-breaking and “almost an exile”.

“Obviously I didn’t have a great experience there, but you grow close to the people and get a really in-depth understanding of their mentality and culture,” she said.

“I hope I will be able to visit Iran again. I hope that they will get the democracy they deserve, and I’ll be able to visit. But I don’t think that’ll be a possibility for a long time.”

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