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#10: "Islam doesn’t speak, they speak for Islam."
Dr Ziba Mir-Hosseini on becoming an Islamic feminist, Iran's protest movement and a divorce that led to a rich anthropological career
Ziba is currently Professorial Research Associate at the Centre for Islamic and Middle Eastern Law, SOAS, University of London.
In this conversation, we learn about her path to becoming an anthropologist, a “failed marriage” that lead to a prolific academic career, current events in Iran, and why Islamic feminism is important (and what exactly it is).
To get more insights into Ziba’s work, check out her:
👉 Latest book: Journeys Towards Gender Equality in Islam
We recorded this over Nowrooz (which is new year in Iran and other countries across Asia), so we begin the call by talking about that. I hope you enjoy this conversation. As ever, let us know your thoughts. Share, and subscribe!
This interview has been edited and abbreviated for clarity and length.
Sale no mobarak!
Sale no mobarak. Nowrooz mobarak!
Have you done something nice for the new year?
I always make a Haft Sin with pictures of my parents because both of them have passed away. One of my sisters lives in Tehran and one in London, so we always call on Nowrooz. I speak with other family members after that, brothers and aunts. But nothing too exciting. What about you?
I went to a few parties last week. I'm doing my PhD on the lives of Iranian women in Scotland and I'm in my data collection process right now. So I'm trying to meet up with people and make connections. Trying to stay on top of it!
So you're an anthropologist, like me.
Yes, well, I’m new to anthropology. It’s a kind of confusing discipline for someone with a background in history. Suddenly, I'm faced with ethnography, which was completely new to me.
Well, it's a very good method.
Why do you like it so much?
I did sociology at Tehran University, and I came to England to do my PhD in 1974 before the [Iranian] revolution. I converted to anthropology because sociology deals with very abstract broad pictures and I couldn't relate to that. With anthropology, I love that you get to do fieldwork and see things through the eyes of others. You realise how much you are shaped by your culture. When you do fieldwork in a different culture or in different contexts, it makes the familiar strange in your own culture and I have never lost that. It has given me a different way of looking at the world.
I’m only in my second year but I’m already noticing this happen with things I used to take for granted. I’ll look at something that used to feel very normal and wonder about how strange it suddenly seems. What was it like to study sociology in Tehran in the 70s? Was it quite a popular course at that time?
No, not really — it was not the first choice for elite students. We have to pass the konkour, the entrance exam. I wanted to do medicine and I was accepted to do it at Shiraz University. But I was getting married at that time and my future husband was leaving for America to study over there. So I decided to go for sociology and study at Tehran University. But now I’m very happy. It’s a good field, sociology. Now it is very popular, but at that time, it wasn’t. Human sciences were under a lot of pressure.
Was there more pressure then or now?
Now it is worse because sociology is a threat to the regime. In fact, when I finished my PhD, I went to Iran in 1982. It was shortly after the revolution, and there was so much hope at that time. I wanted to teach at a university there, but it was during the cultural revolution and universities were closed down soon after I arrived. When they reopened in 1983, I had to go through a selection interview and I was rejected. One of the reasons was because I don’t wear hijab. Of course, it is compulsory in public, but they keep a file on you, do an investigation, and they discovered that I don’t normally wear it. Another reason was because they asked me, “How would you teach Islamic anthropology?” and I just didn’t understand. I said, “There is no such thing as an Islamic anthropology.” So I was disqualified and I came back to England in 1984.
“I was very angry after the revolution. You had to be angry if you were a woman of my age.”
That's a really interesting idea. I wonder if you've spent much time thinking about the idea of Islamic anthropology since then?
Well, there was a difference in understanding between myself and those interviewing me. For them, anthropology was the science of understanding the human and both sociology and anthropology were Islamized. For the idealogues, there was a sense Islam has the answer to everything. By 1984, when I did that interview, they were in total power and had silenced other voices. Basically, they taught the Quran can answer all the questions we posed. For instance, one question they asked me was “how do you research divorce from an Islamic point of view?” And I began to say, “You do your ethnography…” — but they wanted me to say what Islam says about divorce and that divorce, in practice, should be exactly what Islam says it is. But Islam doesn’t speak, they speak for Islam.
So I didn’t get the job and my marriage had failed by then. I came back to England as a postgraduate scholar, and I’ve been based here ever since; although I’ve done research in other places. I lived in Morocco for one year to do a comparative study of marriage and divorce in Iran and Morocco. Being an anthropologist, I wanted to understand what it means to be married and divorced under Islamic law. What is the place of the sacred? How do women deal with discriminatory laws? Because marriage and divorce laws are not at all egalitarian in traditional understandings of Islam. So I did fieldwork in family courts. I focused on marital dispute cases, how the litigants understood the sacred in their marriage, how the judges interpreted that. Judges at that time were mostly clerics.
Tell me a bit more about your career and how you arrived at these themes?
I was very angry after the revolution. You had to be angry if you were a woman of my age. I was in my late 20s and felt absolutely betrayed by the revolution and also by the face of Islam being presented. It was something I did not experience as a child or as a young woman. Religion was never imposed on us. I came from a middle-class family, not traditional. The question of covering ourselves was not there. I knew students in high school who had to wear the chador because of their families, but it was not an issue for me at least. So I was furious. And when my marriage collapsed, I realised that I didn't have any rights. In theory, women and men enter into a contract of their own free will. But when it ends, the husband has the upper hand. Family law reforms introduced in 1967 at the time of the Shah were dismantled. I had no grounds. So I became interested in understanding Islamic jurisprudence, fiqh. I found it fascinating and it became my research project. In Iran, my Muslim identity was imposed on me with the patriarchal face of Islam. In Morocco, I came to reconcile with the religious side of my identity. Since then, my research has focused on what it means to be married and divorced under Islamic law.
In the 1990s I looked at the construction of gender; the result of that was my first book, Marriage on Trial: Islamic Family Law in Iran and Morocco. Then in 1998, I made a great film, Divorce Iranian Style alongside filmmaker, Kim Longinotto. We won prizes including a BAFTA. It was interesting the way that film was seen differently by Iranian audiences. Those who were not Iranian could really see the power of women in the film, how they were challenging patriarchy, how they turned men’s rights on its head to argue for their own rights, how articulate they are and how feisty. When women went to court, many Iranians — especially older Iranians — saw it as washing dirty linen in public. They were also upset with the film, saying we’re showing a bad picture of Iran and that we should make a film about our ancient heritage. But the younger generation of Iranians had no problem. After that film, I became well-known and got involved in women’s rights activism in Malaysia. I was working on Islamic feminism, the new voices in Islam, and how Muslim women are challenging the patriarchy.
Some readers might be unfamiliar with the idea of Islamic feminism. How do you explain it?
The term Islamic feminism is new. It didn’t exist before the early 1990s, and I'm one of the first scholars to have used it. Women who were a part of Political Islam during Iran’s revolution found themselves frustrated and disappointed 10 years later. So they brought Islam and feminism together. I went to Iran in 1992 and Zanan magazine [a publication rethinking women’s role in Islam] was taking off. Their demands were feminist, but the source of their legitimacy was coming from within their own culture and Islam. They were challenging patriarchal interpretations of the Quran and producing literature that is feminist in tone but at the same time Islamic. So when I researched this group, I used the term ‘Islamic feminism’. And in the 90s, that term was a contradiction.
“Religion is too significant to leave it with men, to leave it with patriarchs, to define. If we as feminists do not engage with religion, who is going to engage with it?”
But basically, Islamic feminism is a term given to a phenomenon which came into existence in the 1990s because of Political Islam. Political Islam ran with the slogan ‘Return to Sharia’ and this group tried to undo reforms introduced since the beginning of the 20th century and return to pre-modern interpretations of Sharia. The Iranian Revolution succeeded in 1979 so the 1980s were really the zenith of Political Islam. But by then it was almost the end of the 20th century — women were out in public, many were educated. So these women went back to the original texts and started challenging patriarchy from within. What, if not Islamic Feminists, would you call these women who are arguing for equality and justice within their own religious tradition?
Either they are doing it — as in Iran — because there is no other way of showing opposition to policies, or they are doing it — as in Malaysia — because Political Islam has been growing since the late 1980s under the influence of Iran, and feminists want to challenge that and offer an alternative.
My definition is that it’s a feminism articulating its demands in Islamic language. Women realised that in order to challenge patriarchy, you need to deal with one of the main elements of patriarchal culture: religion. I’m not saying that religion is patriarchal. But there are patriarchal interpretations of religion, especially in Muslim contexts. Without challenging them, you cannot really change that culture. Since the early 2000s, I became an Islamic feminist myself because I think it is important to claim religion. Religion is too significant to leave it with men, to leave it with patriarchs to define. If we as feminists do not engage with religion, who is going to? The large majority of feminists work with human rights and feminist discourse, but that language is alien to some people. You need to speak and demand for rights in a language that a culture understands.
And I don't see any contradiction between Islam and feminism. I always say we need to ask, whose feminism? We have the religious right-wing, white feminism, right? We have colonial feminism. We have progressive feminism. I see feminism as a knowledge project because feminism is not only about activism or consciousness. You can have feminist consciousness but consciousness alone is not enough. You need to do something about it, that's where the movement becomes important.
In the 1990s, I’d say I resisted the title of Islamic Feminist. At that time if you were a feminist, why would you engage with Islam? Islam was reduced to Political Islam. But I came to realise the importance of claiming both. By the early 2000s, I was quite happy to be called an Islamic Feminist. I wanted to define my feminism, not only as an Iranian, and as a woman who is born in a Muslim culture (I’m not necessarily concerned with faith. Many Muslim feminists focus on the faith side of things, but I see it as s social phenomenon as well as a cultural one). So my work has been about creating feminist jurisprudence from within.
Thank you so much for contextualising that. I love the way you describe how taking up space within religion is so important. When (and why) did you become an Islamic feminist?
Although I didn’t yet use the term, I really became an Islamic feminist in 1995 when I was doing research in Qom. I spent a lot of time in Hazrat-e Masumeh, the main shrine in the city and I was so angry at the way women were treated there. The women's section of the shrine was separate and there were copies of prayer books. On the first page of many of these copies was something written about how one of the clerics had a dream in which the Prophet came to them and said he is upset because women are coming to the shrine and showing their feet, that their socks are thin and things like that. This really affects the psychology of people. Those who come to the shrine are usually older and lonely women, they have no place else to go so I was just furious.
“So I found a community because without a community you cannot have a voice.”
I’ll tell you about one incident that happened there towards the end of my fieldwork. I was interviewing and studying Islamic jurisprudence with a progressive cleric. This cleric friend told me I should come to the shrine because one of the great Ayatollahs was going to talk in a session about family law. I couldn’t enter because I am a woman, but I was able to sit on the balcony outside and listen in on the lecture. So I went and sat there, and the daughter of this cleric was also with me as a companion because I couldn’t be alone with a man. We were sitting and a custodian came along with a fly swatter. “Clear off, clear off!” he said. So the other women went, and I stayed sitting there. “Clear off, clear off!” he continued. I told him that I am there to listen to this lecture. He said, “Don’t give me excuses,” and then I really lost my temper. I have a loud voice, so I shouted at him and I said, “Who do you think you are? You are a servant here to serve the Hazrat-e Masumeh who died here — a woman! I am a scholar, I am a Seyed,” — because I also come from the Seyed family — “I am a senior. You are here because a woman blessed this place. Why are you talking like this to me?” He backed off and apologised, saying that women often loiter around here. But I was so angry, I couldn’t stay. I was ashamed, too, to be boasting about being a scholar and that I come from the Seyed family. But I think that was a turning point for me. After that, I wanted to claim my place within religion. So I think I became an Islamic feminist after that incident, but then in the early 1990s I started working with Sisters in Islam in Malaysia and embraced it further. In Malaysia — and when I went there, also in Indonesia — the division between secular and religious women does not exist. They work together, which is to do with different legacies of colonialism. So I found a community because without a community you cannot have a voice.
Something you said that really struck me was how when you were researching in Morocco, you had this reconciliation with religion. Could you talk me through that?
Before going to Morocco, I did my PhD in rural Iran. It was different from my own background but still a part of my culture. But when you do research in another culture, one you are not emotionally attached to, it provides you with a different way of looking at things. When we do research we cannot separate it from the way we see things. We can do things to be objective, but emotion always comes into play. In Morocco, I was able to distance myself from my own emotions and look at things through different eyes. What surprised me was that I had this assumption that secular law would give women better access to justice when it comes to marriage and divorce.
In the 1980s, lawyers were not welcome in court, so Iranian women represented themselves and spoke the same language as the judge. They came and made their own case. In Morocco, the court was part of a legal system which, in the 80s, was a mixture of Islamic family law, Maliki law, and the French legal system. It was very formal, the judges were wearing hats and there was a role for lawyers. Men in Morocco had the right to divorce their wives whenever they wanted at the time. But in Iran, if there was not an agreement between husband and wife, they had to go to court. There is a class issue that is very important here too because, in Morocco, women who went to court were from lower classes. The official language of Morocco is Standard Arabic but the people’s language is a dialect. These women were not educated and the judge spoke Standard Arabic, so the women never talked, the lawyers talked for them. I noticed that they came quietly to court with their heads down. Looking at these differences between Iran and Morocco challenged my assumptions and I realised that it's not got much to do with religion, it's much more about the system and also whether women can speak the same language as the law.
The language of the law in Iran was the language of religion, and the language of religion is the same one used in our everyday language of family relations. It is covered with a veneer of modernity. But when I went there in 1980, and through my own experience of marriage after the revolution, I realised that no, this veneer is so thin and deep down there are those concepts, those patriarchal ideas that have nothing to do with whether a woman or man is secular or religious — their umbilical cord is tied to their fiqh rulings. It has to do with the ways Islamic marriage and divorce laws were developed in pre-modern times. The state had a secular identity during the Pahlavi’s [monarchical rule in Iran before the revolution] and after the revolution, it had an Islamic identity. But both identities, both policies, were patriarchal and despotic in different ways. Somehow, I came to see this very clearly in Morocco. So that’s where I reconciled.
You touched on having your assumptions challenged. I wonder if something to come out of your research has surprised you in recent years? Or have you changed your mind about anything?
Let me think… because yes, I always change my mind. We were doing research with Musawah on the notion of male authority over women and there is a verse in the Quran, verse 434, which basically says men are ‘qawwamun’ in relation to women, and it's been translated and understood in the law as men being protectors of, and in charge of, women. I later came to realise that the concept I had taken for granted had been misinterpreted. It appears twice more in the Quran but in the sense of standing for justice. So I was shocked that it wasn’t always seen that way. I don’t suppose it was a change of mind, but it was something that really surprised me — in a nice way.
That’s really interesting!
And the last thing to have surprised me are the events in Iran, the young girls of the Women, Life, Freedom movement who have so much courage. This is a generation of boys and girls who were born within the system but they have so much bravery to challenge the system from within. In the 1980s when I was living in Iran, I couldn’t do that. Nobody could do that, even in the 1990s or early 2000s. But now it is happening, which is amazing.
How are you finding that experience of watching from a distance?
Ah, you know as an anthropologist, I always feel that if you're not there, if you're not experiencing it, you're always looking at it. On one level I'm very happy, I admire it. I see it as a cultural revolution. But at the same time, I can see the violence it is creating and the price people are paying. So my feelings are mixed.
I can understand that sense of mixed feelings. Before I let you go, I’d like to ask you about the cultural texts that shaped your life? What has had the biggest impact on you?
When I was in my teenage years I used to read a lot of translated books. At that time it was a lot of French books. I can’t pick just one, but those novels of my youth shaped my imagination. I always wanted to go abroad without having any idea what was out there. This was back in the 1970s and 60s because I was born in 1952. So I freed myself from my constraints through education and reading.
My books were also my escape when I was young. They take you all over the world.
Wait until you read them 20 or 30 years later, you understand them in a different way because you become so different.
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