Evolving gender rights
How has your approach to this subject evolved? How does "Journeys Toward Gender Equality in Islam" compare with your previous books?
Ziba Mir-Hosseini: In many ways this book is a logical continuation of my research on Muslim family law since the early 1980s. I am an anthropologist by training. Between 1984 and 1989 I conducted field work in family courts in Iran and Morocco, focusing on marriage and divorce. My aim was to understand what it means to be married and divorced under Islamic Law, so I observed disputes that made their way into the courts, and how judges reached their decisions. At the time, in both countries, men had the unilateral right to divorce, most litigants were women, and I came to learn about their grievances. The result was my first book, Marriage on Trial, a comparative study of divorce in law and practice in Iran and Morocco, which was published in 1993.
As a Muslim woman, I wanted to understand why and how Islamic legal tradition became so patriarchal – what conceptions, what ideas of gender relations and rights underlay the dominant interpretations of Sharia. To that end, I began studying jurisprudential (fiqhi) texts in 1992, going on to do research in Qom, the centre of religious learning in Iran. Over the course of my conversations with the ulama – custodians of the Sharia – I came to realise the importance of engaging with Islamic legal tradition, and the need to develop the language to argue for egalitarian family laws from within the tradition. This resulted in my second book – Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran. While I was writing this book, I also collaborated with Kim Longinotto to make Divorce Iranian Style, a feature-length documentary inspired by my first book.
My research in Qom and my involvement in this documentary changed my perspective. What we call gender rights – the position of women in Islam – is constructed in interaction with realities on the ground, with ideological, political and socio-economic forces, as well as people's experiences and expectations. They are not immutable, they are open to negotiation and change. I no longer wanted simply to observe debates over gender in Islam, I wanted to participate in them and in shaping reform
Musawah – a holistic framework
Since the early 2000s, my research has related to Muslim reformist thinkers and women's rights activists. Following Islam and Gender, I co-wrote a book that disseminated and contextualised the work of one Iranian cleric who spoke out clearly for democracy and gender equality using jurisprudential arguments.
I co-founded Musawah, a movement for gender equality and justice within Muslim family law. We developed a holistic framework to bring together Islamic teachings, human rights principles, constitutional guarantees and lived realities.
Musawah was launched in February 2009. In June that year, during the aftermath of the disputed presidential elections in Iran, the Green Movement emerged: in Tehran, three million people, women and youth at the forefront, came out, asking "Where is my vote?" The Green Movement challenged the theocratic elements in the Islamic Republic and was Iran's first major mass protest since the 1979 revolution.
I had wanted for some time to write a new book, to capture the voices and scholarship of reform in Islam using the conversational method I had initiated in Islam and Gender. With the launch of Musawah and the developments in Iran, I felt optimistic about prospects for change.
I planned to talk to some key Muslim reformist scholars about their work, how they came to know Islam's textual sources, and how this knowledge related to their own life trajectories – in other words, to contextualise their journey to knowledge.
My objective was to explore how pre-modern understandings of textual sources could be persuasively challenged and how egalitarian knowledge can be produced from within the Muslim tradition. At the same time, I wanted to make this knowledge available to a wider audience, especially for Muslim feminists and women's rights activists.
How did you select the scholars you ultimately chose as interview partners?
Ziba Mir-Hosseini: I approached a number of scholars I had got to know personally, and with whom I had collaborated in the past, so that I could engage them in an open and critical conversation. They were conversations, not interviews, because we exchanged views. I also talked about my own personal and intellectual journey and the women's rights activists who founded Musawah. After I had conducted and recorded conversations with ten scholars (spread over nearly ten years), I decided to narrow my focus to six scholars from Iran and Morocco and others who lived in the West, because these were the places where I had lived and knew the context. Regretfully, I had to let go of the other conversations, even though they were full of interest and important to me.
My interlocutors in the book are Abdullahi An-Na'im, Amina Wadud, Asma Lamrabet, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Mohsen Kadivar, and Sedigheh Vasmaghi. They are all public intellectuals. Although some of them do not identify as activists (or feminists), I see them as such because activism takes many routes. I didn't just want to talk to scholars without connecting to what is happening in society. There is a lot of important scholarly work on gender in Islam, yet academic ideas rarely relate to actual problems in society. That's why we discussed how to forge an understanding of Islam that has room for gender equality and justice in the way that these ideas are understood in our time.
I didn't just want to talk to scholars without connecting to what is happening in society. There is a lot of important scholarly work on gender in Islam, yet academic ideas rarely relate to actual problems in society. That's why we discussed how to forge an understanding of Islam that has room for gender equality and justice in the way that these ideas are understood in our time.
"Muslim and feminist" no contradiction
In one interview you said that your own journey is coming to an end. Looking back at your career, how much do you think has changed concerning gender equality since you set out on this journey?
Ziba Mir-Hosseini: In the 1980s, when I started, you could not be both Muslim and feminist – it was a contradiction in terms. By the early 1990s, I could see that new voices were emerging, pioneering a scholarship that we could call both feminist and Islamic, in the sense of arguing for gender equality from within the Islamic tradition.
At the time I saw myself as only a researcher, observing this new phenomenon. But by the late 1990s and early 2000s, Islamic feminism was a term that was no longer seen as self-contradictory.
Now there are dozens of scholarly books on the subject, not to mention courses in many universities. There are people working on it. That's a huge shift. Creating an organisation like Musawah, which brings activism and scholarship together to produce feminist and egalitarian knowledge from with the Islamic tradition, was also major. I am fortunate to be part of this change.
You have said that two events provided important impetus for this book – the launch of Musawah and the rise of the Green Movement in Iran. How do you view the most recent demonstrations in Iran within the context of your book?
Ziba Mir-Hosseini: My own feminist consciousness was created by the Islamic Republic. Two of the chapters in the book are devoted to conversations with two brilliant Iranian reformists, Mohsen Kadivar and Sedigheh Vasmaghi. These chapters provide an insight into the causes of the latest uprisings under the banner of Women, Life and Freedom. Vasmaghi, who had to leave Iran after the Green Movement, returned in 2019; she has just recently, in a move very characteristic of her bravery, openly condemned the state's policy of compulsory hijab and challenged Khamenei to provide religious justification for it.
Paradoxically, the instrumental use of Sharia as the source of legitimacy has not only exposed the political nature of theology and law, but also put the issue of gender justice in the Sharia at the heart of the dispute. On the one side, Islamist movements of various hues have taken the established patriarchal understandings of the Sharia to extremes to deprive Muslim women of the personal, civil and political rights they had gained around the world. On the other, new forms of reformist scholarship and activism, including Musawah and my interlocutors, have challenged these understandings from within the Islamic tradition.
I see Woman, Life and Freedom as the manifestation of a deep cultural revolution that has taken place in Iran since the establishment of the Islamic Republic. In 2009 the Green Movement was largely a protest among the urban middle classes and intellectuals. In 2016 and 2018 there were major protests by working classes. At various points there have been uprisings among the ethnic minorities, especially Kurds and Balochs.
This time all of them have come together to confront the regime; this movement is not against religion, but against the authoritarian and intrusive state and the imposition of an interpretation of Islam that restricts every aspect of people’s lives. The young generation are no longer prepared to put up with such restrictions. And they are the future.
Interview conducted by Tugrul von Mende
© Qantara.de 2023
"Journeys toward Gender Equality in Islam", by Ziba Mir-Hosseini, published by Simon & Schuster (2022)