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Making sense of faith and culture
Women turn the most patriarchal elements of shari'a law to their advantage

By Fereydoun Safizadeh
December 4, 2001
The Iranian

Ziba Mir-Hosseini is an anthropologist, and her book Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999) can be viewed as an ethnography of post 1979 Islamic revolution gender consciousness and the gendering of the political process in Iran.

Mir-Hosseini's fieldwork on Islam and gender starts in the early 1980s as she educates herself in shari'a family law in order to get a divorce. An important point underlying the book is Mir-Hosseini's shifting of attention from the ways in which shari'a rules oppressed women to the ways in which many women succeeded in turning the most patriarchal elements of shari'a law to their advantage and an instrument of empowerment.

The main focus of Islam and Gender is the various notions of gender that inform Islamic jurisprudence (feqh) and how Iranian clerics perpetuate, modify, deconstruct and reconstruct these notions today. Mir-Hosseini approaches this problematic through fieldwork, examination of texts, and face-to-face discussion/interview with individuals representing three major perspectives that she delineates in the discourses of the seminaries in Qom and the society at large.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One discusses the "Traditionalist" positions of Ayatollah Seyyed Yusef Madani-Tabrizi and Ayatollah Ahmad Azari-Qomi. Their views takes the inequality between the sexes as natural and "who see the gender model in shari'a law to be immutable."

Part Two focuses on Neo-Traditionalists such as Ayatollah Yusef Sane'i, Seyyed Zia Mortazavi and Mohammad Hossein Sa'idi. These thinkers also accept the immutability of the gender model manifest in Islamic law, but see the need for change through new interpretations of the Islamic jurisprudence, feqh. Part Three discusses the "Modernist" thinking of Abdol Karim Sorush and Hojjat ol-Eslam Seyyed Mohsen Sa'idzadeh.

Abdol Karim Sorush is the leading Islamic intellectual who is attempting to "reintroduce the element of rationality" to the interpretations of the scared texts." Sorush and the Modernists view Islam not as "a blue print with a built-in, fixed program of action for the social, economic and political problems ... [and that] Islam allows change in the face of time, space or experience" (p. 213). This approach allows for addressing the issue of gender equality from within a feqh framework.

For Mir Hosseini the work of Hojjat ol-Eslam Seyyed Mohsen Sa'idzadeh is more exciting because he "sees gender inequality in the shari'a not as a manifestation of divine justice, but as a mistaken construction by male jurists ... [and] argues that it goes contrary to the very essence of divine Will as revealed in the Koran" (p. 272). Sa'idzadeh's work is beginning to make an impression on the conservative Islamists and Jurists.

As a fieldwork based work, Islam and Gender is still heavily dependent on textual interpretation to make its points. An important fieldwork area is to what extent has the day to day resistances, struggles and activism of women within the Islamic judiciary system, in the public and the political arena have influenced old ways of thinking among the ulema and the society in general, and underlie concrete changes that favor women's right and equality. The book is an informed account of a Muslim woman who wants to make sense of her faith and culture.

Author

Fereydoun Safizadeh teaches anthropolgy at Boston University. He holds a PhD in anthropology and Middle East studies from Harvard University.

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