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Theses Doctoral

The Howzevi (Seminarian) Women in Iran: Constituting and Reconstituting Paths

Tawasil, Amina

This dissertation is based on fifteen months of ethnographic fieldwork with seminarian women in Iran in the summer of 2008, and from 2010 to 2011. I ask, after having unprecedented access to the howzeh elmiyeh (seminaries) after the revolution, what have been some of the consequences for the howzevi? And, how do women in the howzeh elmiyeh see themselves? Through grounded method of analysis, I have found that in their pursuit of what constitutes `a good life', the howzevi of this study were actively attempting to transform themselves and the howzeh setting, their social relationships, and the greater Iranian society at large by exploring resources available to them within a set of constraints. These limitations were often not only self-imposed but also intensified with increased access to particular networks. In the following chapters I argue for an alternative way of looking at, and talking about, the howzevi who are now positioned in institutions that have emerged at the core of the ongoing struggles to shape a particular Iran. The term howzeh elmiyeh (seminaries) may be defined as Islamic theological institutions of higher religious learning where a personal teacher-student transmission of knowledge, oral and written, of Islamic Jurisprudence and other ancilliary Islamic sciences would take place. As you may know, in Muslim populated countries like Pakistan, the howzeh is also known as a madrasa. Unlike devotees of Catholic seminaries, however, students of the howzeh elmiyeh neither observe celibacy nor are physically secluded from the rest of society. Rather, they are, and have been, an integral part of the urban landscape in Syria, Egypt, Iran and Iraq from the ninth century A.D. (Berkey 2003; Bulliet 1972; Chamberlain 1994). The howzevi of this study were between the ages of eighteen to sixty years-old, and were at different stages of their education. Some were unmarried and in the early stages of their education. Some were married with children and completing doctoral research, while others were simultaneously teaching seminary classes, working on women's Islamic rights, and partaking in the Dars- e Kharij class (the highest level in the seminary) with Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, the Supreme Leader. Belonging to the ultra- religious conservative population in Iran, their history of mobility was limited inside the home before the 1979 revolution. Absent in the anthropological literature of women in the Middle East and women in contemporary Islamic higher education, the institutionalization of the howzeh elmiyeh (seminaries) for women in Iran was a project that had been in the works before the revolution. Its formalization emerged publicly only in 1984 through the combined efforts of groups of revolutionary Islamist women in petitioning Ayatollah Khomeini for the establishment of Jami'at Al-Zahra in Qom. By Islamicizing public space, the revolution also enabled these women to move into the public sphere. Since then, the howzeh elmiyeh for women has been an ongoing statewide project through the active participation of women who credit the 1979 revolution for widespread access to this form of education. This opening amounts to a yearly average of 65,000 women attend the women's howzeh all over Iran, excluding graduates since about 1984. Annually, the howzeh elmiyeh turns away ten percent of applicants (Sakurai 2011) because the infrastructure cannot yet accomodate the demand for women's enrollment. This support for the howzevi remains unparalleled throughout the history of Shi'i Islamic scholarship in the Shi'i Islamic world. After the 1979 revolution, the access which the women of the intellectual clerical elite had to Islamic education for women was extended to "all women"; all women, who, at least, were willing to observe the social constraints of the howzevi lifestyle, regardless of the socioeconomic group they belonged to, and/or the fact that they did not come from an intellectual Shi'i scholarly family. This served a purpose, however. The revolutionary state appropriated the concept of the howzeh elmiyeh for women (Adelkhah 2000) in order to produce a specific type of revolutionary woman. Notwithstanding, as the revolutionary state created a new public space for Islam (Adelkhah 2000), it also provided new leadership opportunities for women (Afary 2009; Najmabadi 2008; Sedghi 2007). Women students were able to embark on a fully-funded path towards potentially becoming, among other Islamic scholarly aspirations, a mujtahideh, a woman who may derive religious rulings for herself, a process called ijtihad, and who are also able to engage in discussions about Islamic laws and its applicability in Iranian society. This research is in conversation with how women in the Middle East are neither passive nor homogenous (Abu-Lughod 1993; Holmes-Eber 2003; Mahmood 2005; Osanloo 2009; Torab 2007), as well as within the discourse on society and the women's movement in Iran (Adelkhah 2000; Afary 2009; Afshar 1998; Bahramitash 2008; Kamalkhani 1998; Kian-Thiébaut 2002; Kunkler & Fazaeli 2012; Mahdavi 2007; Mir- Hosseini 1999; Moghissi 1994; Najmabadi 2008; Osanloo 2009; Paidar 1995; Poya 1999; Sakurai 2011, 2012; Sedghi 2007; Torab 2007; Varzi 2006).

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Anthropology and Education
Thesis Advisors
Varenne, Hervé H.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 7, 2013