The Voice of Feminism, Iranian Style
Like many Iranian women, Ziba Mir-Hosseini backed the Islamic revolution in 1979. After studying social anthropology in England, she went back to her changed homeland in 1980 but was thought to be too “young and modern” to become a lecturer at Teheran University. In 1984 she again left for England, where she has since remained. Mir-Hosseini deems herself to be the voice of a new Iranian generation bent on reconciling the old and the new in the form of Muslim faith on the one hand and democracy and feminism on the other. Together with Kim Longinotto she has made two award winning films: “‘Divorce in Iranian Style”’ (1998) and “‘Runaway”’ (2001).
Ziba Mir-Hosseini loves her homeland. Her house is full of Persian miniatures and rugs, of geranium-scent redolent of Teheran in summer, and of the fragrance of Iranian food she is fond of cooking. As she said in an interview with the BBC: “So much love goes into \cooking, you really have to care what you are doing and I love doing it”.
Like many young Iranians Mir-Hosseini went to England to learn the language and to crown her education. Like many Iranian women she also backed the Islamic Rrevolution in 1979. After her six years of gaining a doctorate in social anthropology, the revolution had triumphed, so on returning to Iran in 1980, she looked forward to a good academic career.
“It was a tough time,“, she now says. The first two years were a period of sweeping executions. The universities shut, then on reopening in the Islamic Republic, they had no interest in a woman like her, who had fended for herself abroad and no longer wore even a headscarf. She neglects to say whether her naked hair was a cause or effect of this snub. "As a young woman in Iran there were two choices - to be young and modern, or Muslim and follow your religion." Her Western education had merely made her unusable as an academic. The banner of religion, which she had upheld, had become a strip of red tape, excluding her from office as being too “‘young and modern”’.
Since then Mir-Hosseini has been striving in word and deed to bridge the gap between old and new. As the voice of a new Iranian generation, she is keen to combine tradition with modernity, Muslim faith with democracy and feminism.
Even her understanding of history is part of this picture. She emphatically believes that the Islamic revolution has led to a new understanding of gender, which in turn has led to many improvements in Iranian society. Since the 80s political Islam has paradoxically brought forth its own variety of feminism. The aims and demands are feminist, but the language and validation are Islamic. Unhappily this feminism is rejected by liberals and conservatives alike, since liberals deem it a relic of colonialism, and conservatives deem it impious. Faced by this dilemma Mir-Hosseini is as pious as she is feminist, “not only because I am a faithful Muslim but also because in the Islamic world most discourse is religious, so it has to be treated on its own terms.”
She practices the principles she preaches. In 1984 she divorced her first husband on leaving Iran for England. After remarriage and a second divorce she fell in love with an Englishman, got married for the third time and adopted a daughter. At the same time her dream of a career as a visiting professor came true: she was invited to lecture at the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.
Her further activities are closely bound up with her leaning towards political reform and feminism. In 1998, together with Kim Longinotto, she put her academic experiences into a documentary film, “‘Divorce in Iranian Style”’, which follows three cases in a family court in Teheran. Despite the unfairness towards women revealed by the court’s decisions, the women involved are shown as being firm, foxy and charming in dealing with the judge. The film was followed in 2000 by a book “‘Marriage on Trial – A Study of Islamic Family Law”’, which explores women’s ruses for securing their rights within the framework of Islamic law. The film is based on Mir-Hosseini’s observation that the Islamic Rrevolution brought lower class women into politics. As she has said in an interview, these women who “have mastered religious speech and traditional discourse have begun to use their mastery to secure their rights.”
Likewise together with the director Longinotto, Mir-Hosseini made the film “‘Runaway”’ (2001), showing the fate of girls in a Teheran hostel. It is serving them as a refuge from abuse at home, forced marriages and other distress. Sooner or later they are bound to go back to their families, so they have to find compromises, but their families too must compromise on coming to take them home, so a minimal give and take is possible. Nonetheless, according to West German Radio, this film has no illusions. “‘The many details spoken about are just too depressing, and the outlook remains grim.”’
Ziba Mir-Hossein may be realistic but her realism appreciates the value of small gains. Not even the triumph of the hard-liners in Iran has lessened her faith in reform, since learning is likely to continue. In an interview with the Zeitschrift für Kulturaustausch (Magazine for Cultural Exchange) she said: “The election results reflect the huge gap between rich and poor in Iran.” They show that “reformers should have focussed as much on the theme of social justice as on the theme of freedom and democracy.” There will still be a period after Ahmadinejad.
Mir-Hosseini feels as much at home in her new country as she did in her old. On watering her geraniums and on cooking her Iranian meals, she encourages others to look forward to democracy and feminism “‘Iranian style”’. When the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Shirin Ebadi, she wrote an article revealing a further reason for her own work: The awarding of this prize to Ebadi makes it ‘easier for the world to experience the voices and anguish of those Iranian women whose stories remain to be told.”’
Ziba Mir-Hosseini, is an independent consultant, researcher and writer on Middle Eastern issues, specializing in gender, family relations, Islamic law and development. A Senior Research Associate at the London Middle Eastern Institute, SOAS, University of London, she obtained her BA in Sociology from Tehran University (1974) and her PhD in Social Anthropology from University of Cambridge (1980). She has held numerous research fellowships and visiting professorships, most recently: 2004-5 Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin; 2002, 2004, 2006, Hauser Global Law Visiting Professor at the School of Law, New York University. Her publications include the monographs "Marriage on Trial: A Study of Islamic Family Law in Iran and Morocco" (I. B. Tauris, 1993, 2002), "Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran" (Princeton University Press, 1999; I. B. Tauris, 2000), and (with Richard Tapper) "Islam and Democracy in Iran: Eshkevari and the Quest for Reform" (I. B. Tauris, 2006). She has also directed (with Kim Longinotto) two award-winning feature-length documentary films on contemporary issues in Iran: "Divorce Iranian Style" (1998) and "Runaway" (2001).
Islam and Democracy in Iran: Eshkevari and the Quest for Reform
Research. With Richard Tappe. I. B. Tauris: London
Film / TV,
Documentary. With Kim Longinotto
Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran
Princeton University Press: Princeton (2nd edition I. B. Tauris, 2000)
Divorce Iranian Style
Film / TV,
Documentary. With Kim Longinotto
Marriage on Trial: A Study of Islamic Family Law in Iran and Morocco
Research. I. B. Tauris: London (2nd edition 2002)
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
(01 May 06 - 01 May 08)
Interview on Countercurrents.org
Understanding Islamic Feminism
(07 February, 2010)