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Week of 14 December 2001 · Vol. V, No. 17


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Treatment of women varies widely in Muslim world, says prof

By Hope Green

Recent newspaper images of Afghan women, shrouded and faceless in their flowing blue burkas or joyfully emerging from cover as the Taliban regime was falling, are becoming etched into the minds of Westerners. Veiled and oppressed Muslim women are suddenly a compelling topic in the media: Time magazine recently devoted a cover feature to their plight.

  Shahla Haeri
Photo by Walter Crump

Scholars scooped the media on this story a while ago, and it's an important one to tell, says BU anthropologist Shahla Haeri. But in a forthcoming book, she focuses on a less-examined population of Muslim women: educated, professional, and middle class.

In No Shame for the Sun: Lives of Professional Pakistani Women (Syracuse University Press and Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2002), Haeri profiles six women who resist the demands of a traditional, often repressive culture. One is a young mother of four who refused to live with her in-laws when her husband died, as custom dictates. Instead, she worked at a United Nations refugee agency and put her children through college.

Haeri also interviews, among others, a poet who arranged her own marriage, a female feudal lord, and a Sufi mystic who is reinterpreting the Koran from a feminist perspective.

Their experiences parallel what is happening throughout the Muslim world, with the increasing industrialization of countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Iran, India, Bangladesh, and Morocco.

"These are more or less modern nation-states with a market economy, which demands that you have women contributing both financially and educationally," says Haeri, a CAS assistant professor of anthropology and the new director of women's studies. "Yet somehow, what professional women have achieved in these countries has not been represented well outside that part of the world.

"Many great things have been written on peasant, tribal, rural, or urban poor Muslim women but almost nothing on those who are part of the educated middle class," she says. "These women have been consistently struggling, by choice or by force, to come into the public domain, contribute to their family's welfare, push for gender parity, and change political institutions. My argument is that the lack of discourse on them has contributed to a one-sided image of Muslim women, which is veiled, victimized, and miserable."
Growing up in Iran, Haeri was surrounded by women who defied this stereotype. Her mother was a schoolteacher, all her older sisters went to college, and one of her paternal aunts was a professor of French literature. Her paternal grandfather, a worldly and well-known ayatollah, supported his daughters' and granddaughters' desire to pursue higher education. He never insisted that Haeri or her sisters veil their faces, which was not surprising since Iranian women had been wearing Western clothing since 1936. She still has a photograph of herself as a teenager in a miniskirt.

It was not until after the Islamic revolution of 1979, a decade after Haeri had left the country to pursue an academic career, that Iran began to restrict women's rights. But unlike women in Afghanistan, who were forbidden to work outside the home after the Taliban seized control of the country in 1996, Iranian women already occupied a well-established place in their society before a fundamentalist backlash swept their country.

"Women by then had become so influential in the public domain, and their services were so needed, that the government knew it couldn't function if it were to push all these women backward," Haeri says.

Iran's leaders did not close schools as the Taliban did in Afghanistan, and its educational system relies heavily on women to fill teaching positions. The national literacy rate for both men and women is above 80 percent. Despite the edict for women to cover their hair and wear a long overcoat in public, which went into effect two years after the revolution, many Iranian women conceal fashionable clothes under traditional garments or tailor the style of the overcoat to suit their taste.

Just as in America, Haeri adds, the cost of living for a middle-class family in Iran often requires that both parents work.

Similarly, Pakistani women remained visible and vocal following President General Pervez Musharref's government takeover in an October 1999 military coup. "Women are pretty active, speaking out for and against the war in Afghanistan," Haeri says. "They're quite critical of what is happening in their own society, and they are constantly critiquing their president and prime minister. Of course the system has changed because of the coup, but as far as women are concerned, nothing drastic has happened yet."

Treatment of women varies within as well as between countries, Haeri emphasizes. In No Shame for the Sun, Sajida Mukkram Shah, the widow with four children, had been married to a man from Pakistan's northwest frontier. The expectation that she move in with her in-laws after her husband died is based on a tradition unique to that region.

Studying the experiences of articulate, middle-class, professional women in Pakistan is just as important as looking at the downtrodden, Haeri says, because they exemplify pioneers of change in places where modernization is taking hold. Their attempt to challenge patriarchal beliefs about a woman's place, she adds, should be of interest to social scientists because it parallels what has been happening in the United States and Europe for more than a century.

Anthropologists and theologians also should take note.

"We may be better able to understand why religious fundamentalism has swept the world if we understand that it is in part a reaction to women's independence and autonomy, which appear to negate or challenge many of the old beliefs and practices," Haeri says. "Part of the resistance by men has been to women moving into the public space, assuming prestige and responsibility, and challenging men's sensibilities. These changes disorient people."

Haeri has published extensively on the subjects of Islamic fundamentalism and women's rights. Besides No Shame for the Sun, which is scheduled for publication next fall, she is author of The Law of Desire: Temporary Marriage in Shi'i Iran (Syracuse University Press, 1989), which explores the practice of sigheh, a government-sanctioned religious custom that permits men and women to engage in sexual relations under a temporary marriage contract. A revised edition is in the works, along with another book, Women, Law and Social Change in Postrevolutionary Iran (Syracuse University Press, 2003).

Haeri joined the faculty at BU in 1993 after conducting two years of research in Pakistan on a Fulbright fellowship. Since then she has been back to Iran and South Asia numerous times for fieldwork.

As director of the newly expanded women's studies program at BU, Haeri says she is striving to build "a first-rate international, multidisciplinary program" that encourages the study of women of different races, classes, countries, and ethnic groups. In time she hopes her program can develop collaborative projects with the University's programs in African-American and Latin American studies.

Haeri teaches courses on legal anthropology, women, and religion. Next year she hopes to offer one that's sure to be popular -- Women in the Muslim World.


14 December 2001

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