International Studies

Speaking religion to power

For Americans, who ostensibly separate church from state, conventional wisdom wouldn't necessarily send a person into a conservative prayer group to discuss progressive feminism. But that's just where Sanam Vakil, SAIS '01, '05 (PhD), went when researching her first book, Women and Politics in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Action and Reaction (Continuum, 2011). For her book, Vakil, an adjunct professor at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies' Bologna Center, conducted formal and informal interviews with women—friends and family, journalists and activists, hairdressers and manicurists—in the Islamic Republic, where religion defines both gender politics and the country's identity.

"There are a number of women—thousands, millions—who participate in religious groups," says Vakil, who was born in the Iran and educated in the United States. "Reading the Quran is the essential part of this gathering."

According to Shariah law, which is based in part on the Quran, women are inferior to men, counting as half a man in courts of law and matters of inheritance. But, Vakil says, it's through interpretations of Islam, called ijtihad, that women are also able to use religious as an avenue toward political consciousness and policy change.

"This is what is novel about Shiism — the reinterpretation is very active," Vakil says, speaking of the primary Islamic denomination in Iran. "And the state uses [reinterpretation] for political issues, for expediency." As example, she cites how Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa at the beginning of the revolutions saying that women's primary role is to be mothers, which helped lead to a population growth through the 1980s. When the population approached a size the state couldn't support, a new fatwa came out saying that it was better for women to protect the sanctity of the family and not overstrain themselves—a new interpretation.

Women use ijtihad to challenge interpretations that claim they can't occupy powerful positions such as president or high-ranking clerics. "It's a nuance, but they're saying, 'Actually, you're reading [the Quran] wrong and it could also be this way,'" Vakil says. In the case of the high-ranking clerics, women return to the "traditions of the prophet Muhammad and say, 'Actually, women can be clerics because Muhammad had a number of female clerics—including his wife during that time.' So they're reinterpreting what they call 'bad' patriarchal interpretations to make it more fair for women."

These arguments may sound like slim progress, but in a country where religious laws are the governmental policies that define women's lot in life, religion becomes the only tool to speak to power. So, for example, women wear the hijab—which refers both to the traditional veil and the modest style of dress—tight or loose, with jewelry or without, with eye makeup or without, to express an individual, political choice. Being traditional and religious in Iran doesn't preclude a woman from being politically progressive and reformist. Says Vakil, "Just because you wear a chador doesn't mean, for example, that you don't believe in secular democracy."