Towards the Ideal Revolutionary Shi’i Woman: The Howzevi (Seminarian), the Requisites of Marriage and Islamic Education in Iran

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The ethnographic fieldwork I conducted in Iran reveals how some religious conservative howzevi (seminarian) women understand marriage and motherhood as constitutive of idealized womanhood. For them, the pursuit of marriage and motherhood simultaneously enables their participation in the highest levels of Islamic education and their religious and political authority in Iran. Such aspirations imposed both regulatory and emancipatory effects on the howzevi’s life. Two self-imposed practices I observed from women were the practice of asking permission from the husband, and having the desire to marry a man whom she expected would want to be asked for permission. I underline the hidden yet enabling aspects of these practices. I show what a system of mutual exchange of responsibilities between nafaqeh (full financial provision) and eta’at (obedience) look like as features of a howzevi marriage. I argue that it was precisely the howzevi’s observances of this mutual exchange and other constraints that facilitated her educational, social and political mobility.


Journal of Women of the Middle East and the Islamic World



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Kandiyoti (1988) provides a comparative analysis of women’s strategies to maximize security and options in the face of male-dominated oppression.


Paidar (1995) argues that in a similar way women’s bodies defined nationalist ideals pre-revolution, women’s bodies became the site for what was defined Islamic and non-Islamic in post-revolution Iran. The Iranian state established a link between gender and nation.


See Abu-Lughod (1990) and Najmabadi (1998; 2005).


See Abu-Lughod (2008).


Mir-Hosseini (1998) accounts for this in a jurisprudent letter from Ayatollah Khomeini to Ayatollah Sane’i about a woman asking for a divorce.


Najmabadi (2005) referred to this as ‘wives of nation’.


Najmabadi (2005) has argued that as a response to the European encounter, Iranian modernists and reformists of the late 19th century pushed for an active social transformation in Iran in order for Iran to be identified as a civilized and modern nation. In this process, homosociality and heterosexuality masked forms of desire. Najmabadi argues that Iranian women’s claim to equality, as equal partners with men, was attached to the imagination that modernity was none other than a heterosocial project.


Abu-Lughod (1990) argues for looking at resistance as a diagnostic of power. Meaning, acts of resistance index other systems of power at play. In an earlier work on the turn of the century Iran, Najmabadi (1998) provides an analysis on the transformation of how an ‘educated housewife’ was socially constructed, where women’s education was emancipatory at one level providing opportunities but was also regulatory in the service of other aims. She argued for a more profound understanding of transformations as not just emancipatory, but also regulatory or disciplinary.


Haeri (1989) provides a similar explanation.


This is similar to the argument Deeb (2006) makes with regards to the women of al-Dahiyya who struggled against exclusion from public participation. Piety was authenticated by classical Islamic text and the interpretation of educated scholars, but more importantly, expressed through public participation. Making Islamic practice ‘public’ was understood as an expression of one’s Islamically educated ideas of what it meant to be a good modern Shi’i Muslim. For more on the self as the audience, see Ewing (1997), Goffman (1959), Najmabadi (2013).


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