Tuesday, February 27, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, February 28, 2007


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Jakarta

Prior to the victory of the Islamic revolution in February 1979, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, like many other women in Iran at that time, had been a supporter of the movement that culminated in the dramatic collapse of U.S.-backed dictator Reza Pahlavi.

However, when Hosseini returned to Iran after completing her PhD in social anthropology at Cambridge University in 1980, she realized that things had not developed according to her expectations.

In March 1979, the new leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, announced that women were prohibited from being judges and were obliged to wear thehijab or head scarf in public. Thousands of Iranian women protested but were attacked by Islamic forces referring to themselves as Hezbollah (Party of God).

Clashes between students on how post-revolution reform should take course also flared up and universities were closed down. When the universities finally reopened in 1984, a committee was set up to screen both students and lecturers.

"I failed my interview because of two things: first the bad score I received from my neighborhood surveillance people who kept an eye on issues of `morality' such as whether I properly wore a hijab, and second because of my Western education. They intended to Islamize universities and they were worried that I might not be able to fulfill this," Hosseini recalled.

"So I could not get a job and my marriage failed as my husband, who was previously very modern and secular, gradually became so traditional," said Hosseini during a recent interview with The Jakarta Post and Kompas in Jakarta.

After undergoing a tough and long battle for a divorce, Hosseini decided to return to Cambridge to pursue a career there, but she often returned to Iran to conduct research.

Driven by her experiences, Hosseini wrote a book titled Marriage on Trial: A Study of Islamic Law. In 1998 she collaborated with acclaimed film director Kim Longinotto to produce an 80-minute movie called Divorce Iranian Style.

The movie is a unique look at the private lives of Iranian women, following Jamileh, whose husband frequently beats her, Ziba, a 16-year old trying to divorce her 38-year old husband and Maryam, who is fighting for the custody of her daughters. The film depicts the strength, drive and ingenuity with which they tackle the biased laws of the Kafkaesque administration and handle the hostility of their husbands and families.

"The movie shows that Iranian women can have the courage to fight for their rights," said Hosseini, adding that under Iranian laws, if it is the wife who requests a divorce, custody of children and financial support are out of the question.

In 2001, Hosseini and Longinotto produced their second movie, Runaway. It is a heart-breaking and critical documentary about a group of young girls who run away from home to escape their tyrannical families and are taken to a women's shelter in Tehran.

Born on April 3, 1952 in Sanandaz, Kurdistan, Iran, Hosseini was exposed to Caspian culture early as her parents were from Kaswin in northern Iran. Hosseini grew up in Tehran after moving there at the age of ten.

She graduated in sociology from Tehran University in 1974, but said she found sociology to be so abstract that she decided to switch to anthropology, achieving her PhD in this discipline from Cambridge University in 1980.

"Anthropology takes an in-depth look into societies though participant observation. Somehow through anthropology you come to understand your own culture and you realize the extent to which you are the product of your own culture. And things that are culturally assumed to be correct, may be viewed differently by others for various reasons," said Hosseini, who specialized in legal anthropology.

Hosseini is now a senior research associate at the London Middle Eastern Institute, School of Oriental and African Studies, the University of London.

"Women have become the symbol of both modernism and traditionalism. Women's bodies have become a battleground between modernism and traditionalism. For example, in a country like Turkey in the name of modernity women cannot wear scarves but in other countries in the name of traditional Islam, it is imposed," said Hosseini, whose husband Richard Tapper is also a prominent anthropologist.

When asked about the women's movement in Iran, she answered: "Women's and gender issues were somehow silent in the 1980s, particularly during the war with Iraq. But by the early 1990s, these issues came to the surface and at that time many Muslim women lobbied the ayatollah, or judiciary and seminary for progressive reforms, and they successfully managed to achieve legal reform."

"During the Ramsanjani and Khatami era, in both the parliament and government there were women who were very broad-minded who were all for the equality of women. They were part of a power structure, nonetheless. When Ahmadinejad came to power, all of them were gone. So we don't have broad minded people in the government; many are now against women's issues. In the parliament we have two candidates who are reformists, but they are in the minority."

She said that Iranians are often too idealistic, wanting to have perfect political leaders. She regretted that a sizable portion of students and activists had boycotted the election because of the frustratingly slow pace of reform, and as a result Iran is now led by the hard-line leader Ahmadinejad.

When asked about the current situation for women in her country, Hosseini said that there are positives such as the requirement that 50 percent of medical students be women, but "Ahmadinejad's government has introduced a bill that might annul that, arguing that female doctors are unable to go to remote areas."

When asked about her future projects, Hosseini said she is planning to make a new movie on men's sexuality on the grounds that "one of the major problems for Muslim women is the insecurity of men about their identity and sexuality."

When asked why men usually view themselves as being more confident and powerful than women, she replied: "That is what you see at the surface; people who need to be authoritarian... but it comes from a deep sense of inferiority. If you don't have control inside, you want to control outside."

"Pre-modern theories of sexuality says that women's sexuality is active, and that is why they have to be kept away from the public. But the modern theory of sexuality among Islamists views women as being sexually passive. The argument on hijab is that if women do not cover themselves, men will get too excited, causing social order to collapse."

"This means men's sexuality is active; whereas women have control over their sexuality. This issue has not been addressed."

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