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  • The Howzevi (Seminarian) Women in IranConstituting and Reconstituting Paths
  • Amina Tawasil (bio)

The 1979 Iranian Revolution enabled conservative women previously limited in mobility to partake in building a Shia revolutionary state by expanding access to women’s seminaries to a degree unparalleled in the history of Shia Islam. I lived in Iran for fifteen months to explore the consequences for some of the howzevi (seminarian) women. I draw on their ethnography as students, mothers, daughters, wives, developers of social and educational programs for a postrevolution society, and vanguards of a state with the maxim to derail Western political domination in the Middle East. Five howzevi women were students of the Supreme Leader and Chief Justice of Iran, and over twenty-one were members of the Basij, Iran’s volunteer paramilitary organization. This work is positioned at the intersection of the state, Islamic education, and the Iranian women’s movement, in which women use Islamic texts to undermine patriarchal state policies. I pose an alternative that moves analysis away from women either failing to attain a universalized ideal “good life” that demonstrates autonomous will or exhibiting false consciousness. I find that the howzevi women were both facilitated and limited by self-imposed practices, such as exercising caution about their social visibility outside the home or showing deference toward their husbands and fathers. Because their experiences with the “rule of men” were diverse, success was not always measured against the effort to eliminate patriarchy or vie for leadership positions. Instead, I argue that the howzevi women worked to strengthen the Islamic state by increasing the availability of Islamic jurisprudent research concerning women; through their presence [End Page 258] among clerics as researchers, authors, or teachers; and by bridging Islamic texts to practice as teachers of the Basij, as university counselors, and as pioneers and developers of the seminaries. [End Page 259]

Amina Tawasil

AMINA TAWASIL is an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Middle East and North African Studies Program at Northwestern University. She received her PhD in anthropology and education from Teachers College, Columbia University, in 2013. She also co-organized the Power of Women’s Islamic Education workshop as a fellow of the Center for the Study of Social Differences’ Women Creating Change project at Columbia University. Contact:



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pp. 258-259
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