TitleAn interview with Elizabeth Bucar on the challenges Iranian and American women face

“Shii and Catholicism are not anti-women”

16 May 2011

■ Ehsan Abedi
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Dr. Elizabeth M. Bucar is an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She has recently published a book comparing the feminist politics of U.S. Catholic to Iranian Shi’i women. Such a comparison might have seemed strange and challenging at first glance, but Bucar’s views on feminism and the nature of Shii and Catholicism seem even more challenging than the subject of her book. She believes that Catholicism and Shii Islam themselves are not anti-women but are simply examples in which male authority has helped support patriarchal teachings. Such a view seems totally different from the viewpoint of many other scholars on the issue and can be considered as a new approach to the two religions.

Elizabeth Bucar’s Creative Conformity: The Feminist Politics of U.S. Catholic and Iranian Shi’i Women was published in March 2011 by Georgetown University Press. We interviewed her on her book and the problems Iranian Shi’i and U.S. Catholic women face.

It seems quite strange to compare feministic movements in Catholic and Shi’i worlds. What are the similarities between such movements in Iranian and American societies?

I think the strangeness, or rather uniqueness, is what originally drew me to this case study. Although much scholarly work has been written on feminist politics in these two worlds, I am a firm believer that careful comparison can help us understand different religious traditions and practices by placing them in relief against each other. The similarities I found were not that women in these two worlds “want the same things.” Rather I found some semblance in the way they engage their respective religious traditions, particularly the way they respond to clerical directives about what it means to be a good Catholic or Shii women. For example, women it both contexts leverage their experiences as mothers to make arguments that push back against some aspects of clerical teaching, whether they are fighting for women’s legal custody of children after divorce (in the case of Shii women) or arguing for a more holistic view of sexual ethics beyond procreation (in the case of Catholic women).

You seem not to believe that Catholicism and Shi’ism are essentially against feminism. What are your reasons for refuting such a view?

This is a very good question, and cuts right to the heart of part of what I am trying to argue. First, I simply don’t believe –nor do I find evidence to support– the claim that “feminism” is merely what western, liberal, or secular women think it is. Other scholars have argued for the danger of western feminist agendas that seek to “save” Muslim or Catholic women from their men and from their religion, and how this is grounded in imperial assumptions about the superiority of some forms of secular life over all others.
Second, I understand feminist politics to be anything that challenges ideologies that misrepresent women or women’s experiences. Some of these are based in religious discourse, some are not. I intentionally leave undefined what counts as misrepresentation since this will depend to some on a woman’s perspective and context. Finally, if we look at what actual Catholic and Shii women are doing, we find incredibly innovative attempts to advocate on behalf of women within what to an outsider might seem insurmountable odds. Every feminist action takes place within some context: Catholicism and Shii Islam are simply examples in which male authority has helped support patriarchal teachings, but the traditions themselves are not anti-women or antithetical to women’s flourishing.

Other scholars have argued for the danger of western feminist agendas that seek to “save” Muslim or Catholic women from their men and their religion

Do Catholicism and Shia believe in gender equality and women’s freedom indeed? According to which principles they do?

Yes, both traditions have teachings that support a view of women as equitable to men. They share a stance of gender complementarity, in which men and women have different duties and rights, but have equal human dignity and spiritual capacity.

How can we explain the issues such as freedom of wearing or not wearing a veil and abortion under the principles of Shi’ism and Catholicism? Can we stay Shi’ite or Catholic and believe in such issues as well?

You mention the two “hot button” issues in both traditions: abortion in the Catholic church and hijab for the Islamic Republic of Iran. In both cases, the “official” position is not necessarily supported by the community. In the case of abortion, we have polls that clearly show there is almost no difference between rank-and-file American Catholics and American non-Catholics in terms of the moral acceptability of abortion. In other words, despite the Vatican’s condemnation of abortion, many U.S. Catholics (approximately 40%) believe it is a woman’s choice. In Iran, hijab is compulsory, and women potentially face legal punishments (e.g., fines) if they wear “bad hijab,” thus few will go on the record as being against Islamic dress code for women. That said, many women are happy to complain about the law off the record, and I don’t just mean women who see themselves as “secular” or “western.” Even women who say they would continue to veil even if the law was changed dislike the compulsory nature of veiling, which in many ways takes away a women’s ability “to choose” to veil for pious reasons.

Some believe that some of the laws being approved to limit women are not approved because of religion, but because of morality. What are the boundaries between religion and morality?

This is a very important question for the current situation in Iran. We can answer it in a number of ways. On the one hand, in Iran there is no clean line between not only religion and morality, but also between politics and religion. The Iranian constitution, for example, blurs this line, as do the current Iranian authorities who often prosecute political dissidents perceived for moral crimes. On the other hand, I think your question expresses a level of frustration in Iran that all Iranian laws are supposedly “Islamic”, which makes their reform difficult. For example, one argument often made by women trying to reform gender discriminatory laws in Iran is that these laws have their roots in cultural patriarchy rather than sound fiqh, or Islamic legal thought. In other words, reform is justified because these are not laws based in sharia. They argue, and I think often rightly so, the laws that limit women’s freedoms are actually contrary to fundamental Islamic ethical and legal principles.

According to your research, what do you think about the step Iranian feminism movement has reached? And how do you forecast its future?

This is such a difficult question given the current state of Iranian politics. Iran seems to be in such a moment of change, but I am hard pressed to predict where that change may lead. Let me also say that as an American, I certainly don’t stand in some privileged place from which I can or should judge other feminists movements. The US has its own problems, and on some issues Iranian women have much better rights. For example I often remind my students of the generous maternity and employment laws in Iran, that give time off to breast feeding mothers. At my own university, there is no paid maternity leave. I was back at the front of the classroom, teaching a full course load, three months after the birth of my daughter. Americans have a bad habit of judging others as worse off, especially other women, and especially other Muslim women. It is rarely this simple.

What are the most effective strategies for feminism movements to confront Shia or Catholic Fundamentalism?

Creative conformity of course! What I mean by this is that the most effective tactics against fundamentalism are those that are faithful to the tradition (conform) and yet take the tradition someplace new (creative). In the book I discuss five specific rhetorical tactics focused on symbolics, procreation, hermeneutics, embodiment, and what I call “republication.” These tactics take fundamental aspects of the tradition and show how women’s experiences (as mothers, for example) provide insights into what it means to be a good Shii or Catholic woman that male clerics can not possibility know.

Tehran Review
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