Unlike the high rises and wide streets in north Tehran, the alleys in Pirouzi usually only accommodated one car squeezed between building walls and parked cars. At noon, sounds of car engines and old motorcycles would be overcome by a man’s voice announcing the arrival of the vegetable and fruit truck on the main street. Women in chador (a full-body-length semicircle of fabric open that women wear), biting one side of it to hold it in place, would come out to buy from him. I lived here, neighbor to Maryam, one of the howzevi (seminarian) women of this study. Traces of what was not visible was as common. Many of my middle-aged neighbors rarely left their homes without their husbands or his permission unless it was to go to work.
Maydan-e Shohada (“Martyr’s Square”), Pirouzi’s locus, would come alive in the evenings, glossed by colorful lights and a large screen for advertisements. Westward was Refah School, where Ayatollah Khomeini stayed after arriving from Paris, and further west were embassies (English, Russian, German and Italian). A Pirouzi resident once said this part of Tehran was such prime location even foreign embassies were built there. This is the best place in Tehran was a sentiment about Pirouzi shared by the howzevi who lived here. In Maryam’s version, “Everything is here. It is not like the north of Tehran.” Given the limitations on a woman’s movement outside the home, “everything” meant the convenient aspects of a religious conservative (mazhabi) woman’s life, some of which were a chadori (women who wore chador; implies gender separation) social and the close proximity to mosques and shops.
This sentiment was also about ties to the revolution. Near the metro entrance stood a 14-foot bronze plate which described Black Friday. “Black Friday” 1978, when demonstrators were massacred by the Shah’s military, took place on this square which was then called Jalleh Square. A large yet unnoticeable statue of a hand with palms open facing Mojahedin Islami Street stood as a symbol of “witnessing the bloodshed” in Karbala, Black Friday and the Iran-Iraq war. A mother of one howzevi, a child at the time, recalled how the open sewer lining the streets were filled with blood. Pirouzi was a place of collective memory of sacrifice under the Pahlavi regime, and martyrdom thereafter. The names of those ‘martyred’ on Black Friday, and from casualties in the Iran-Iraq war, were enshrined on building corners. Maryam’s husband, Mohammad, was a volunteer in the military barracks as an eleven year-old during the war with Iraq, while thirteen men in Maryam’s family died from the war. Mohammad said about Pirouzi; “You do not find these alleys in north Tehran. You know, the rich people don’t die for their country.” For them, one outcome of this sacrifice was the 1979 revolution which Islamicated (Najmabadi 2008) public space for mazhabi women to move out of their homes, and made the howzeh elmiyeh (seminaries) accessible to them.
Those unfamiliar with Pirouzi had a tendency to mistake it for parts of south Tehran occupied by shanties before the revolution, and regard its residents as ‘uneducated’. But, the howzevi of this study saw themselves as ‘logical’, which entailed being ‘with’ those who sacrificed and continue to sacrifice for Iran, as a Shi’i revolutionary nation. Sacrifice gave way for their unprecedented access to institutionalized body of Islamic Sciences, wherein they would theoretically be able to attain a ‘pious life’ working for their divinely ordained rights as Shi’i Muslim women. Though not part of this piece, this ‘pious life’ also came with often more limitations. Facilitating this access as a political move by the revolutionaries was inconsequential, as in the words of one elderly howzevi, “…we can now have a graduate, who would otherwise stay at home and do nothing.”
When I met 28 year-old Maryam in 2008, she just started her Dars-e Kharij class, the highest level of the howzeh, with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei, joining eleven other women. In 2011, there were about sixty women, five of whom were part of this study. Some howzevi worked closely with the University Basij ( a paramilitary volunteer militia established in 1979 by order of the Islamic Revolution’s leader Ayatollah Khomeini) and Nahad-e Rahbari, the Organization of the Supreme Leader, and other such polities. Clearly, there has been a shift in the direction of the women’s howzeh elmiyeh thirty years post-revolution, away from ‘producing’ Islamic scholars and into ‘producing’ developers of a revolutionary Shi’i society as envisioned by its founders. Whether the howzeh elmiyeh, dynamic as it is, does in fact ‘produce’ such women is not the part of this piece. Rather, how women of this study have responded to this access by using their education to maintain a specific revolutionary vision of a Shi’i Islamic Republic is not to be ignored if we are to talk about ‘education as empowerment’. This is especially so when, regardless of political views, they continue to pursue this access by the thousands annually. If this case is not one of ‘empowerment’, what is? Who decides?
Categories must be turned on its head before they are to be developed as a space for analysis. To start where threads of sacrifice, revolution, nation, neighborhood, and self are twisted into one cluster would fall short on the analysis. “Small” stories like this one tug away at these knots in preparation for an analysis, before these are entangled yet again. This picture informs existing categories like ‘Islamic education’ and ‘resistance’, the textures of which are often prematurely absorbed in the assumption that ‘a good life’ consists of a woman wanting to be set ‘free’ from the conditions that bind her, to escape the cave in which she endures. If so unquestioned here, what follows is- there can only be one kind of path to an Islamic education (straight and unidirectional) and only one legitimate form of it, one which sets the woman ‘free’ from Pirouzi, Iran, and so on. And here, if so assumed, then there can only be one kind of work, a resistance that carries a flag of seeking an escape. But, this was not so with the howzevi of this study.
Amina Tawasil is a recent graduate of anthropology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She will begin as the Andrew W Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Northwestern University in the fall of 2013, at the Middle East North African Studies program with a courtesy appointment in the Department of Anthropology. Her current research focus is on the intersection of women and Islamic education.
Please send any comments, suggestions, and ideas for future columns to MES Contributing Editor Rehenuma Asmi at email@example.com.