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Joint Efforts of Secular and Islamic Feminists In 1990s Iran

by Melanie Mohsen
          August 3rd, 2021

The article seeks to analyze the writings of prominent feminist figures in the popular Iranian women’s magazine Zanan. Firstly, it will review the existing secondary literature by prominent Iranian feminists and writers, including secular Iranian feminists: Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Valentine Moghadam, Haideh Moghissi, and Farzaneh Milani, as well as Islamic Iranian feminists: Parvin Paidar, Azadeh Kian, and Elaheh Rostami-Povey. This article will revolve around the gap in the literature: joint efforts of Iranian feminist groups. Next, a theoretical proposition will be proposed; collective goals of different ideological feminist groups are a means of accomplishing social change. This will be followed by a literary methodology, and the findings and implications of this study will be closely analyzed using social activism theories by prominent scholars including Zakia Salime, Pieternella van Doorn-Harder, Asef Bayat, and Peter Mandaville. Ultimately, this article argues that one must look beyond the veil and focus on the literary landscape, in this case Zanan Magazine, in order to analyze how secular and Islamic feminists were able to come together during the 1990s in Iran to improve women’s rights through collective goals.

Introduction

The 1979 Iranian Revolution served as a turning point for women in Iran. First, it pushed Western educated women out of the government and public sector. Shortly thereafter, the 1980-88 war with Iraq saw men leave their families to go fight in the war. This sent women who were previously working within the confinements of their homes out into the public sphere. These events led to an influx of women writers, and these new voices would press against the boundaries of tradition and modernity as well as the boundaries set in place by both the government and family structures. Women began writing about women and specific gender and social issues, a practice that was effectively absent from pre-revolution Iran. These circumstances strengthened the development of secular and Islamic feminism in the country. At the heart of this new atmosphere and with the state requirement of the veil, varying perspectives arose concerning the question of Islamic identity and the veil. On the one hand, secular feminists stood in direct opposition to the veil. On the other hand, Islamic feminists supported the “imposition” of the veil. Despite contrasting views on this key issue, from 1990-2001, secular and Islamic feminists joined forces, and this alliance allowed Iranian women to accomplish several policy changes, ultimately improving women’s lives. Thus, while secular and Islamic feminists are persistently portrayed on opposite ends of the spectrum, they did—at least during this period—possess similar goals and agendas. This leaves us with the following question: what is the existing potential for these two groups to come together today or in the near future? In order to explore this question, this article will apply key social activism concepts to writings of secular and Islamic feminist groups in Iran.

Defining Secular and Islamic Feminists

In Women Shaping Islam, Pieternella van Doorn-Harder defines secular feminism as a term that is not clearly articulated in the Muslim context, but which refers generally to the work of women groups that are not grounded in the values and teachings of Islam. Furthermore, secular feminists believe that Islam should be isolated in the private and religious spheres. Contrastingly, Islamic feminists argue that Islamic teachings are the framework for women’s rights and reinterpret the Quran from a woman’s perspective. Secular feminists also believe in the teachings of Islam, even if the role of Islam differs. In other words, identifying as a secular feminist does not bar one from being religious. As this article will explore in detail, this also applies to the Iranian context and the mission of Zanan. This article uses the term Islamic feminist to refer to those feminists who fight for women’s rights within an Islamic framework and secular feminist for those who fight for women’s rights outside an Islamic framework. Nevertheless, both secular and Islamic feminists are aligned in their interests: women’s rights. 

Literature Review

Indeed, most feminists in Iran supported the regime change of the Revolution. However, post-1979, many new Iranian women voices across feminist literature called for reform and women’s rights. During this time period, prominent feminist writers focused on issues that were relatable to the plights and lack of rights of Iranian women. As highlighted in Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s article “Hijab and Choice,” one of the main issues at stake was the state requirement of the veil. Several questions that she addresses are, how did the perception of the veil change after the Revolution? How was it represented by different women’s groups after the Iranian Revolution? However, this extended dialogue about the veil takes away from significant issues at stake for Iranian feminists. For example, what were the values of Islamic feminists? In today’s society, what is the real embodiment of freedom for Iranian feminists?

 

Freedom for women is one of the goals of Iranian feminist movements. However, the majority of literature on Islamic feminism in Iran promotes a negative viewpoint. In the article, “Islamic Feminism Revisited,” Haideh Moghissi argues that Islamic feminism does not promote the empowerment of women. She adds that the framework of Islam does not allow the improvement or inclusion of multiple voices. Taking it one step further, Moghissi goes as far to argue that secular feminists believe that under theocratic rule, women's emancipation is impossible. The narrative that Islam does not allow for the improvement of woman’s rights is common, and this further diminishes the role of the veil in society. In Words not Swords, Farzaneh Milani argues that wearing the veil is equivalent to foot binding in China. One of the most prominent issues in feminist activism in Iran is whether Islam prevents the freedom of women’s movements. However, this view negates the role that Islamic feminists play in improving women’s rights, and how secular and Islamic feminists joined forces to create change during the 1990s.

 

At the same time, these secondary texts reveal that the veil symbolizes different themes for secular and Islamic feminists. In reality, literature by Muslim feminists raised many similar issues across the spectrum of feminist literature. In “Gender of Democracy,” Parvin Paidar argued that Islamic feminists challenged society and fought for women empowerment. Indeed, Islamic feminists fought for women’s rights according to the Islamic framework. They worked alongside the state and used religious language in order to create new policies that benefited women, including the woman’s consent to marriage, child custody, and divorce rights. In addition, due to the efforts of Islamic feminists, women have been allowed to work in public universities and indigenous women's NGOs. These writings resembled the broader atmosphere of gender politics in Iran at the time.

 

Nevertheless, a specific flaw in the contemporary feminist literature across the spectrum has come to define Iranian feminist thought today. The literary field has been dominated by secular feminists, more specifically Iranian women who were Western educated and generally did not observe the veil i.e., Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Valentine M. Moghadam. For example, in “Hijab and Choice,” Mir-Hosseini criticizes the role of the veil and clergy in Iranian society as an imposition placed upon women; women are suppressed and do not possess freedom or basic family rights according to Islamic law. Similarly, in the introduction of Identity Politics and Women, Moghadam discusses how in Iran the veil is a mechanism of social control and the regulation of women. The overrepresentation of these perspectives inherently skews the literature. A critical voice is missing: the perspectives of Iranian women feminists who observe the veil and consider themselves Islamic feminists over general feminists or secular feminists. How do these women define women’s rights and challenges? How do these compare with secular feminist? Furthermore, what are the rights of the veil and the rights of women according to Islamic law?

 

According to Elaheh Rostami-Povey, while Islam and the veil were described as weapons of suppression, Islamic feminist forces were able to create change for women’s rights by joining forces with secular feminists. In this regard, Islam and the veil may be described as a means of empowerment. From 1990-2000, despite the ongoing criticisms of the veil, secular and Islamic feminists joined forces in order to enact social change. There were many repercussions of the joint efforts between the two groups. This also calls for Islamic feminism to be better understood in the context of feminism in Iran.

 

An analysis of the woman’s magazine Zanan, will show how the goals of secular and Islamic feminists are indeed overlapping and will discuss the fallacies in the prevalent narrative that secular and Islamic feminists in Iran are and have always been on opposite ends of the spectrum.

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Zanan Magazine

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Theoretical Contribution

This article aims to fill the gap in the literature, and by doing so, provide a new framework for analyzing feminist movement in relation to religious symbols in Iran. After interpreting the literature in the field, it is clear that feminism and Islamic feminists have joined forces in the past in order to accomplish social change. Secular and Islamic feminists did not have a collective identity, but for a period of time they were united by collective goals. Thus, collective goals are a means of accomplishing social change. The methodology of this article will now examine how the writings of Zanan show how secular and Islamic feminists improved women’s rights collectively by encompassing both of their ideals and looking past the literary limitations of the veil.

Methodology

One advantage of this study is that the goals of both groups are clear and stated through the themes of the literature. Thus, it makes the process of analysis feasible and reliant on concrete writing rather than solely interpretation or bias. This methodology will offer a new understanding of the ways different feminist groups in Iran interact by analyzing the relationship between secular and Islamic feminist groups in Zanan. However, a limitation of this methodology is that it relies on primary and secondary sources, but no field work or personal interviews have been conducted by the author. The conclusion of this study will offer additional methodologies for the purpose of strengthening this study beyond the confinements of literary analysis.

Research Findings

Collective Goals

What united secular and Islamic feminist groups, and what were the repercussions of this dynamic relationship? How were collective goals used as a means of unity between feminist groups in order to accomplish social change? How did Zanan highlight the way that secular and Islamic feminists joined forces to push their agenda of social activism and women’s rights?

 

In “Post-Islamism as Neoliberalisation,” Peter Mandaville defines collective behavior: when a group of individuals come together to create social change. While individuals work separately for social change, they embody shared values that define the group and bring the individuals together. In “Islamism and Social Movement Theory,” Asef Bayat similarly defines collective behavior. Individuals with common identities or values spontaneously come together to act as a collective unit with the goal of social change. During the 1990s in Iran, secular and Islamic feminists experienced exactly this: shared values and goals, exhibited through Zanan, in order to empower women in Iranian society.

 

Founded in 1992, Zanan was a monthly women's magazine. It is imperative to note that Zanan sought to protect and promote women's rights by discussing topics ranging from politics, domestic violence, the rights of the wife, and intimate relations. The audience of Zanan was not simply secular or Islamic feminist, but its mission was to reach all Iranian women, secular and religious, urban and rural alike. Zanan targeted this diverse audience in order to promote the collective consciousness and legal, social, and economic status of the women in Iranian society.

 

The editors of Zanan were three women— Mehangiz Kar (b. 1944), Shahla Lahiji (b. 1942), and Shahla Sherkat (b. 1956)— and each editor represented a unique segment of the population of Iranian women. The founder of Zanan, Shahla Sherkat is an Islamic feminist who observes the veil very closely. Meanwhile, Mehangiz Kar—like some Iranian women— has been seen with and without the veil. She identifies as a secular feminist and women’s rights activist. Thirdly, Shahla Lahiji identifies as a secular feminist. While she identifies as secular like Kar, she observes the veil like Sherkat. This imagery of veiled and unveiled women working closely together as editors of the same magazine with the same mission and set of goals is symbolic of the joint efforts of the women’s movement in Iran. These three women held the common goal of freedom, so a common goal between different feminist groups is achievable. Furthermore, the veil and Islam are neither exclusive to secular nor Islamic feminists. Zanan encompassed both secular and Islamic feminist ideals, and it quickly became a public platform for reform.

 

The relationship between Iran and feminism may be strengthened by understanding the relationship between secular and Islamic feminism in the field of Islamic social activism. In Between Feminism and Islam, Zakia Salime argues that Islamic feminists work towards improving women’s rights through an Islamic framework. This was identical to Islamic feminists in Iran during the 1990s. Further, Salime emphasizes that this term “Islamic feminism” validates feminism within an Islamic context. In other words, women’s rights are aligned with Islamic values and texts. This applies to the case of Iran because Zanan publicly advocated for women’s rights through the Islamic framework of the state and the reinterpretation of Islamic law. Indeed, Zanan’s publications sought to bring attention to how women’s rights to divorce and speaking out against domestic violence were indeed embedded in Islamic law and tradition. Zanan allowed secular and Islamic feminists to come together to broadcast their gender concerns and push for moderate reform through an Islamic lens.

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Zanan

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Zanan was effective in providing a voice for feminists in Iran to converse about their issues in the public sphere through an Islamic framework that the state would understand and respond to. The editor in chief Shahla Sherkat wanted to bring to light the concerns of Iranian women from an Islamic perspective. The impact of Zanan through these means reflect the fact that indeed, Islam allows for women’s rights. Furthermore, the editors of Zanan argued that the diminished status of women in Iranian society did not lie within the holy words of the Quran itself but rather in the interpretation by religious authorities. Thus, the editors of Zanan called for the reinterpretation of Islamic legal texts and sharia-based family law. In the editorial of Zanan in February 1992, Shahla Sherkat advocated for religious reform and for religious thought to include the rights of women:

Radical legal changes are needed to solve women's problems. Many articles of the civil code are based on the Shari'a, which must, therefore, be reinterpreted. Moreover, women should be involved in this undertaking. Our understanding of religion varies in each historical period, and religious interpretations should account for factors of time and space (February 1992: 2-3).

Due to its publication, Zanan’s stance on the feminist interpretation of Islamic texts has been made public and explicit. Furthermore, Shahla Sherkat represented a wide range of women, ranging from educated Islamists to those who were gender conscious and moderate advocates of change. Sherkat believed that all women must be the ones to stand up for their own rights as outlined in Islamic law and help in the reinterpretation of Islamic legal texts. She also illustrated, through her selection of editors of Zanan, that this obligation is not restricted to secular or Islamic feminists. During this time period, secular and Islamic feminists agreed on the reinterpretation of Islamic law.

Additionally, Zanan took a public political role, and it went as far to encourage women’s participation in the public sphere and Iranian Parliament. In fact, in its June 1996 publication, Zanan published an article highlighting the Islamist women’s representation in the parliament (June 1996: 60). It discussed the role of the five newly elected women to parliament, their extensive experiences in women's issues, their political attitudes, and their social and political activities. Its focus remained on Shahrbanoo Amani Anganeh’s struggle with traditionalist opposition to her campaign, her own background, and her education as a student in public management. According to Zanan, Anganeh’s struggle was the struggle for Iranian women (June 1996: 60). As a veiled woman, Angineh was able to be an educated public facing political figure and a role model for young women. In her role, she acted as senior advisor for environmental, safety, and educational concerns. The goals and responsibilities of Angineh were not only important to Islamic feminists, but her role uplifted and benefited women across the ideological spectrum. It is also significant that the five women in parliament in 1996 all held degrees in higher education, thus embodying another major value of both secular and Islamic feminist groups: education.

The goals of secular and Islamic feminist groups are united in their mission of expanding women’s rights. As Zakia Salime argues, in the case of Morocco, the relationship between secular and Islamic feminism is “intertwined” or symbiotic, and this also applies to the goals of secular and Islamic feminists in Iran. This is also applicable in the Iranian context. From the secular feminist perspective, Islam is the subject that enforces gender roles upon women and prevents women leadership in the public sphere. These secular feminist groups also promoted a separation of the state and Islamic family law. In contrast, Islamic feminist groups promoted the adherence to Islamic family law and equality between genders according to Islamic texts. Therefore, while secular and Islamic feminists held different ideological beliefs depending on social and political circumstances, both groups had the same end goals of empowering women through their designated rights.

When this is applied to the Iranian context, it is clear that the efforts of these two different feminist groups are intertwined. Women's status in Iran consisted of multiple factors including literacy rates, higher education graduates, employment in state enterprises, participation in the Parliament, and the quantity of women’s newspapers, magazines, female journalists, women's publishers, and women's NGOs (Zanan No. 60). Zanan discusses all of these issues, which were relevant to Iranian feminist groups across the board. In fact, when feminist groups were at their peak of working together during the 1990s, the statistics measuring these factors reflected significant progress on women’s issues. The female literacy rate as percentage of the total female population rose from 35% in 1976-77, to 52% in 1986-87, and 74% in 1996-97. Furthermore, there were zero women's publishers throughout the 1970s and 80s, but suddenly 398 women's publishers emerged by 1996-7, including Zanan. Likewise, the number of women's NGOs increased from 13 in 1976-7 to 137 in 1996-7. An area the proved more challenging for feminist groups was the percentage of female higher education graduates from total male/female graduates; it increased only from 30, to 31, to 34 % from 1976-7 to 1986-7 to 1996-7 respectively. Despite this challenge, feminist groups managed to make some progress, yet even after two decades, women were still trying to compete with men for equal opportunities and spots in higher education. Feminists collectively adopted goals to establish educational institutions and encourage women to study. Due to the collective action of feminist groups in the 1990s, by 2000, approximately 60 percent of students enrolled in higher education were women. Overall, it is clear that secular and Islamic feminists identified with each other and held common interests such as creating real institutional change and increasing the role of the woman in the private and public spheres.

 

One accepted argument amongst scholars and historians analyzing Iranian feminism is that Zanan itself contributed to the solidarity between women belonging to secular and Islamic feminist women in Iran. Zanan was a joint effort of women to use their voice in the public sphere and share their stories relating to the struggles of gender. This is important in the social activism context because it shows that the two groups were effective in coming together to create social change. Secular and Islamic feminists had the same goal: to uplift the woman’s role in society, and Zanan embodied this motto for all women. Zanan was neither a secular nor an Islamic feminist magazine. It was a woman’s magazine, as made clear by its title, translated as “Women,” an independent voice for all Iranian women.

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Chart (Enlarge as necessary)

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From a Symbiotic to Parasitic Relationship

Thus far, this article has shown how feminist movements in Iran during the 1990s were intertwined. Secular and Islamic feminists exhibited strong collective behavior that was motivated by shared goals. However, as Asef Bayat warns, commonalities tend to be finite and fragmented due to shifting interests, resource competition, or power sharing disputes. Bayat’s theoretical warning is very applicable to the feminist movement in Iran; from 1990-2001, secular and Islamic feminists came together, and then fragmented. There were several weak points in the movement that caused secular and Islamic feminists to split post-1990s.

One reason for the fragmentation of feminist groups in Iran is due to weak organizational culture. This led to the development of different goals and views on the role religion plays in society. In contrast to the Iranian case, feminist groups in Indonesia had a strong organizational culture.  This worked well because women’s groups were united by similar goals, even though Islamic feminists wanted to keep sectarian values outside of the state’s borders. However, due to the fact that Iran is an Islamic state and secular feminists protest the state’s domain on religion in society, i.e., the obligation of observing the veil, weak organizational culture quickly became apparent as secular feminists split apart from the state’s ideals as well as the Islamic feminists’ ideals. A major ideological difference between the two groups became the question of the veil, among other social and political debates. This inhibited feminist groups from continuing to join together for women’s rights.

At the same time, agreement on Islamic principles between feminist groups is not necessary for enacting social change. This raises an important issue between feminist groups: Islamic versus Western education. While complete agreement between secular and Islamic feminists on religious views is not necessary, an understanding of Islamic law and discourse is critical for enacting real change. Secular and Islamic feminists do not need to agree on whether or not the veil is obligated, but they still have the ability to interpret women’s rights through an Islamic perspective in order to help women from a range of issues including those who may want to divorce their husbands to those who want to study abroad.

Ultimately, secular and Islamic feminists possessed their own unique identities during the 1990s in Iran, but they were able to work as a collective unit. Secular and Islamic feminists possessed shared goals of gender awareness and the articulation of women's rights through the public sphere such as magazine publications, in this case Zanan. Thus, collective goals were a means of accomplishing social change.

Additionally, there were many political events and issues at stake that contributed to the fracturing of feminists group after 2000, namely the introduction of reformist candidates in the parliamentary elections. The development of conservative backlash and consolidation of power ended the period of reform and shared initiatives between feminist groups. With this being said, it is necessary to analyze how the goals of the two secular and Islamic feminist groups split. Even though the conservative presidential election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2006 prevented feminist groups from continuing to work alongside one another with their collective goals, it was the ideological differences between secular and Islamic feminists that had a greater impact and ultimately caused the groups to fracture.

In turn, the different ideologies of feminist groups were sensationalized by the media. The media portrayal of the separation of secular and Islamic feminist groups, the Westernization of secular feminists and the radicalization of Islamic feminists were major contributiors to this development. This image was further perpetuated by the March 2000 Berlin Conference and the 2006 Million Signature Campaign, which had similar effects in creating the image of feminist movements as being in opposition to each other. While the secular feminist goals of the Million Signature Campaign were extremely relevant to Islamic feminist goals, i.e., increasing a woman's right and access to education and the collaboration for social change, there was a lack of cohesiveness between the two groups. This lack of solidarity between feminist movements is ultimately detrimental to the cause of women.

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Image

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An Islamic or Feminist Ummah?

As a religion, Islam protects oppressed and marginalized groups. In fact, women's rights are established in Islam and were present in the prophetic community. Islamic feminism can be used as a means to harken back to the prophetic tradition. Applied to the Iranian context, this will help to establish women’s rights through an Islamic framework by reclaiming their own agency.

In Between Feminism and Islam, Zakia Salime defines agency as a means to which women can inhabit the norms of society and occupy public roles. She notes that agency and power often come along with knowledge and education. Agency enables women to engage in higher education and public institutions. This can be applied to the Iranian feminist movement. The veil and Islamic feminism can be viewed as a means of agency for women.

Many secular feminists in Iran claim that the veil should not be an obligation in modern Iran. However, the Islamic dress code in the Quran includes the head garment and loose garments. Verse 31 of the 24th chapter of the Quran discusses the physical veil, hamoor, plural for himar, a piece of cloth that covers the head. Indeed, the Quran commands women to wear a head covering. Verse 59 of the 33rd chapter of the Quran discusses the loose outer garment, jilabeeb, the plural of jilbab. This attire is emphasized in the Quran, so the woman may be portrayed for her intellect and her ability to succeed in society. The woman is free from societal pressures, i.e., she is not viewed for her physical appearance. Thus, the veil is the right of the woman, and does not limit one as a person or woman. Instead, it allows women to promote their values and teach others. In turn, this allows Muslim women to further themselves in whatever field they chose because they are supported by their faith. This personal choice is not limiting, and it impacts society in a tangible way. Therefore, when considering the obligation of the veil in Iranian feminist discourse, there should be an emphasis on the agency of the women. This is critical because the existing literature focuses so much attention on negative aspects but not enough on the agency and other positive sides of the veil. Indeed, Islamic feminist discourse views the veil as a means of agency.

The norm of feminist Iranian literature is that secular feminism is a means of providing agency, this must be expanded to include Islamic feminists. This article calls for redefining the veil and Islamic feminism as a means of agency for Iranian women. 

 

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Zanan Author Image

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Conclusion

When examining feminist discourse in its Iranian context, it is necessary to look beyond the horizon of the veil. In spite of secular and Islamic feminist differences over the veil, Zanan captured how secular and religious women came together in the streets and were able to accomplish change while empowering all Iranian women regardless of religious identity. This study is important because it has repercussions for feminism and women’s rights in Iran today. Collective goals are one way to achieve recognition by the broader public and does not necessitate ideological unity amongst women’s groups. This also serves to bridge the divide between different feminist groups and allows for the possibility of reconciliation for the greater good.

The agenda of this article was to analyze the feminist symbols and the joint efforts of feminist groups in Iranian women writings in the magazine Zanan. The literary methodology implemented in this article provided a glance into the field of the many different types of feminism and their intersectionality with Islam in Iran. That being the case, this literary analysis may be supplemented with anthropological methods such as a media analysis, field work, interviews, and cross-cultural comparisons.

The research agenda for a potential cultural comparison would aim to outline the differences and similarities between the perception of religious symbols by Iranian feminists and how these symbols are perceived by Western societies. This involves the close examination of the media portrayal of religious symbols in both cases. One possible question and framework is the following: how does the veil impact feminist and religious identity for both cultures?

After interviews are conducted, one possible argument may be that Western secular states may be more accepting of religious symbols of identity than traditionally Islamic states. Of course, there may presently be many exceptions, such as France, but a case study of wearing the veil in the United States and corresponding levels of feminist identity would pose an interesting comparison, especially given how the veil is also sometimes perceived as a symbol of anti-Western rhetoric in Iran. This has many repercussions not only for the religious identity of the youth today but for the field of foreign affairs itself, especially when considering the relationship between Iran and America, as well as their people. For example, how do Iranian and American citizens view each other? The thoughts and beliefs of the citizens are a reflection of their government and the relationship between the two states. Thus, religious dialogue between these two parties can serve as a bridge to bring two historically divergent perspectives together.

Acknowledgments:  Thank you to Professor Kelly Pemberton at GW, for without her support and enlightening class, “Gender and Islamic Activism,” this article would not be possible. Thank you to my fiancé Kumail Raza, the light that guides me forward in every academic pursuit, in this world and the next.
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About the Author:  Melanie Mohsen is a second year Masters student at George Washington University studying Islamic Studies specializing in Shia Studies. She is from New York, and she is interested in analyzing the intersectionalities between religion and international affairs.

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