After a BA in sociology at Tehran University, I came to the UK in 1974 to study for a postgraduate degree. In 1976 I was accepted to do doctoral work at Cambridge University, where I quickly converted to anthropology (for this conversion, see ‘Being from There: Dilemmas of a Native Anthropologist’). What attracted me to anthropology and kept me there was the peculiar way in which the discipline makes the ‘strange’ in other cultures familiar and the ‘familiar’ in one’s own culture strange. My doctoral thesis was based on a year’s conventional ethnographic fieldwork (1977-78) in Kalardasht, a picturesque district in northern Iran that had become a tourist destination. I explored the impact of a changing economy on marriage rituals and family relations in four villages with different ethnic compositions and varying degrees of exposure to tourism. But by the time I had submitted my thesis in 1980, my life and research interests had been radically changed by the Iranian revolution of 1978-79. Since then, most of my work has focused on law, specifically the theory and practice of Muslim family law.
Looking back from 2011, I can see three main phases in my post-doctoral research activities, each lasting about a decade and reflected in my publications. In the 1980s, I wanted to understand what it means to be married and divorced under ‘Islamic law’, and how judges and ordinary people relate to a body of law that claims sanctity and shapes the most intimate aspects of their life. For this, I carried out field research in family courts in Iran and Morocco between 1985 and 1989, studying marital dispute cases, court judgements and the strategies employed by litigants – most of whom were, not surprisingly, women. This research resulted in my first book, Marriage on Trial, and ultimately in the first of the two documentary films I made with Kim Longinotto.
While Marriage on Trial was in press, however, I pursued a quite unrelated project, on the Ahl-e Haqq, a mystical sect. Some of the Kalardasht villagers belonged to this sect; what I came to know of it during my 1970s fieldwork had fascinated me and encouraged me to make the sect my next topic of research. During the 1980s, I made contact with members of a ‘modern’ offshoot of the sect in both Paris and London; this proved intriguing but frustrating. Then I was awarded a 3-year Research Fellowship at Girton College, Cambridge, for a project that included fieldwork (1992) on the ‘traditional’ Ahl-e Haqq in their ancestral territory, a number of villages and towns in the southern Kurdish part of western Iran. I published four substantial articles on this research, but completion of a monograph on my extraordinary field experiences among the Ahl-e Haqq has been long delayed by the start of the second major phase in my research career.
After the publication of Marriage on Trial in 1993, though I applied (unsuccessfully) for various academic positions, I was already veering towards a freelance and activist career. I combined some consultancy work in Iran with the development of a research interest in women’s religious experiences. On several extended visits to Iran, particularly in late 1995, I collected detailed materials (participant observation, interviews, etc.) on this topic in Tehran and other parts of the country, as well as beginning a study of fiqh (Muslim jurisprudence) through discussions with Iranian lawyers, clerics and religious intellectuals. As I have described in the Preface to Islam and Gender, I lost my 1995 field materials when leaving Iran, and during the following winter I had to rethink my priorities. Several factors combined to shift my focus to the topic of gender in Muslim legal thought: how Muslim jurists have constructed notions of gender and rights, and their assumptions and the social and legal theories that have informed their understanding of the textual sources of law. One factor was the reviews that Marriage on Trial had received by some expatriate Iranian women academics, who could not accept the validity of the research on which the book was based, or the argument that I was making – specifically that Iranian women who sought divorce in the ‘Islamic’ courts were not mere victims, but were sometimes able to turn things to their advantage, and were in fact facing some judges with a moral dilemma. The main turning point for me came in 1996, when I met the documentary filmmaker Kim Longinotto; we decided to work together on a film in Tehran inspired by the court cases described in Marriage on Trial. After 18 months of negotiations (which I have narrated in ‘Negotiating the politics of gender’), we were able to shoot the film in late 1997, and Divorce Iranian Style, premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1998, went on to win over thirty awards, including a BAFTA. Our second film, Runaway (2001), was nearly as successful. At the same time, my second book, Islam and Gender, based largely on what I was able to salvage of my interviews with Iranian clerics in 1995, was published and well received.
These successes meant that academics and others now took my approach more seriously. I received numerous invitations to lecture and participate in projects. I was now committed to working freelance, and to taking on only short-term projects, or longer-term ones that I found worthwhile and personally rewarding; I also determined to cross the line between academia and activism. A second major turning point was in 2001, when I started working with Zainah Anwar, one of the founders and then the executive director of the Malaysia-based NGO, Sisters in Islam. Trips to conferences and meetings in Malaysia and Indonesia opened a new world to me, where I found none of the tensions between religious and secular feminists that pervaded the circles in which I had been operating previously. Instead, I found the space and the courage that I needed to move from criticizing gender biases in Muslim legal tradition to contributing to the production of new religious knowledge from a feminist perspective, a project in which I have been engaged ever since – the highlight being the launch of Musawah, a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family, in Kuala Lumpur in February 2009.