Beyond marja’iyyat? Training Women as Religious Authorities

By Mirjam Kuenkler
Submitted to Session P4805 (De-centering the study of Shiism, 2017 Annual Meeting
Rel Stds/Theo
19th-21st Centuries;
As the 1979 revolution in Iran created unprecedented opportunities for women’s learning in the secular universities, so, too, did it dramatically improve women’s access to a hawza education: an education in the Shiite seminaries. In nearly every Iranian town today girls and women can seek instruction in one of the state-supported institutions of women’s religious learning and seek accredited degrees of higher education. As I argue in this article, the scope of the religious education on offer is, however, limited. While most men’s hawza allow their students to study up to the highest level, which leads to the acquisition of an ej?zeh-ye ejteh?d (the certification to engage in independent interpretation of the sources of law), only very few maktabs and hawza provide similar opportunities for women. Accordingly, hardly any female mojtaheds have emerged from the post-revolutionary seminaries. This, I suggest, is chiefly because women are trained in the hawza not to become mojtaheds or religious scholars, but moballeghs (propagators). The lens through which women’s religious education is studied here is J?me?at al-Zahr??, the country’s largest institution of theological training for women today. It is distinguished from most other women’s seminaries in Iran by the large size of its student body, the scope of its financial means, and also its independence from the national bureau that oversees most of the country’s women’s seminaries. Instead, J?me?at al-Zahr?? is managed by a board directly appointed by the Office of Supreme Leader Khamenei. As such, it is argued, J?me?at al-Zahr?? fulfils not only a function within the broader field of Shiite education in Iran, but a political function within the regimist Shiite establishment that works towards the expansion of Khamenei’s marja‘iyyat.