Islam never opposes to equal women’s rights: Sedigheh Vasmaghi

By Milena Rampoldi, ProMosaik e.V. 

An important interview with Sedigheh Vasmaghi about women in Islam.

Dr. Sedigheh Vasmaghi is a lawyer, poet and author from Iran. She is known


for her participation in the Iranian reform movement and was forced to flee due to threats and persecution.


Sedigheh Vasmaghi earned her PhD at the Tehran University and is one of few women who taught the subject of Islamic law in Iran. She is an established poet and published her first poetry collection Praying for Rain in 1989. Since then she has published five collections of poetry in addition to several academic books. She has also translated classical Arabic poetry to Farsi.
Sedigheh Vasmaghis writing and political views led to ever increasing censorship, intimidation and threats. After the 2009 presidential election in Iran, she participated in the protest movement by publishing letters, poems and articles. Eventually she was forced to leave the country. Dr. Vasmaghi arrived in Uppsala in 2012.
We asked her questions about the difference between true Islam which supports women’s rights and the interpretation of many who use Islam to oppress women. Muslim societies justify women’s oppression by Islam, and they are wrong. Explaining this, is one of the most important challenges of Islamic feminism these days. We urgently need reforms in the name of Islam which strongly opposed to women’s discrimination. I would like to thank Sedigheh for her time.
Milena Rampoldi: How difficult was it for you as woman to teach Islamic law? Which are the most important prejudices towards women in Muslim societies?
Sedigheh Vasmaghi: I was the first woman in Iran who has received PhD in Islamic Laws. When I received it, I was a teacher at the University of Tehran, at faculty of theology, as the sole woman in the department of Islamic laws. Now I was entitled to teach specialized courses, but it was not easy to do that. There was a wrong tradition in the faculty of theology based on which women were only allowed to teach general courses, only for the girls not the boys, but male teachers could teach both girls and boys, specialized and general courses. According to this wrong and unjust tradition, a female teacher was banned from teaching specialized courses as well as teaching in high levels. It is the most unjust discrimination against women in an academic space. I could not tolerate it, so I had to fight against it. My male colleagues agreed with me, but they didn’t want to participate in fighting against a wrong tradition because it was not their problem. Even a few female teachers in other departments were not willing to help me. Perhaps they thought this attempt would not have any result or they didn’t want to pay any probable price for it. Anyway, at the beginning I was alone in this fight, but determined students supported me, and it was very helpful, in particular male students. I could teach specialized courses for both girls and boys. But without the support of my students I could not succeed. Although I could teach as I wanted but I could not change the unjust and discriminatory tradition against women because it requires a huge effort by many sides, not only by the women’s but also by the men’s part. I remember that one day when I went to my class as usual, I surprisingly saw that the head of the faculty, a cleric, teaching instead of me. He tried a lot not to let me teach in that highly specialized course, but in a process of fighting with the support of students and some media he was defeated.
Unfortunately, many kinds of prejudice and discrimination against women in Muslim society have been justified by Islam, and by attributing them to our religion. It has been the easiest way for men to impose their will on women by misusing religion. If beliefs are attributed to Islam, even if they are wrong, it is difficult to oppose to them. On the other hand, it has been easy to convince many Muslim women to accept them. There are many discriminations and prejudices that have been legalized in Muslim societies. One of the worst of them, is the application of death penalty against women in the name of Islam, the so called honour killing. In some Muslim communities killing women due to suspicions is not only considered legal, but even admirable from a cultural point of view. However, it is a big crime against women. My studies show that Islam has never suggested such an injustice against women. The Quran which is the main source of Islam rejects it frankly. Islamic tradition also rejects it, but this ignorant prejudice has been justified by Islamic jurisprudence in a wrong way by which such a murder is not considered forbidden. Unfortunately, also Iranian criminal law doesn’t reject such a killing, while Islamic evidence states that Halal and Haram (permissible and forbidden) acts are equal for men and women. In fact, gender is not considered in original Islamic rulings. According to the rational rule, what is considered as a crime for a woman is also considered as a crime for a man. This rule is accepted by Islam, but it is not implemented exactly. That’s why the domain of crimes for women is more extended in Muslim societies than the men’s domain.
MR: What does feminism in Islam mean to you?
SV: Feminism is a movement focussing on the elimination of discriminations against women and on the struggle for equal female fundamental rights. If you asked me if  Islam supports the mentioned objectives of feminism, I would answer that I don’t see any contradiction between the teachings of Islam and the mentioned objectives of feminism. 14 centuries ago Islam took important steps to improve women’s rights, in a time where there was no movement for equality of women’s rights. Islam’s reforms in benefit of women were not supported by men, and women did not had enough intellectual and practical power to push the reforms toward. Islamic reforms took place proportionally with the capacities in that said society. There is no evidence showing that Islam is against equality between men and women. Discriminations are not founded by Islam, but by the people. It is the duty of people themselves to eliminate discriminations. Legislation is not the duty of Islam. Traditional Islamic jurisprudence doesn’t support equality, but at this point I would like to differentiate between Islam and jurisprudence. Whatever jurisprudence claims is not an Islamic claim. Since traditional Islamic jurisprudence has no strong reasons to oppose to discriminations against women.
MR: Which are the most important matters you handle in your book “Women, Jurisprudence, Islam”?
 SV: In this book I wanted to focus on three fundamental points of discussion:
-Differentiation between Islam and jurisprudential rulings presented by Islamic Juris consults attributed to Islam over the history of Islam. I believe that the overwhelming majority of these rulings are not rooted in Islam, but coming from tradition.
-Disputing the discriminatory laws against women attributed to the sharia of  Islam. I have rejected reasons presented by Islamic Juris consults who have tried to prove that these laws are Islamic laws, and that therefore they must be implemented. They have theorized discriminations against women based on disputed reasons I discuss in my book. They were able to impose these rulings on Muslim societies and Muslim culture not because of their strong reasons, but because nobody, in particular no woman, put their opinions under question disputing them.
-I come to the conclusion that all laws, including family, social, civil and criminal laws are excluded from Shariah. Legislation is assigned to people and every society looks at its requirements, conditions and demands in legislating laws, and does not follow Islam, but attributes their traditional solutions to Islam, even if they do not come from Islam.
I strongly believe that the Muslim world needs an urgent reform of the shariah. This means that the domain of the shariah has to be restricted to moral teachings and acts of worships, excluding civil and criminal laws from shariah, in particular in Iran.
In the introduction to my book it says:
MR: What does poetry mean to you? Which importance has it in your life?
SV: Since I met poetry, poetry and I have been living together. To me poetry is the air for breathing, and it is the strongest and shortest language for protesting. Poetry is my friend. It gives me peace in the hard moments of life. Poetry has always been important to me as a strong mean to express myself. Several times, I was under prosecution and threat due to my poems. This shows the important role of poetry in my life.
MR: Which reforms are needed in Iran today to give to Muslim women their rights?
SV: There are some short-term and some long-term reforms needed in favour of women’s rights in Iran. By Short-term reforms, I mean reforms of law, such as social and family laws. To give you some examples: the hijab is compulsory for women in Iran. The compulsory hijab is a wrong, unjust and immoral rule, which has had a bad impacts on women’s lives. The state intervention in a private issue such as clothing leads to many limitations and difficulties for women, and it has damaged women’s social  and psychological security; because this rule gives the specific police to take immoral and unjustified measures and actions against those women who don’t exactly comply with this rule. Due to this rule, in the field of sport women has no real chance. Another example of a discriminatory law is that a woman needs her husband’s permission to get her passport. Many men could misuse this wrong law to put women under pressure. According to Iranian family law under the (so-called) Shariah, a mother even after the death of her husband has no legal position over her children. Her rights over her children are not recognized, and the legal responsibility for them is transferred to the paternal grandfather. I think that such rules are not compatible with women’s situation today. Women have no political power. A woman is not entitled to be a president or to attend some important political institutions. Improvement of women’s rights requires such laws to be reformed.
In a long-term process of reform, the reform of constitutional law is needed. Another urgent need concerns cultural reforms. I think that all wrong traditions and perspectives in Muslim societies must be reformed. And this is the case in Iran.
To make both short-term and long-term reforms, women need civil and political power. They are working consciously to achieve their rights.
MR: Why is an Islamic opposition to the state Islam so important for Iran and the Muslim world?
SV: An Islamic state uses Islam as a mean to take any action. Legislations, limitations, policies, suppressions and everything are attributed to Islam. The opposition to legislations and policies is considered as opposition to Islam, and therefore it is punished. Most of people have not enough knowledge about Islam. And this gives the Islamic state the opportunity to let prevail superstitions in the name of Islam to supress human rights and freedom. If you could talk to people by making them aware that superstitions are not Islamic teachings, then taking steps toward changes would be much easier. In fact, as long as people in the Muslim world believe that whatever is claimed by Muslim clerics and Muslim jurisprudence is part of the Islamic shariah, the process of changing will be very difficult. When you talk to people about their religious beliefs to reject or correct them, you must have enough reasons, you must use proper means and language to convince them. To give you an example in the field of women’s rights: For many centuries, Islamic jurisprudence has claimed that these discriminatory laws come from the Islamic shariah. Everyday thousands of students in thousands of Islamic schools learn that these laws are a part of holy shariah. Therefore it is so difficult to oppose to these rules and teachings. However, if you achieve something in this field, it will be important to the whole Muslim world. Muslim communities are linked and impact and influence each other. Islamic shariah rules are very similar in the different Muslim law schools and sects. Also in the field of women’s rights there is no basic difference between them.
At this point, I would like to mention that the basis of every Islamic State (based on all Islamic sects) is the performance of Islamic Law. The majority of the shariah rules focus on family and criminal law. However, an Islamic state considering its interests may steps down from performing some of the so-called Islamic criminal laws such as stoning, lashing or amputation, but experience shows that the Islamic state doesn’t step down from family laws. The focus on family law within the shariah is about controlling women and recognizing traditional discriminatory rights of men on them. It means that the main focus for an Islamic state is on keeping the traditional position of women, by opposing to any reforms in favour of women. In fact, an Islamic state doesn’t see any meaning for the shariah when women’s rights are equal to men’s rights. It shows how difficult and important it is to fight for women’s rights in Muslim societies, in particular showing that Islam never opposes to equal women’s rights.