Iranian-American author, Hooman Majd's recently published memoir "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ - the Paradox of Modern Iran" offers rich insights into the culture and religious expression of the country of his birth. Here's a taste, and it goes to the heart of sexism in the culture of Iran and its expression of Islam:
"I met with Ayatollah Bojnourdi for the second time in Tehran after Ahmadinejad took office and the reformers he was close to had suffered a stinging loss at the polls. Bojnourdi, who with visible pride told me of his audience with Pope John Paul II, is known for his progressive views on women's rights in Islam, although his front office was staffed with women fully enveloped in black chadors, not scarves. One of them served us tea and Persian sweets while we sat and chatted, or, more accurately, while I sat and he chatted, but at least women were present, I thought, even if they didn't shake hands with men - unlike in Qom, where senior Ayatollah offices are all- male enclaves. Bojnourdi himself doesn't have a strong feeling on men shaking hands with women and believes it to be a nonissue, although he himself would not shake the hand of a woman not his wife, sister, or daughter (mahram to men in Islam, which means women who can be uncovered and one can physically touch, while all other women, even cousins and aunts, are na-mahram, and therefore even their hair mustn't be seen).
An endearing and disarmingly laid-back rotund man, the Ayatollah launched into a spirited defense of Khatami and his policies, policies that he claimed had the full support of the people. Barely giving me time to comment, he then jumped to a defense of Islam: his Islam. Islam, he said, is based on logic, Islam is based on friendship and love, and Islam's ideology is the ideology of freedom. "The twelfth Imam will come (it appears that all Shia roads lead back to the Mahdi), and he will bring the Islam of dialogue, not of blood!" he exclaimed. But what about the lack of certain freedoms in the Islamic Republic? "In Shia Islam, anyone has the ability to disagree. In the West, and even in Iran, things are done in the name of Islam that are not Islamic," Bojnourdi said, implying but bot specifying his view that many of the freedoms curtailed in his country have no basis in his religion. "Islam made a point of a peaceful dialogue fourteen hundred years ago," he pointed out. "Islam teaches character and morality. There is no ambiguousness about that," he continued. What about the role of women in Islam? I asked. "Women have all the God-given rights. A`woman can certainly be president." Bojnourdi added, referring to the argument before every presidential election when women are automatically disqualified from running, despite registering freely as candidates in the initial stages of the process. That opinion on women's rights alone puts him at odds with many fellow Ayatollahs, has enhanced his stature among Iranian females (and activists quote him), and perhaps accounts for the all-female staff in his front office.
It could be argued that Bojnourdi's stance on female presidents is a clever distraction from the larger issue of gender equality in Islam, for although women in the Islamic Republic enjoy rights that women in some Arab countries can only dream of, they are hobbled in achieving parity with their male counterparts by interpretations of Islam that vary widely among the clerics of Shia Islam, and "God-given rights" is, after all, a rather ambiguous phrase. How to challenge Islamic law that states, for example, that a woman's testimony carries half the weight of a man's, or that a woman can inherit only half of what a male sibling can, is an issue on the minds of feminists who are generally careful to not be seen as un-Islamic, and opinions from Ayatollahs such as Bojnourdi are crucial to the advancement of their cause." (2008, pp.213-215).
~ Excerpted from "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ" by Hooman Majd, the grandson of an eminent Ayatollah and the son of an Iranian diplomat. www.hoomanmajd.com