Anthropologist to speak at Sweet Briar on women, gender and religion in Iran

Posted on October 16, 2016 by Janika Carey

Mary Elaine Hegland, an anthropology professor at Santa Clara University, will return to Sweet Briar College at 4:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 24, to talk about “Women, Gender and Religion: Expanding Opportunities in an Iranian Settlement 1978-2015.” The lecture will take place in Tyson Auditorium in Benedict Hall and is free and open to the public.

Mary Hegland Mary Elaine Hegland. Photo by Joel Elliott/National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Park, N.C.

Hegland visited campus in April to speak about her award-winning 2014 book, “Days of Revolution: Political Unrest in an Iranian Village,” and other aspects of the fieldwork she conducted in Aliabad in 1978 and 1979. This time, she zeroes in on the women who live in the Iranian settlement of Aliabad — now transformed from a village to a town and suburb near Shiraz.

In 1978, women of Aliabad had “little opportunity for religious activities or even for venturing outside of their courtyards,” Hegland says. After the revolution, improvements in the economy and in transportation and female education enabled women to develop opportunities for involvement outside the home.

“Space for women’s religious activities expanded, and women’s opportunities to gain literacy and religious education increased,” Hegland says. “Today, Aliabad women cook to distribute food for vows and in thanks to the holy figures for wishes granted; they go on the pilgrimage to Mecca and other religious shrines; they take part in the commemorations for the martyrdom of Imam Husein, a central redemptive figure for Shia Muslims; and they host many women’s religious gatherings.”

But increased religious involvement doesn’t equal freedom. The Islamic Republic of Iran continues to limit women’s rights and mobility, making it a “mixed blessing” for women, Hegland argues.

“Days of Revolution” was awarded a 2015 Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPYs) Gold Medal in the world history category and won the 2015 Alpha Sigma Nu Book Award, sponsored by Alpha Sigma Nu and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities.

Hegland received her Ph.D. in anthropology from Binghamton University in 1986, conducting her dissertation research in Iran during the days of the revolution. Her current research involves the politics of the rituals of mourning for Imam Husein — who was martyred in 680 A.D. in Karbala in present-day Iraq — including how those rituals were applied to recruit people to support the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Hegland is a 2016-17 fellow at the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

For more information, email Claudia Chang, professor of anthropology at Sweet Briar College, at