The essays in this series deal with transregional linkages between the Middle East and Asia. As a whole, the series explores the "vectors" of religious transmission and the consequences of or implications of such interactions. Read more ...

The Islamic Republic of Iran presents a particularly interesting case from the vantage point of the study of “religious professionals,” and where and how they emerge. Religious education is central to the cultural and political history of the Islamic Republic, and the relation between religious education and the state is multifaceted. Indeed, the two often intersect in ways that defy common assumptions about the nature of an ‘Islamic state.’ Having been established thanks to the triumph of Shiite authorities in the factional struggles that followed the ousting of the Shah in early 1979, the Islamic Republic showcases one of the strongest examples of the state regulation of religious authority and religious education. Even though individual religious authorities gained unprecedented access to power and resources in the aftermath of the revolution, the same soon began to establish clerical hierarchies in rivalry to existing, mostly bottom-up processes of authority-certification, and started to police religious authority in ways hitherto unknown in Shi‘i Islam. The long-standing and legendary independence of the Shiite seminaries (ḥawzāt) has been gradually undermined through a variety of policies, ranging from the standardization of certain curricula in the seminaries to the centralization of the admissions process.

Although a few Shiite seminaries have been able to resist the incorporation into the state bureaucracy, the levels of state involvement today far surpass the Shah’s attempts to interfere with the internal affairs of religious institutions. Apart from creating a tighter nexus between the ḥawzāt and the state, the 1979 revolution has affected the institutions of religious learning in another significant way. While only very few women had access to a ḥawza education before 1979, the Islamic Republic has made women’s religious education a pillar of its education policy and built not just a handful but dozens of women’s seminaries, particularly since the 1990s, throughout Iran and beyond its borders.[1] The state-run system of women’s religious seminaries is today probably the most successful in the entire Muslim world. No other country boasts so many women in its institutions of religious learning, and they enjoy popularity not only among Iranian women but Muslim women from all over the world.[2] In nearly every 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. However, the scope of the religious education on offer for women is nonetheless limited. While most men’s ḥawzāt allow their students to study up to the highest level, i.e. the third cycle (dars-e khārej or its modernist equivalent, an M.A. or Ph.D.), hardly any ḥawzāt provide similar opportunities for women. Accordingly, hardly any female mojtahedīn (those trained to engage in ejtehād to interpret Islamic law) have emerged from the post-revolutionary seminaries. This, I suggest, is chiefly because by and large, women are trained in the seminaries not to become mojtahedīn or religious scholars, but moballeghīn (propagators of religion).

Women’s Religious Seminaries at the Turn of the Revolution

From the early 1960s onward, women’s seminaries were being set up in a handful of towns across Iran.[3] A real upsurge began when Ayatollah Shariatmadari, a leading cleric at the time, opened a women’s wing in 1972 in his renowned ḥawza Dar al-tablīgh in the city of Qom. Other institutions soon followed, with the ḥawza Dar al-shifa establishing the Centre for Women Studies (Markaz-e motālaʿāt-e zanān) and Qom’s Haqqani School opening a girls’ madrasa associated with it, the Maktab-e Tawhīd, in 1975.

When a handful of women who had been educated in the Qom seminaries approached Ayatollah Khomeini after the revolution to voice their disappointment over a lack of state support for women’s religious education, he agreed to establish a women’s seminary in the city of Qom, which would offer an education on a par with that for men. In the order (hukm) establishing the seminary (called Jāmeʿat al-Zahrā) in August 1984, Khomeini declared:

… the respected ladies of Iran have proven during the revolution that — shoulder to shoulder with men — they can provide valuable services to Islam and the Muslims in social and political activities and they can be leaders in the education and the training of society. Now thanks to the most exalted God there is an institution being built in the holy city of Qom, the city of knowledge and jihād, for the training of the respected ladies, and we hope that with the efforts of the ʿulamāʾ and the modarressīn (teachers) of Qom seminaries, this Islamic goal will be realised and be an effective step towards the intellectual growth and flourishing of women’s knowledge of Islam.[4]

From early on, a dualism existed in the rationale for women’s religious seminaries, between those who genuinely believed in female Islamic authority and those who saw religious education for women primarily as an instrument to further inculcate the values of the 1979 revolution. The interest of the first group “lay purely in theological education with the radical goal of becoming a female mojtahed,” i.e. a person trained in interpreting Islamic law, which is the essence of Islamic authority in the Islamic Republic. A person not trained in interpreting Islamic law is unlikely to ever be recognized as a leading ʿalim in Shiʿi Islam. Hoodfar and Sadr comment “although their demands fell outside conventional politics, one can consider [this group] pioneers in breaking down one of the strongest walls of exclusion for women. Their goal remains the training of female ulama.”[5]

The second characterized those women who, although having joined theological training, soon considered themselves proselytizers for political Islam (mobaleghīn); they participated in women’s religious gatherings, popularizing the idea of revolution and a religious world order. Among them were Monireh Gorji, the one female member of the 1979 Constitutional Assembly; and Maryam Behrozi, who served in the first four post-revolutionary parliaments and was a founding member of the Islamist women’s party, the Association of Zeinab. It is unclear where exactly Khomeini stood between these poles. The fact that he agreed to institute the full ḥawza education with its three-tiered level that far surpasses the needs of the formation for mere propagators would render credence to the interpretation that he did believe women should be able to become mojtahedāt (female mojtahedīn), should they wish to pursue this path. 

Post-Khomeini Administrative Changes

After Khomeini’s death in 1989 and his succession as Supreme Leader by Ali Khamenei, the women’s ḥawza system was expanded across the country. Today, more than 300 such seminaries exist which train about 30,000 young women, a third of the country’s overall ḥawza student body.[6]

Together with the expansion of the women’s religious education system, a radical curriculum reform was undertaken in 1991.[7] Ayatollah Khamenei openly conceded his opposition to the previous curriculum:

…from the start I was against the [previous] curriculum and always wondered why our thoughtful friends wanted to implement those [full three-tiered study] programmes. And when you asked them: why do these young ladies come to the seminary, they would say, ‘they come as we do’. This is while men can use their ḥawza qualifications in many different ways…but what about our sisters? Shortly before the revolution, I asked the late Mr. Qoddusi to set up a four-year degree program for these women who came to study in the ḥawza so at the end of their studies you can give them a degree with which they can lead propagation (tablīgh) gatherings and so on and they can serve (their community)…[8]         

After the reforms in 1991, Western-style B.A. and M.A programs were introduced in the men’s and women’s ḥawzāt which gradually replaced the previous organization of studies in three cycles. The third cycle, including training in dars-e khārej (a necessary qualification to attain the certification to engage in ejtehād) was no longer systematically offered in the women’s seminaries. Henceforth, interested students would need to request individual teachers to offer dars-e khārej privately.[9]

By and large, the curriculum was simplified and “genderized.” The new, post-1991 curriculum in the women’s seminaries expanded courses in philosophy and morals (akhlāq). According to hojjatoleslām Tabātabāʾi, the director of Jāmeʿat al-Zahrā, the students would study sufficient Arabic to understand the Qurʾān, the ḥadīth and other key texts. They would also learn public speaking skills, and study ‘socio-political subjects’ such as the fundamentals of the Islamic Revolution, the Iranian Constitution, Ayatollah Khomeini’s will, as well as practical skills, including āyīn-e zendegī (“living the right way”), hamsardārī (keeping a married life) and khāneh dārī (housekeeping).[10] The classical subjects would also be offered, but in a simplified form compared to how they were taught in the men’s ḥawza: manteq (logic), uṣūl-e feqh (principles of jurisprudence) and falsafa (philosophy), as well as akhlāq (ethics), tarīkh-e islāmī (Islamic history) and the life of the Shīʿa imams.

Overall, the emphasis shifted from feqh (jurisprudence) to akhlāq (morals) and to courses combining behavioral and moral formation. The curriculum became more geared towards practical applications of religious teaching than training women in contributing to research in Islamic law and jurisprudence.

The students’ career paths attest to this redirection. Despite the massive institutional apparatus that the Islamic Republic has put in place to promote women’s training in the religious seminaries (again, surpassing any parallel efforts in other Muslim countries), the scholarly fruit is surprisingly difficult to identify. Very few mojtahedāt (not more than a handful out of an alleged 12,000 graduates so far) are known to have emerged from the women’s religious seminary system since its inception in 1984. The leading ʿalimātʾ (female religious scholars) of Iran today, as few as they are, are products of the pre-revolutionary decentralized seminary culture rather than the vast post-revolutionary apparatus instituted by the state. Most students study to become a researcher (mohaqeq), a teacher (modarres) or a missionary/propagandist (mohaghegh), not because they aspire to become a female mojtahed. The career paths which female graduates of Jāmeʿat al-Zahrāʾ choose, for example, include teaching religion and Arabic in secondary schools, as well as in cultural centers and bases of the Basij (voluntary army). Some graduates who complete at least the MA program become lecturers in the women's ḥawza inside and outside of Iran.

While male graduates of the seminaries can find ample employment in various state institutions where positions require of applicants to present a degree from the Shiite seminaries, the number of positions for women is markedly smaller. As a result of the employment situation but also for social and familial reasons (women are about 50 percent of the total student body in the secular universities in Iran, but only 19 percent of all those employed in the country are women), the female “religious professionals” usually work for a few years only before becoming full-time housewives. Upon completion of their studies in the seminaries, most women engage in tablīgh, or propagation activities, usually on secondment by a state- or state-affiliated institution.[11] In 2008, of 480 graduates, about 400 were subsequently employed in such institutions: 160 female graduates were sent to work in the ministry of education, the state-run broadcasting corporation, and for the religious endowments. A further 140 were sent individually to engage in tablīgh among the pilgrims in Qom, and 96 to other cities.[12] The employment statistics give weight to the assumption that, unlike their male colleagues, most female graduates of the religious seminaries do not choose the path of research, scholarship, or legal interpretation. They further suggest that women remain in this type of work for a period of 1-2 years before moving into the private realm.


The result of Khamenei’s reforms in the women’s religious education sector has been an exponential increase in quantity with a significant change in quality. While every small town today features a religious training center in which women can learn about their religion, the highest level of learning in the Shiite seminaries, dars-e khārej, which qualifies one to engage in legal reasoning and interpret religious law (i.e. to engage in ejtehād), has been cut from most curricula. Without that expertise, women can neither become experts in law — a requirement for most jobs in the public sector that are reserved for the clergy, nor can they emerge as authoritative Islamic scholars.

What makes this development even more dramatic for those women truly interested in becoming legal experts or scholars, is that the Islamic Republic has exclusively bureaucratized women’ religious education. Before the 1979 revolution, women could usually attend the lectures of the Qom teachers and thus learn dars-e khārej from a variety of grand ayatollahs. Since the centralization of women’s ḥawzāt in the Islamic Republic, this path has been closed off. For men, a variety of alternatives still exist to supplement a state-controlled ḥawza education with private lessons in less monitored spaces. Across gender lines, this is extremely difficult.


[1] For an English-language account of the women’s ḥawzāt, see Keiko Sakurai, “Women’s empowerment and Iranian-style seminaries in Iran and Pakistan,” in Keiko Sakurai and Fariba Adelkhah, Eds., The Moral Economy of the Madrasa, Islam and Education Today (Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2011) 32-57. For the possibilities of women to attain religious authority more generally, see Homa Hoodfar and Shadi Sadr, “Religious idioms and rights-based demands: Can women act as agents of a democratization of theocracy in Iran.” Paper presented at the Kevorkian Center Research Workshop, New York University, March 30, 2009. Hoodfar and Sadr go so far as to call the religious seminaries “a wing of the state.” For two outstanding female Shiite authorities of the 20th century, see Mirjam Künkler and Roja Fazaeli, “The life of two mojtahedahs: Female religious authority in 20th Century Iran,” in Masooda Bano and Hilary Kalmbach, Eds., Women, Leadership and Mosques: Changes in Contemporary Islamic Authority (Leiden: Brill, 2011) 127-160.

[2] It should be noted that the Islamic Republic created unprecedented opportunities for women’s learning also in the secular universities, where the percentage of female students surpassed 60 percent in the early 2000s.

[3] Mahtab Rezapoor, “Enghelab-e Eslami, Bastar Royesh Sabz Ḥawza-i ʿElmiyya Khwaharan,” Payam-i Zan, no. 158, May 2005 (Ordibehesht 1384), accessed November 4, 2016, .

[4] Cited at , December 8, 2016. On Khomeini’s views regarding the question whether women can become mojtahedāt, see also ;

[5] Hoodfar and Sadr, “Religious idioms and rights-based demands: Can women act as agents of a democratization of theocracy in Iran.”

[6] Only a part of these completes a full degree. Many use a year in the seminaries as a bridge year, while waiting for admission to their preferred university study course. Others study as long they do not have children; some of those not yet married hope that by attending a religious seminary they can increase their status on the marriage market. Interviews conducted with female ḥawza students in Qom, January 2008.

[7] “Gozareshi az Jami’at al-Zahrāʾ - Tadabir-e Imam-e Ghods Sareh,” see , accessed December 8, 2016.

[8] Ibid.

[9]  High-profile clerics in the Iranian administration such as the chief of the judiciary, offer public lessons in dars-e khārej which women may also attend, but they are hardly comparable with the type of systematic training needed to become qualified to interpret Islamic law. Compare also Sakurai, Keiko Sakurai and Fariba Adelkhah, Eds., The Moral Economy of the Madrasa, Islam and Education Today.

[10] According to Ṭabāṭabāʾī – Name-ye Jami’a, no 1 (1 mehr 1383)12.

[11] Mahdi Jami and Mahdi Kalji, Az Shahr-e Khoda ta Shahr-e Donya, Sad Sal Tahavol dar Houzey-e Qom (From the City of God to the Earthly City [!], A Hundred Years of Transition in the Ḥawza in Qom), n.d., 4.

[12] Goftegu ba hojjatoleslam Yousefian Moaven Mohtaram Farhangi, Tabligh-e Jameʿat al-Zahraʾ, Part 1,Vol. 5, Name-ye Jami’a, Bahman 1383 (2004) 57.