'Our aim was to persuade secular feminists of the need to take religion seriously, since the vast majority of Muslims whose rights they were defending were believers and wanted to live according to the teachings of Islam…We also wanted to convince Muslim scholars that feminist scholarship was not an alien force, but an ally in the search for justice, and that there was common ground between Islamic and human rights principles.' - Ziba Mir-Hosseini
Last week the Kairos Center hosted a conversation with Ziba Mir-Hosseini, a legal anthropologist whose scholarship and activism are centered on the struggle for justice and equality for women. Dr. Jerusha Lamptey, Assistant professor of Islam and Ministry at Union Theological Seminary, introduced Dr. Mir-Hosseini and helped facilitate the conversation.

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Larry Cox introducing Ziba Mir-Hosseini at the event last week
At the core of Mir-Hosseini’s work and what distinguishes her from many feminist scholars, religious scholars, and human rights activists today, is her belief that an effective struggle for gender equality cannot be limited to any one of these approaches to justice – feminist critique, Islam, or human rights – but must reflect the reality that these discourses are “contested.”
Mir-Hosseini’s scholarship has helped show how there is nothing innately discriminatory against women at the core of Islam. As she puts it, “The genesis of gender inequality… lies in a contradiction between the ideals of the Shari’a and the patriarchal structures in which these ideals unfolded and were translated into legal norms.”
Mir-Hosseini asks the question, “Can Shari’a-based laws accommodate gender equality?” not because she wants to try and impose Islam and its legal traditions on others, but because in her experience, scholarship, and activism, there is a need to interrogate all traditions of law that claim to ensure justice and equality for women. Such questions indicate Mir-Hosseini’s honesty in her thinking, commitment in her activism, and openness to the possibility that different systems can and must work together. A human rights framework does not have to operate in isolation from other systems of thought, whether they are religious or not. Indeed these different systems can help to critique and strengthen each other. Furthermore, the separation of these domains of knowledge often lead to conflicts between groups who are otherwise committed to a common purpose of freedom, justice, and equality.
The genesis of gender inequality… lies in a contradiction between the ideals of the Shari’a and the patriarchal structures in which these ideals unfolded and were translated into legal norms.
Mir-Hosseini’s experience and scholarship has led her into active struggle for gender equality with women around the world. In 200? she co-founded Musawah (Arabic for “equality”), an international organization of Muslim women committed to establishing equality in the Muslim family. Central to Musawah’s mission is “Knowledge-Building” work, where scholars and activists are commissioned to engage in rigorous study to analyze and critique oppressive legal traditions within in Islam and to help reveal, reclaim, and raise consciousness among Muslim women and others about the liberative spirit of Islam and the Shari’a.
Mir-Hosseini and Mussawah’s work resonates strongly with the goals of the Kairos Center, which aim to carry out rigorous and engaged scholarship with academics, traditional religious scholars and leaders, and leaders and thinkers from on-the-ground social struggles, in order to develop a deeper understanding of the religious dimension of social change.
We at the Kairos Center believe that the struggle for gender equality is essential to realizing a world of justice and freedom for all. We look forward to learning more from Dr. Mir-Hosseini and the network of leaders who are part of Mussawah and working together to build a truly global movement to end all the conditions that impoverish and degrade the sacredness of human life.