Haleh Afshar, Who Fought for Rights of Muslim Women, Dies at 77

An Iranian-born British scholar and self-described “Muslim feminist,” she joined the House of Lords and advised the British government on women’s issues.

Haleh Afshar, known as Lady Afshar, a prominent Iranian-British professor who dedicated her career in government and scholarship to promoting the rights of Muslim women, died on May 12 at her home in Heslington, England. She was 77.

The cause was kidney disease, her brother Mohammad Afshar said.

Ms. Afshar was the first Iranian-born woman to be appointed to the House of Lords, receiving the title of baroness. She held multiple advisory roles with the British government on gender issues and the role of Muslim women in the United Kingdom. A longtime professor of politics and women’s studies at the University of York, she helped start the U.K. Muslim Women’s Network and was awarded the Order of the British Empire for her efforts.

A self-described “Muslim feminist,” Ms. Afshar spoke out against the government of Iran for blocking educational opportunities for women, arguing that the regime was frightened of educated women because education enabled them, as she put it, to “read classical Arabic, access the Quranic teachings and demand their rights.”

In her book “Islam and Feminism,” published in 1998, Ms. Afshar argued that feminism was compatible with Islam, suggesting that the gap between secular and religious women had narrowed. She pointed to the Islamist feminists who joined a reform movement a year earlier that led to the election of Mohammad Khatami as president, a reformist who advocated a more liberal interpretation of Islam based on the needs of modern times.

Among the many books she wrote and edited were “Iran: A Revolution in Turmoil” and “Women in the Middle East: Perceptions, Realities and Struggles for Liberation.”

Ms. Afshar joined the House of Lords in 2007 as a crossbench life peer, a term used for a member of an independent or minority party, and began working with the Women’s National Commission, a government advisory group.

Her brother described Ms. Afshar as a Shiite Muslim who linked the need for women to have access to education with a fundamental right to interpret the Quran for themselves. “She didn’t accept a patronizing interpretation of Islam and believed Islam gave rights to women that Muslim men took away,” he said.

via Afshar Dodson family

Haleh Afshar was born in Tehran on May 21, 1944, the eldest of four children in an affluent Iranian family. Her father, Hassan Afshar, was a law professor who taught at Strasbourg University in France and served as the dean of Tehran University’s law school. Her mother, Pouran Khabir, came from a prominent family and campaigned for women’s suffrage in Iran.

By her account, Ms. Afshar had a privileged upbringing in which, surrounded by nannies and servants, she did little on her own. While attending the prestigious Jeanne d’Arc School for girls in Tehran, she said, “I read ‘Jane Eyre’ and I thought: Well, if you left me on the side of a road, I wouldn’t know which way to turn. I’d better go to this England where they make these tough women.”

She persuaded her parents to send her to St. Martin’s, a boarding school in Solihull, England, outside Birmingham, where she spent three years. She then attended the University of York, graduating in 1967. She received a doctorate in Land Economy from the University of Cambridge in 1972.

Ms. Afshar returned to Iran for several years, working as a civil servant for the Ministry of Agriculture, a job in which she often traveled to small towns and villages. “I loved talking to the women,” she recalled, “who were not even aware of the Islamic rights they had: the right to property, payment for housework, all kinds of things.”

She also worked as a journalist for Kayhan International, an English-language newspaper, and wrote a gossip column called “Curious,” attending parties as she covered the social life of prominent Iranians.

In 1974, Savak, the shah of Iran’s feared secret police, summoned her over her involvement with left-wing intellectual groups, her brother said. The incident frightened her enough to return to England. There she was reunited with Maurice Dodson, a University of York math professor whom she had met when she was a student. They began dating in 1970 and married in 1974.

Ms. Afshar traveled to Iran with her husband during the Persian New Year in March 1975 and visited the country for the last time in 1977, two years before the Islamic Revolution.

In England, she revived her academic career at the University of Bradford before joining the University of York.

She was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2005.

Beyond her academic and political life, Ms. Afshar knew how to have a good time, by her brother’s account. When he was a student in Paris (two decades younger than his sister), she once accompanied him and his friends to bar. “She knew every single cocktail they served — even the weird ones — and she danced the whole night,” Mr. Afshar said.

She was also a poker enthusiast who, as she recalled in a 2018 interview, once used her card-playing skills to win tickets to a Beatles concert in London. “Largely because I’m smiley and never serious,” she said, explaining her approach to the game. “It’s not a poker face that hides. It’s a poker face that is open.”

In addition to her brother, she is survived by her husband; a son, Ali Afshar Dodson; a daughter, Molly Newton; two other brothers, Kamran and Adam; and two grandchildren.

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