Azadeh Aghighi’s path to Bloomington started in Iran. She grew up and studied in Tehran, receiving her BA and MA in Islamic Theology, Quran, and Hadith Sciences. As she completed her graduate studies, she decided to come to the US to continue her studies.
She says, “I was very interested in working on some topic relevant to women—to defend their rights, especially in Muslim societies and in Muslim countries—and I knew that there were some famous and knowledgeable scholars in the US working on defending women’s rights.”
One of those scholars was Asma Afsaruddin, Professor of Islamic Studies in the Hamilton Lugar School’s Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures (MELC). Aghighi applied to the PhD program, having never been to the US, and was accepted.
Now she is working toward her PhD in Islamic Theology in MELC under the guidance of Professor Afsaruddin, her advisor, who has helped guide her through contemporary feminist movements and scholarship in Islam. In 2016, Aghighi started teaching Arabic in MELC as an Associate Instructor, and she has been the instructor of the Persian language in the HLS Language Workshop since 2019.
In March, she was awarded a highly competitive Dissertation Completion Fellowship from IU, which will allow her—for the first time—to focus solely on her dissertation.
Her dissertation, she says, is “a comparative study of male traditionalist interpretations and Muslim feminist scholars’ interpretations of one of the verses of the Quran dealing with women.”
Aghighi believes that traditional interpretations of the Quran regarding women’s roles are highly influenced by the patriarchal social conditions in which those interpreters of the Quran lived. “[Their] understanding has resulted from [their] culture,” she says, and that has led to inaccurate interpretations.
These interpretations, she summarizes, affect marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, court witnessing, jurisprudence, and dress code.
“However,” she says, “the Quran argues in favor of the equality of the sexes.”
The verse she pays closest attention to is 9:71, which, according to the Shahi International translation, begins, “The believing men and believing women are allies of one another.”
Interpreting this verse involves a historical understanding of how it has been interpreted in the past, who interpreted it, and what their culture was like. “I want to know in which century we can see some changes [in this verse’s interpretation] and how this understanding changed and why it changed,” she explains.
This historical and cultural analysis will help Aghighi tell a story about how patriarchal cultural attitudes influenced this verse’s interpretation over time. Then, by uncovering these attitudes, she will be able to provide an analysis that, she believes, more accurately reflects the spirit of the original.
While she is writing her dissertation for other specialists in the field, she hopes to expand the project after graduation.
Aghighi is grateful to Professor Afsaruddin not only for inspiring her to study at HLS but also the support she provided during the dissertation fellowship application process.
“I really would like to thank my advisor, Professor Afsaruddin, because she helped me a lot,” she says.
Besides taking classes, Aghighi has been a prolific and well-liked teacher of Arabic and Persian, during both the school year and the summer.
“We have a lot of fun in a very friendly atmosphere,” she says about the language courses she teaches.
And her students, she adds, are quite enthusiastic. “I found my students are very interested in learning new languages,” she says, a perk of HLS that she didn’t realize before matriculating.
Aghighi notes other benefits to studying at Hamilton Lugar. In Tehran, most students were Shi’a Muslim, and as a result, “all the discussions in the class are very similar.”
At HLS, discussions have been far more varied because of a greater presence of Sunni Muslims. Add in students from a variety of countries and a range of other religions, and Aghighi has found the environment to be quite dynamic.
“IU is a very diverse university, and I have a lot of friends from different countries and different cultures.”
As a genial and driven student, teacher, classmate, and rising scholar, Aghighi has contributed much to the Hamilton Lugar School. And her passion for her project is clear. “Unfortunately, there is a lot of inequality between men and women in Muslim society, and I really would like to make some changes,” she says.
Aghighi knows it will take time, but as a rising star in her field, she stands a good chance at posing important questions and making key contributions that will reach a wide audience.