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Baroness Haleh Afshar, kind and compassionate, unafraid to speak out against injustice

27th May 2022
Baroness Haleh Afshar, kind and compassionate, unafraid to speak out against injustice

Baroness Afshar, who died on May 12, aged 77, was an Iranian-born academic and cross-bench peer in the UK House of Lords. Haleh graduated from the University of York in 1967 and then went on to do a PhD at the University of Cambridge. She returned to Iran, where she worked in the land reform ministry until she was forced to leave in 1978 because of her political activities.

She returned to the UK, where she embarked on an academic career, first at the University of Bradford and then at the University of York. There, she was appointed to the department of politics and the centre for women’s studies in 1987. She became Professor of Politics and Women’s Studies in 1999 and professor emeritus in 2011. She was also a Visiting Professor of Islamic Law at the Robert Schuman University in Strasbourg.

In her academic career, she wrote extensively on Iran, with a particular focus on women’s situations. In addition, she edited a considerable number of books on women, politics, and development in the Third World. I first became aware of Haleh Afshar as a student of Middle East politics in the 1990s.

Her scholarship stood out for challenging Western-centric understandings of women’s situations in the Global South, demonstrating women’s varied lives and the multiple factors shaping them, as well as women’s agency in resisting and negotiating power structures. She argued for the possibility of interpreting Islam in ways that advance women’s rights.

Her publications include Iran: A Revolution in Turmoil (1985), Women in the Middle East: Perceptions, Realities, and Struggles for Liberation (1993), Islam and Feminisms (1998), and Women and Politics in the Third World (1996).

Throughout her career, she played a leadership role in promoting the research of women, gender, politics and religion, through her teaching and her service to several academic associations and research bodies. She was appointed an academician of the Academy of Social Sciences in 2009 and held honorary doctorates from the universities of Essex and Bradford.

However, Haleh was not only an accomplished academic. In the wake of the 7/7 bombings in 2005, she was appointed by the government to chair an independent committee tasked with looking into the situation of Muslim women in the UK.

The committee’s report, based on the voices of Muslim women from across the country, called for women’s rights to be respected and promoted within the Muslim and wider community. It also highlighted the need for a better understanding of Islam by society as a whole and a greater willingness on the part of the government to include Muslim women in the processes of decision making. In 2005, she was awarded an OBE for services to equal opportunities. In 2007, she was appointed to the House of Lords as one of the first Muslim life peers. In 2008, she was appointed to serve on the Women’s National Commission (which was disbanded in 2010).

Most recently, she served as the President of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, in which capacity I had the great pleasure of working with her during my tenure as Vice President (2019-2021). Haleh was a compassionate colleague who was unafraid to speak out against injustice. Lady Afshar is survived by her husband Professor Maurice Dodson, a son and a daughter and two grandchildren.

(Photo credit: Roger Harris/Official Parliamentary Portrait)

Professor Nicola Pratt,
Professor of International Politics of the Middle East, The University of Warwick.

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