Skip to comments.The ayatollah & I
Posted on 12/28/2004 4:58:03 AM PST by SJackson
'Muslim women don't have a problem with the fact that their husbands have a few other wives," declared the Iranian ayatollah with great conviction.
Sitting across the conference table from him, in the magnificent 17th-century Villa Serbelloni on Lake Como in Italy, I disagreed.
My conversations over the years with Muslim women colleagues had given me a quite different picture.
"I would suggest that you don't really know how women feel since you're a man. I'm a woman, and I can tell you that women do not want to be one of several wives."
While ordinarily this kind of challenge might be considered a bit too provocative, the ayatollah and I were old hands at sparring by now as we were into the third day of an interfaith conference on Family Law and Religious Law being held at the Rockefeller Foundation's Conference Center in Bellagio, Italy, in April, 2004.
A Shi'ite religious leader as well as a professor of Islamic Law in Teheran, the ayatollah had been discussing religious laws on marriage, divorce and women's rights with me for several days. Our discussions took place in formal conference sessions, as well as during meals in the elegant dining room, coffee breaks, and in chance encounters while strolling in the grounds of the 50-acre estate, or by the lake.
We had developed a collegial respect for each other which bordered on a sort of friendship.
"You are right, Sharon," he said with a somewhat embarrassed grin. "I am a man, and I admit that I probably do not know how women feel about such things."
Muslim women participating in the conference, including two chador-clad Iranians, nodded their heads in agreement. We had indeed come a long way in a few days.
SO HOW does a women's rights lawyer from Jerusalem (and a nice Jewish girl originally from the west side of Chicago) come to discuss polygamy with an ayatollah from Iran?
It all began two years earlier, when I was a resident scholar at the Bellagio Center for a month in April, 2002 and attending a four-day conference of Iranians and Americans on Science and Ethics.
Also present was a high level Muslim cleric who had refused to speak to the American female experts attending his conference.
During the pre-dinner cocktail hour in the garden one evening, upon discovering that I had some expertise in Jewish law as it applied to marriage and divorce, he requested that I be brought over to him to answer some questions.
Apparently the ayatollah's intellectual curiosity about Jewish law overcame any personal, political and religious barriers he might have had to engaging in conversation with an Israeli women's rights lawyer.
Surrounded by his Iranian male colleagues and clothed in his impressive clerical robes, the ayatollah began a lengthy discussion with me regarding the positions of Jewish law and Islamic law on specific issues such as polygamy, custody of children, divorce, division of marital property, and women's rights in marriage.
To the fascination of the other resident scholars and conference participants (who stopped their own conversations to stare at this strange couple), I answered the ayatollah's questions and asked a few of my own.
IT WAS a bit like a medieval disputation. Although he did not always like my questions about the rights of Muslim women at divorce or upon the husband taking multiple wives, he seemed compelled to continue the discussion.
He sought me out repeatedly during the following days so that we could continue to talk about the differences and similarities between Judaism and Islam and their legal systems.
He took my publications on women and Jewish law, which had been placed on display alongside the other scholars' publications on the large table in the villa's library.
On the last day of his conference the ayatollah asked me to provide him with books on Jewish law as he wanted to learn more, and perhaps teach Jewish law in Teheran.
I suggested, diplomatically, that obtaining books would not enable him to understand Jewish law, and that it would be much more effective if he could meet with scholars and practitioners to discuss the meaning and practical application of religious source materials.
The ayatollah agreed and we decided that we would attempt to set up future meetings. It was also agreed that due to the sensitive political situation in the Middle East at this time, such meetings should be held in Europe, if possible.
Upon returning to Israel I drafted a proposal for an interfaith conference on religious law and family law. The Rockefeller Foundation accepted the proposal and agreed to host the conference at the Bellagio Center.
Given the political difficulties of communications between Israelis and Iranians, I set up a partnership with colleagues on the Law Faculty of the Catholic University in Washington, D.C., who arranged for the participation of the Iranians and assisted in the organization of the conference.
The 25 Catholic, Jewish and Muslim participants were carefully selected and included the chief rabbi of Haifa, two ayatollahs from Iran, and a Catholic priest who was a canon law expert representing the Vatican.
The other participants included scholars and practitioners from Iran, Italy, Egypt, Switzerland, the US and Israel, half of whom were women.
During the four day meeting, the participants openly shared their knowledge, experience, research and progress in dealing with current issues in religious marriage and discussed new interpretations of traditional texts.
The intensive work sessions of the meeting were accompanied by even more intensive informal discussions during meals and free time. The highlight of the meeting was the lunch cruise we organized on Lake Como on day three.
The informal atmosphere of the boat combined with the beautiful weather and gorgeous scenery seemed to break down all cultural, religious and gender barriers.
The group shopping spree in the village of Bellagio after the boat trip deepened this bonding, as we all enjoyed Italian ice cream.
The local merchants and villagers seemed a bit dazed by this unusual-looking group with their various religious outfits.
The sessions on the last day of the meeting were the most intellectually exciting, marked by a general feeling of collegiality and warm friendship. The Iranian participants, who had initially refused to be photographed and were hesitant to publicize the existence of the meeting, now requested that the group produce a joint statement.
Encouraged by this surprising initiative, we quickly changed the agenda for the last afternoon session and devoted it to a group-drafting session led by "my" ayatollah.
A lively discussion produced a rough draft of the statement, which has since been refined and published.
We're now planning for our next meeting.
As a parting gift, the ayatollah and his colleagues gave me a handsome black briefcase with brown trimming, embossed in Farsi and English, which reads: "International Appreciation of Selected Women from the Islamic Republic of Iran, Islamic Culture and Relations Organization, Centre for Women's Participation."
I've been showing it to friends and colleagues, and it's quite an attention-grabber.
The writer, director of the International Jewish Women's Rights Project, was formerly legal advisor to Na'amat.
The Law will go forth from Zion... via Lake Como
As Churchill said, "Jaw-jaw is better than war-war."
Keep everyone talking and listening.
Polygamy must be kept illegal in the west. It is central to the vicious hold that Islam holds over its sheeple.
Sounds like a date to me...hope she liked the little gift he gave her.
Did anyone else pick up the irony here?
Now there's a good idea. Go somewhere and teach law where your civil rights will be stripped away because of your sex.
...and then murdered.
Alright.... just who the heck paid for this boondoggle????
SHARON SHENHAV -- keep "jawing" and never, never, never give up - but if eventually you have to give up, there will always be the U.S. Marines!
and just like in every good little fairy tale, they all lived happily ever after, I guess.
Lake Como, wealthy benefactors, expensive gifts, a little shopping, a stay at a grand hotel...
And she's not ashamed? Sounds like a candidate for a position with the UN.
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.