“I Am Mazhabi Motavaset”: A Young Seminarian Woman’s Ethical Work with Others in Iran


This paper is a chapter of an upcoming book currently under publication and is based on fifteen months of ethnographic fieldwork in the Islamic Republic of Iran among seminarian women in Tehran. Nineteen-year-old Zaynab saw the work of khod shenasi, an individual’s effort towards self-awareness in order to create a spiritual nearness to the Divine, as a personal struggle to live morally with those who, according to Islamic teachings about the self, or nafs, were naturally in the same life-long struggle as her. Here, I illustrate how Zaynab addressed her social rejection among religiously conservative women in her seminary. I situate these experiences in both anthropological and indigenous paradigms and concepts such as the nafs or khod, or the self, and khod shenasi, or self-knowing. Holland’s figured worlds as symbolic spaces made meaningful by narratives, actors and interactions with each other is useful in my analysis (Holland 2009). As well, I look to Biehl and Locke unfinishedness of the human subject as always “in the midst of social life within asymmetries and constraints” (Biehl & Locke 2017: 4, 42). The concept of unfinishedness resonates with the women’s philosophical outtakes influenced by Mulla Sadra, a seventeenth century Islamic philosopher, who argued that haraka jawhariyya, or essential motion, consisted of “an ongoing project of the self” (Jambet 2006:198-199) and that, “All existent, except God, are in the process of becoming” (191). Haraka jawhariyya, like Biehl’s and Locke’s unfinishedness, is open-ended and incomplete. Like the other howzevi, Zaynab is always unfinished.


Amina Tawasil
Lecturer, Programs in Anthropology, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, United States


Presentation Type

Paper Presentation in a Themed Session


Religious Community and Socialization


Islam, Ethics, Women

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