Lady Afshar obituary

·5-min read

Haleh Afshar, Lady Afshar, who has died aged 77 of kidney failure, was an Iranian-born scholar whose life’s work was one of the most contentious subjects of our time: Islamic feminism. She spent most of her academic career at the University of York, where she was professor of politics and women’s studies from 1999, and her advisory roles with the government on engaging with women led to a life peerage in 2007.

She wrote or edited many books, including Iran: a Revolution in Turmoil; Islam and Feminisms; and Women in the Middle East: Perceptions, Realities and Struggles for Liberation. Her scholarship was rigorously academic but her ideas had real-world consequences: she used the Qu’ran to promote women’s rights to own property, to contribute to public debate, to be paid for housework. She saw no contradiction in describing herself as both a feminist and a Shia Muslim.

Her thinking can be summarised in her forthright critical assessment of the government of Iran when it barred the way to education for women: “They’re scared of educated women. Because educated women can actually read classical Arabic, access the Qur’anic teachings, and demand their rights, contextualised in the Qur’anic teachings … taking on the Iranian government on its own terms.” Women’s education and women’s voices were at the centre of her work.

I first met Haleh more than 20 years ago when I was director of the Women’s National Commission, which, until its abolition in 2010, was the British government’s official independent advisory body on women. She was appointed in 2008 as one of 12 independent commissioners, with the remit of bringing the informed opinion of women to government.

Haleh’s activism was indistinguishable from her theoretical work. She was a fighter as well as a scholar, and she fought, usually successfully, for women threatened with deportation.

After the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005 she was invited to chair a new independent committee to advise the government on the views of women in the British Muslim community. This was the brainchild of Patricia Hewitt, then the Labour government’s minister for women and equality, and under Haleh’s leadership the committee made the case for listening to Muslim women’s voices.

Haleh led a roadshow round the UK to hear what British Muslim women were saying, and she fought hard to make sure the subsequent report was published exactly as it stood, resisting pressure to water it down and dealing openly with difficult issues, such as child sexual abuse.

The members of that committee went on to form the independent Muslim Women’s Network, of which Haleh was a founding member and later honorary president, its mission of empowering Muslim women through Islamic feminism being close to her heart.

She was born in Tehran, the daughter of an affluent family. Her mother, Pouran Khabir, was a successful campaigner for women’s suffrage. Her father, Hassan Afshar, was a law professor at Tehran University and also served as a government minister. Educated first at the Jeanne d’Arc school in Tehran, at the age of 14 she persuaded her parents to let her board in the UK at St Martin’s school in Solihull, which she later described as “dark and drab” after a childhood under the Iranian sun.

After A-levels at college in Brighton, in 1963 she enrolled at the then brand-new University of York, graduating in social sciences in 1967. In 1972 she took a diploma in comparative European law at the University of Strasbourg, followed by a doctorate in land economy at Cambridge University in 1974.

Haleh returned to Iran in the last decade of the shah’s rule, working in the land reform ministry, and as a journalist. She spent time visiting remote villages, talking to the people, especially to women. She became aware that, in an authoritarian regime, there was widespread ignorance about women’s Islamic rights.

This formative experience set a pattern for her life: to challenge power. Soon she fell out with the land reform minister. That proved to be just the start – she fell out of favour with the entire regime with the publication of an article exposing gossip around the Iranian royals. She finally fled Iran as persona non grata. The fall of the shah and his secret police was followed by the arrival of the ayatollahs and theirs. She would never return to her homeland.

After a lectureship at Bradford University from 1976 to 1985, she was appointed to York, lecturing in health economics before moving into the department of politics and the centre for women’s studies in 1987, becoming professor in 1999 and emeritus in 2011. She was also visiting professor of Islamic law at the Robert Schuman University in Strasbourg.

In 2008 she made an appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, revealing an eclectic taste in music, ranging from Persian love songs to the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, and a mischievous, unforgettable and idiosyncratic style. She pushed boundaries and prodded at privilege. Her home was a place of extraordinary hospitality and warmth, where students and friends from all over the world thronged to enjoy Iranian cooking and stimulating conversation.

Shakespeare’s phrase “though she be but little she is fierce” might have been written for Haleh. Yet her fierceness was tempered by a wonderful pealing laugh and charm that could disarm her most implacable opponents, be they religious leaders or government ministers. She was made OBE in 2005 and a member of the House of Lords in 2007, where she sat as a crossbencher. She was an academician of the Academy of Social Sciences and held honorary doctorates from the universities of Essex and Bradford.

She married Maurice Dodson, emeritus professor of maths at York University, in 1974, and they had two children, Ali and Molly. Haleh was dogged by health problems, always disguised by her apparently endless energy and enthusiasm, but she was given a new lease of life when Maurice donated a kidney. He survives her, as do their children and their grandchildren, Kate and Hattie.

• Haleh Afshar (Lady Afshar), politics and women’s rights scholar, born 21 May 1944; died 12 May 2022

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