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Exemplary Shia Women: Madam Zohreh Sefati

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Madam Zohreh SefatiThis will be the first of a series of articles on commendable female leaders and scholars of Shia Islam. This first piece discusses the life and accomplishments of a female Ayatollah, the esteemed Madam Zohreh Sefati. She is considered to be one of the most powerful personalities in Iran. Sefati is a member of the Socio-Cultural Council and a representative to the Supreme Council of Cultural Reforms.

Madam Sefati was born in Abadan, Iran, and raised in a religious family. She was the daughter of a pious, kindly man, and her mother was known for her noble personality and for having the entire Qur'an memorized. They both encouraged her to study the Qur'an and take advanced lessons from the young age of five; she learned many Islamic principles before even attending grammar school. Madam Sefati studied her high school level subjects at home before attending theology school in 1966.

She was inspired to study Islamic Sciences after learning about the life and scientific achievements of the great female jurist Hajiyeh Seyyedeh Nosrat Beygom Amin Isfahani (Lady Amin). During a pilgrimage to the Holy Shrine of Imam Ridha (peace be upon him) in Mashhad, Madam Sefati realized her dream of attending advanced school would come true. She was informed that a theology school for women had just been established in her town. Sefati took preliminary lessons of jurisprudence, literature, and Islamic Sciences in Abadan. In 1970, she left to attend Qom Theology School to continue her studies.

She was a student of renowned scholars such as Ayatollah Shahidi, Ayatollah Haqqi, Ayatollah Ali Meshkini and Ayatollah Mohammad Hassan Ahmadi-Faqih (who is her husband). These personalities helped shape her into a tremendous thinker and scholar of her own right.

Apart from general problems facing female scholars in Qom Theology School, her education coincided with the former Pahlavi regime's campaign against religion. Madam Sefati actively participated in Islamic propagation against the Pahlavi regime. She faced many hardships in the course of her anti-Shah activities, and her brother was martyred by that regime. She was also in communication regularly with Islamic thinkers, such as Ayatollah Murtadha Mutahhari, Ayatollah Beheshti and Ayatollah Qoddousi.

Madam Sefati achieved the highest jurisprudence degree (Ijtihad), an accomplishment made only by a small number of women. Her Ijtihad degree was approved unanimously by several Maraja' Taqleed, including Ayatollahs Ali Yari Gharavi-Tabrizi (a student of Ayatollah Naeini), Safi Gulpaygani, Fazel Lankarani, and Mohammad Hassan Ahmadi-Faqih. She has instructed several other renowned female scholars and has been inspiration for many others. Sefati has authored a plethora of books and papers on Islamic jurisprudence.

Many female scholars complain that reaching the degree of Ijtihad is no use for them as long as they cannot be a Source of Imitation and therefore truly respected as Islamic scholars. Madam Sefati replied in her works that the responsibilities of a jurist are not only limited to those of a Source of Imitation. She added that female jurists can serve society by helping Muslims interpret Islamic principles as well. Sefati highlighted that there is growing controversy among Islamic scholars with regard to whether women can become Sources of Imitation, stating that "a number of renowned Islamic scholars believe Islam does not ban female jurists from growing to be Sources of Imitation."

Madam Sefati has also founded schools for women, establishing the Women's Theology School in Qom in 1970. She has been a force to be reckoned with in her academic and scholarly career, and continues to be this day. She was one of the 3,000 exemplary women commended by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and received a plaque of honor from the Chief Executive in October 2006. Madam Zohreh Sefati's life, accomplishments, and struggles have been a source of inspiration and knowledge for all aspiring Shia scholars, both male and female.

Author of this article: Zahara Abdi
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