Interview with 2022 Iles Award Winner Zahra Abedinezhad

Zahra Abedinezhad is a Ph.D candidate in Comparative Studies and Folklore at OSU. Having backgrounds in Law (TMU, Iran) and in Folk Studies (Western Kentucky University), she is interested in exploring intersections between religious practices and social regulations/codes. She is currently working on mourning performances of Iranian women. Shurouq Ibrahim, CSR’S Graduate Research Associate, sat down with Zahra to see what the CSR’s Iles Award means for her research!

Shurouq: Hi, Zahra. Thanks for doing this interview with the Center for the Study of Religion. Would you just introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your research?

Zahra: Sure. I’m Zahra Abedinezhad. I’m a Ph.D candidate in Comparative Studies with a GIS in folklore. It’s my fourth year of the Ph.D, and my research is called “Resisting Mourning: Vernacular Ta’ziyeh in Iran.” The focal point of my research is a myth that [is] called the “Karbala” event. Some people [call it] an event; some people say it [is] a story…but it’s a sacred story, and based on our definition in folklore and religious studies, we call this a myth. So, I am trying to understand how this myth is interpreted and used by people and how this [clashes] with an understanding of religious authorities in power. At different times, throughout history, this myth becomes a source for people to perform a vernacular religious theatre that is called Ta’ziyeh, and I have that in the title [of my dissertation]. As I said, Ta’ziyeh literally means mourning. So, people reenact that story via Ta’ziyeh. Throughout history, sometimes [Ta’ziyeh] was complicated; it was forbidden, [but] sometimes it was a national symbol of the country [Iran] —  we have a Karbala vernacular folkloristic theatre…

But I, as a folklore researcher/researcher who is interested in religious studies, (because this is a ritual, this a sacred story that ritual is based on that), I am trying to understand at this current time in Iran specifically because of different critical, social, cultural circumstances, how different groups, different communities interpret this story to perform their resistance. There is a sub-group that I discovered so far, that I identified, that [says] the way that [the Karbala myth] is performed or should be performed is really trying to challenge [those in] power. But, this is the way that [only one] group of Iranians claim it. But the way that the state treats this performance is very complicated. Sometimes they say, this is good and we accept this because it helps the proliferation of [the] Shia movement (because the majority of the Iranians are Shia and they stake claims to the Islamic Republic). But for those groups [that mentioned before], they say, “We are religious; we like to perform religion but the way that this performance should be performed is really challenging whoever is [in] power.” Shiism was supposed to be a band of rebels against tyranny and now because tyranny is happening and is implement[ed] by the Islamic authorities and power in Iran, they are saying: “What if we interpret this Ta’ziyeh, this performance, as a performance of resistance and just try to learn some lessons from this performance. It is not enough to just perform it; it is a resource for learning ethical and religious principles and one is: resisting tyranny — resistance mandatory rules. I am more interested in these kinds of interpretations, and I want to know how Ta’ziyeh and the Karbala myth is used as a means of resistance in current times in Iran.

Shurouq: I think you’ve already touched on how your research is relevant to the study of religion. You previously won the Center for the Study of Religion’s Iles Award. Could you tell us how the Iles Award advanced your research or what the award means to your research?

Zahra: First of all, it’s the validity that the award can give to my research. It is good to be connected with different centers, specifically when your primary themes [are] related to their subjects of study. Again, this is a vernacular religious theatre that is performed in Iran. This is focal to the system also, because the system (the Islamic Republic of Iran) is a religious system. First, and the most important thing for me was the validity — the prestige of winning an award.

Second, of course, financially, because my topic is a bit sensitive and I have to be cautious about the way that I talk and the way that I publicize my research so I cannot really save the data that I collect in [the] cloud or free spaces. I have to, for example, buy hard drives to save a lot pictures, a lot videos, and a lot of tweets, because I have to take screenshots of a lot of tweets. I have to save them in equipment, right? So, this award helped me to buy those kinds of research equipment. Before, I was planning to go to Iran to do my fieldwork in person. Unfortunately, so far, I [have not been] able to do it, it’s not possible to go there — to make it possible. But I am still waiting, so I saved some of this money for my trip in the future, but also [the] archive is one of the other research methods that I use and I was able, for example, to go to the archive of film studies in New York to collect some data there. Also, in D.C., I was able to collect some archival materials in the summer about Ta’ziyeh and how this was performed in different historical periods. Besides the legitimacy and besides the “fame” of the award, I am using that as a kind of source to overcome the financial barriers, you know, the fiscal barriers that I encounter during my research…what else? And equipment, really, equipment. And you know, we, as Ph.D students, always need books, right? Of course, borrowing from libraries is an option, but sometimes you really want to have those books. For example, during summer, I needed to have those books with [me] when I was traveling, so it was easier to buy the books…I think that’s it!

Shurouq: Well, thank you. I appreciate you answering my questions. Those were all the questions I had for you today.