Sabereh Ahmadi Movaghar, one of two chador-wearing Iranian women enrolled in “Leadership for Healthy Organizations,” said she appreciated the way the class incorporated an array of projects and exercises. Movaghar was one of nine Iranian women from an Islamic seminary who took classes with people from all over the world in the 2014 Summer Peacebuilding Institute at Eastern Mennonite University. (Photo by Kara Lofton)

Iranian-Islamic women scholars embrace model of interactive teaching at Summer Peacebuilding Institute

For two women from an Islamic seminary in Iran, one of the best parts about attending the 2014 Summer Peacebuilding Institute at Eastern Mennonite University is experiencing an interactive style of teaching, where lengthy lectures are rare and role-playing is common.

“We do lots of exercises, many projects, in this class,” said Sabereh Ahmadi Movaghar, referring to “Leadership for Healthy Organizations” taught as a seven-day intensive by David Brubaker, PhD, and Roxann “Roxy” Allen Kioko ’04, MA ’07.

Movaghar holds two master’s degrees – one in Shi’a Islam studies and the other in Islamic jurisprudence – which took a total of four years to earn. “I love studying; I am hungry to know,” she said by way of explaining her hope of continuing through a PhD and then teaching. For this reason, she has been an alert observer of the teaching methods employed in her current class at SPI and her previous one, “Faith-based Peacebuilding,” taught by Roy Hange, a Mennonite scholar and pastor.

Movaghar also praises “the very good friends I have made here, who I’ve invited to come to Iran,” as well as the opportunity to learn more about conflicts in the world, along with post-conflict reconciliation processes, especially those occurring in Africa.

Movaghar is one of nine women from Qom, Iran, who are taking classes at EMU’s annual Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI). Their home institution, Jamiat al-Zahra, is the world’s largest Islamic seminary for women, with 5,000 Iranian students, 1,000 international students and 10,000 enrolled in distance learning. The nine students at SPI are all linked to the postgraduate section of the seminary’s international department.

 “These women are excellent, diligent students,” said J. Daryl Byler, executive director of EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. “They are devoutly religious as well as delightful – with great personalities, warm laughs, and deep insights. The friendships being built are priceless.”

The group is led by Mohammad Shomali, an internationally known scholar of Islam and dean of postgraduate students at Jamiat al-Zahra. Shomali has designated the women’s English-language instructor, who wishes to be known as “Zainab,” as the coordinator for the women when he is not present.

Reflecting on her methods of teaching English at the Iranian seminary, Zainab cited the “practical strategies used at SPI” as a key take-away from her two SPI classes. She said she also appreciates the “rich experiences” enabled by having highly diverse classmates from different parts of the world. The atmosphere at SPI is “warm, open, and friendly,” she said. “Everyone is respectful of everyone’s beliefs.”

Zainab is often mistaken as one who comes from outside the United States, given her fully covered appearance in loose black clothing, except for her face. Actually, though, she is an American of Lebanese heritage, who completed most of her foundational education in public schools in Michigan. She holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English from the University of Michigan, plus a teaching certificate.

In addition to directing the English as a Second Language program at Jamiat al-Zahra – in which about 45 women are enrolled each year – Zainab is completing a PhD. For her dissertation, she is working on a textbook that will use religiously and culturally appropriate text as the basis for teaching English to non-native speakers within the Shi’a Islamic tradition.

In her first SPI class, “Understanding Psychosocial Trauma” taught by Dr. Al Fuertes, Zainab joined participants from 10 other countries to explore the social, psychological, neurobiological, physical, and spiritual processes of moving from violence to healing and transforming trauma. “I’ve studied sociology before, but never with a focus on the psychosocial aspects of trauma,” she said, “and rarely in a class as filled with activities. … Al was a great professor.” Zainab’s second class was “The Impact of Social Issues on Restorative Justice taught by Carl Stauffer, PhD, and Jacqueline Roebuck Sakho, MA ’09.

Movaghar and Zainab were part of two earlier educational trips to another Mennonite institution, Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg. In the summer of 2011, they took a one-week course on Christian understandings of peace and justice, followed by “Introduction to Christianity” in June 2012.

These women are the latest in a chain of Muslim-Mennonite interactions that goes back to 1991, when Mennonite Central Committee responded to a devastating earthquake in Iran. Educational exchanges followed that first contact.

Relations have grown to be highly collaborative. For instance, Shomali was a guest instructor in “Faith-based Peacebuilding,” which focused on identifying sources of conflict and resources for peacebuilding found in several faith communities and traditions, along with interfaith engagement.

During a break between SPI sessions, Shomali and most of the women went to Washington D.C., where they visited the Library of Congress, met with some Muslim women lawyers at the office of the El-Hibri Foundation, and had a meeting at Georgetown University organized by CJP graduate Rasoul Naqavi. They also visited the Capitol Hill offices of Mennonite Central Committee.

Ed Martin, director of the Center for Interfaith Engagement at EMU, has visited Iran more than two dozen times since 1991 and will be returning to Iran later this month for the 6th Mennonite-Shi’a dialogue. In addition to Martin, the EMU delegation includes Christian Early, a professor of philosophy and theology, and several students.

On an earlier two-day trip, they visited MCC’s headquarters in Akron, Pennsylvania, met with an Amish bishop, and attended a service and Sunday school class at James Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Shomali told an EMU reporter that he hoped for better relations between the people of Iran and people of the United States and noted similarities between Quranic and Christian teachings about the importance of peace. “God says about the Quran in the Quran itself that God guides with the Qur’an those who seek His pleasure to the ways of peace (5:15).” There are “lots of things we can learn from each other,” he added. Iranians are rational people and “when you are rational, you tend to dialogue with people of other faiths and other cultures.”

Shomali welcomed more exchanges of Americans and Iranians from a variety of fields, including artists and professionals. He said that to reduce mutual misperceptions and encourage peace, “Nothing can replace face-to-face encounters. Our first Imam, Imam Ali, is quoted as saying: ‘People become hostile towards what they don’t know.’”