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Baroness Professor Haleh Afshar, OBE

Posted on 26 May 2022

It was with great sadness that we heard of the death of a valued colleague, Professor Haleh Afshar, Baroness Afshar of Heslington, on May 12th.

The Department of CWS is deeply saddened to record the death of Professor Haleh Afshar at the age of 77. Haleh, as she was simply known to colleagues and students alike, was one of the first undergraduates to study at the newly opened University of York in 1963 where she graduated in social sciences in 1967. In 1968 Haleh began work on her PhD in Land Economy at the University of Cambridge as a member of New Hall (now Murray Edwards College) on the subject of land reform in Ireland and Iran. In 1972 she took the Diplôme de Droit Comparé Communauté Européen at the University of Strasbourg and in 1974 she received her doctorate from Cambridge. In the same year, she married Maurice Dodson, a young lecturer in Mathematics from New Zealand who Haleh had previously met while studying at the University of York. Haleh then returned to her native Iran to work on land reform policy for the Ministry of Co-operatives and Rural Development. Haleh and Maurice’s daughter Molly was born in 1977 and the following year their son Ali was born. While working at the Ministry, Haleh devoted her time to really understanding the lives of rural dwellers in Iran and the problems and challenges faced by women in particular.

The experience of being a political exile from her country of birth shaped Haleh’s lifelong commitment to supporting and speaking out on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers including as patron of Refugee Action York. After a lectureship at Bradford University from 1976 to 1985, Haleh joined the University of York as a lecturer in health economics before joining the Centre for Women’s Studies and Department of Politics in 1987. She was appointed Professor of Politics and Women’s Studies in 1999 and Emeritus Professor in 2011. Haleh’s career as an academic and activist subsequently focused on the study of Islamic feminism as well as contributing to its development as a leading theorist. Among the important books that Haleh Afshar authored and edited are Iran, A Revolution In Turmoil (1985); Women in the Middle East. PerceptionsRealities and Struggles for Liberation (1993), Women and Politics in the Third World (1996), Women the State and Ideology (1987), Women and Empowerment (1998) and Islam and Feminism (1998). The courses she taught, especially Politics of the Middle East, reflected Haleh’s vast knowledge of the region, helping to establish the development studies cluster at York as one of the most influential and highly regarded in Britain and around the world.

Haleh saw no contradiction in being a feminist scholar and an educated Muslim woman with a deep knowledge of Koranic teachings and texts. When the Khomeini government attempted to prevent women’s access to education she declared:  ‘They’re scared of educated women. Because educated women can actually read classical Arabic, access the Koranic teachings, and demand their rights, contextualised in the Koranic teachings….taking on the Iranian government on its own terms…’. As a founder member of the Centre for Women’s Studies, Haleh firmly believed that only by addressing the needs of women, who because of their faith, ethnic identity, socio-economic or immigration status were often the most marginalised in society, would it be possible to tackle gender inequality. Along with Centre for Women’s Studies colleagues Mary Maynard, Delia Smith and Nicole Ward, Haleh attracted and supervised brilliant postgraduates from around the world, many of whom have gone on to become leading academics in their own right. Haleh also worked with Mary Maynard as series editor of the University of York’s Women’s Studies Book Series. 

Alongside her long career at the University of York, where she became one of its first female Professors of Politics, Haleh was also Visiting Professor of Islamic law at the Robert Schuman University in Strasbourg, France. She served as Chair of the British Association for Middle East Studies, Deputy Chair of the British Council’s Gender and Development Task Force and as Chair of the United Nations Association International Service, as well as numerous public commissions, committees and parliamentary bodies. Haleh Afshar was appointed an OBE in 2005 for services to equal opportunities and made a life peer in 2007. She was an academician of the Academy of Social Sciences and held honorary doctorates from the University of Essex, University of Kent, York St. John University and the University of Bradford.

Haleh is survived by her devoted family, her husband Professor Maurice Dodson and their two children, Ali Afshar Dodson, Molly Newton and grandchildren Kate and Hattie. Haleh always described her children as ‘her greatest achievement’ and she and the family shared the warmth and hospitality of their beautiful Heslington home with generations of students and visitors for whom there was always a bowl of delicious soup ladled out to the accompaniment of Haleh’s peeling laughter around their crowded kitchen table.

Among the music chosen when she appeared as a guest on Desert Island Discs was Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, Je ne regrette rien’. All who knew her would say that this was a fitting description of Haleh’s attitude to life.

Here are some tributes and messages for Haleh:

CWS Staff - Haleh was one of the founding members of the Centre for Women’s Studies, supervised numerous PhD students and was a key contributor to our teaching programme for over three decades. In particular, she was instrumental in internationalising the curriculum and encouraging us to challenge Eurocentric perspectives on gender and women’s lives. We have received a flood of touching tributes from past students attesting to the care and support Haleh gave them and to her inspirational teaching. She is remembered with respect and affection by all who worked with her. 

Jyothsna Belliappa - Her students recall her homemade soup and bread lunches, her generosity, the pride and affection with which she introduced us to other scholars or to
get colleagues in parliament, her relentless championship of her students...the annual Development Studies Association meetings where students could present ideas which were still in draft knowing that they would find a supportive audience. Here is a link to one of her annual ‘Women and Development’
conferences, this one part of our 25th anniversary programme

Hiranmayee Mishra - I am shocked to believe that Haleh is no more. I can never forget how much care and comfort she offered me during my stay in England. She was one of the reasons why I loved Heslington so much. It’s unbelievable that I can't drop her a mail anymore or even I can't talk to her in my thoughts whenever I am in a conflict. Her ever-smiling face and kindness, her loving voice and her constant supportas a supervisor created a personal relationship. I will remember her till we meet again. Wherever you are, rest in peace dearest Haleh, you will always be in my heart.

Anna Liddle - So sad to hear this. She was an amazing teacher and a fabulous woman. She was so generous to host our graduation after party. I was also thinking this morning about how inspirational I found her Women, Citizenship and Conflict and how it really sparked my interest for what was to become my career focus.

Rifat Mahbub - Without Haleh Afshar's important works in the early 1980s, academic research with ethnic minority women would have been even slower to bloom. A life worth living, and rest in peace, Haleh.

Anne Fairbank - So sad to hear this news. I hope her passing was peaceful. I have fond memories of my first trip to a conference in India with her.

Heidi Allene Henrickson - I’m so sorry to hear that she is no longer sharing this plane with us… we had such fascinating conversations about just that topic and global perspectives on “life on earth”… she was a wonder, and she enriched my experience at York!

Louise Livesey - Haleh was so inspirational and influential on my, and other people's, thinking and activism. Such sad news. May her memory be always a blessing on our lives.

Angham A Abdullah - Haleh inspired me a lot with her thinking and activism and she will always be remembered as a beautiful soul. May her soul rest in peace. 

Ihsan Sultan - Such sad news but we can celebrate her life and her many contributions and achievements at York University, she was a generous person and full of life. My condolences to her family. 

Linda Whiting - Sad news indeed. Haleh was an inspirational woman, both in the Centre for Women's Studies and in her support for the work of the University's Equality and Diversity Office when I worked there. Fond memories of our MA graduation party which she hosted in her home. Condolences to her family.

A commemoration for Haleh Afshar is planned for late July/early August this year.

Baroness Afshar of Heslington, Emeritus Professor of and Women’s Studies and Politics, May 21, 1944 to May 12, 2022