Mitra Sharafi, University of Wisconsin

Pure Parsi: Libel, Race and Group Membership in Colonial South Asia

Mon, 11/28/2011
4:30 - 6:00 PM, Kerstetter Room, Marx Hall
Event Category: 

We hope you will join us for a LAPA Seminar with Professor Mitra Sharafi of the University of Wisconsin Law School, to discuss ""Pure Parsi: Libel, Race and Group Membership in Colonial South Asia."  Her commentator will be Cyrus Schayegh of the Near Eastern Studies Department.

As always, the LAPA format asks that seminar participants familiarize themselves with the paper in advance. The commentator will open the session by summarizing the main themes in the paper and presenting some topics for discussion. The author then has the right of first response before we open to the floor for questions. The seminar will end with a brief reception in the Kerstetter Room, giving everyone a chance to mingle and meet.  Copies of the paper will be available prior to the event.


Legal historians of the US have examined libel cases in which people accused of being black sued to defend their reputation as white. This paper examines similar constructions of racial purity and identity in another corner of the Anglosphere: British India. The Parsis were an ethno-religious minority that followed the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism in their adopted home of India. In the 1910s, a series of libel suits arose among them in Bombay and Rangoon over the insinuation that some were not of pure Parsi stock, but of mixed Asian lineage. The colonial courtroom became a setting for the consolidation of a newly restrictive, eugenics-inspired model of collective identity. The trials also reflected a shift in notions of purity—from ritual to racial—accompanied by a new nostalgia for Persia as it was imagined by a community that had left over a millennium before.

Mitra Sharafi is a legal historian of colonial India who has taught at the University of Wisconsin Law School (with History affiliation) since 2007. She holds degrees in law from Cambridge (BA 1998) and Oxford (BCL 1999) and a doctorate in history from Princeton (Ph.D. 2006). Sharafi is completing a book manuscript on the legal culture of the Parsis or Zoroastrians of British India, a project funded in 2009-11 by a National Science Foundation research grant. She is a member of the Institute for Advanced Study (School of Historical Studies) in 2011-12, where she is starting work on a project about medical jurisprudence and poisoning in British India. Her research interests include legal pluralism, law and religion, and the history of the legal profession.

Cyrus Schayegh is Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Studies Department, Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University (2004) and taught at the American University of Beirut from 2005–2008. Schayegh's areas of interest include the social history of the Middle East and the Levant, the history of Arab-Israeli relations, and modern Iran. His main current project seeks to reread the formation of the post-Ottoman Levant by examining the interaction, across that region, of new states and cross-border movements of goods and people. Schayegh's publications include "Who Is Knowledgeable Is Strong. Science, Class, and the Formation of Modern Iranian Society, 1900-1950" (California University Press, 2009); "A history of eugenics in Iran," Alison Bashford and Philippa Levine, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); as well as many international journal articles.