Publication Date

July 3, 2018

Perspectives Section

Member Spotlight, Perspectives Daily


  • Asia


Legal, Medicine, Science, & Technology, Religion

Mitra Sharafi is a professor of law and legal studies, with a history affiliation, at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin, and has been a member since 2010.

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Twitter: @mjsharafi

Mitra Sharafi

Mitra Sharafi

Alma maters: BA (history), McGill University, 1996; BA (law), Cambridge University, 1998; BCL (law), University of Oxford, 1999; PhD (history), Princeton University, 2006

Fields of interest: legal, forensics, science, medicine, religion, professions, South Asia, colonialism, empire

Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today? I did a history-law-history sandwich: an undergrad degree in history, then two law degrees, then a PhD in history. I was glad I had studied law before doing my history doctorate, so that my legal training could inform my historical research.

My father’s family is originally from Iran (near Shiraz), while my mom’s side were English puritans who came to Long Island before 1645. My parents came to Canada from the US, and I grew up in British Columbia. Cross-cultural interactions were a regular topic of discussion at our dinner table, and I think that is what drew me to the study of colonial India. I was also intrigued by India’s personal law system. In India, there is not one body of family law for everyone. You get the body of law that corresponds to your religion, applied by judges in the state courts who may not be members of your religious community.

What do you like the most about where you live and work? Madison, Wisconsin, is a very pleasant place to live and work. I have wonderful colleagues and am lucky to be at a law school that is open both to interdisciplinary research and to the study of non-US law. I love the fact that once a year, my South Asianist friends come to town for our Annual Conference on South Asia. I also enjoy the unusual mix of teaching I get to do: Contracts I for our new 1Ls every fall and my two undergrad legal studies/history courses (Legal Pluralism and History of Forensic Science) every spring.

What projects are you currently working on? I am working on my second book project, “Fear of the False: Forensic Science in Colonial India.” I am also writing an article on West African and South Asian law students at London’s Inns of Court circa 1900.

Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how? I spent the first decade of my career working on law and religion in history. Since then, I have shifted to law and science in history.

What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research? Around 2003, I was hunting for Hints to Young Lawyers (1911) by D. D. Davar, the first Parsi judge of the Bombay High Court. The judge was a key figure in my first book, but I had been unable to locate a copy of this obscure publication at any Indian, British, or American library. Then one day I found it in the tiny local library at Udvada, a small town in Gujarat that is home to the Iranshah Atash Behram, the most sacred Zoroastrian fire temple in India. The librarian was a short-tempered man who was about to close up shop, even though the library was supposed to stay open for another few hours. I could not take photos or make copies, nor could I check anything out as a visitor. But the librarian’s chess partner was a teenaged boy who checked the book out and loaned it to me for the afternoon. That was a wonderful memory of small-town kindness to strangers.

Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members? I appreciate a good documentary for teaching. In Legal Pluralism, I use Courts and Councils: Dispute Settlement in India (1981), a 30-minute documentary produced at UW about the many layers of dispute resolution in India—from the Nandiwala panchayats of an itinerant bull-trading community to the Supreme Court of India, and with some historical background. I did Legal History blog posts about teaching legal history through film here and here.

What do you value most about the history discipline? I love the combination of analytical rigor and storytelling.

Why is membership in the AHA important to you? The AHA helps me stay connected to the community of historians, especially while based at a law school. I am also committee chair for the American Society for Legal History’s new Stein Award for non-US legal history. Going through the book ads at the back of the AHA program is incredibly useful when hunting for eligible new books.

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.

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Matthew Keough
Matthew Keough

American Historical Association