May 30 2024

Introducing...the Islam, Gender, and Women Group

Interview with Aysha Hidayatullah and Kecia Ali, Cochairs, Islam, Gender, and Women Group

Five women sitting on stairs outside a building in Sarajevo chatting. Four are veiled, and one is reading a book.

Each year, the AAR's program committee reviews applications for new program units to be added to the Annual Meeting. Proposed program units must demonstrate how they will contribute to the field and are judged on a number of factors: whether they represent an emerging area of study, if there's a significant scholarly demand, and how they will contribute to the Annual Meeting program.

Among the newest program units to be inducted into the Annual Meeting program is the Islam, Gender, and Women Group. In this interview, cochairs Kecia Ali and Aysha Hidayatullah explain to RSN the Group's commitment to nontraditional programming, its relationship with feminism, and the rhetoric of objectivity.

Religious Studies News: Both of you have been active in the AAR program before, as panelists, presiders, or steering committee members of the Study of Islam Section, Feminist Theory and Religious Reflection Group, Qur’an Group, and the Religion and Sexuality Group among others. Why create a new group instead of exploring these questions in existing program units?

Aysha Hidayatullah: The already existing Islam program units, as well as the various program units focused on the areas of women, gender, feminism, and sexuality, already incorporate the topics of our subfield into their panel programs productively and regularly. That work should continue exactly as such; we do not aim to change what is already happening very successfully in those units, which are doing the vital work of supporting mainstream engagement with our subfield.

Our aim with the new IGW group is to do something quite different—and to do it via nontraditional programming. IGW will provide a space that does not exist elsewhere to discuss the metaquestions of the subfield. Such a large, growing, and urgent subfield requires a formalized space to address its aims, methods, theories, trajectories, and lacunae, as well as to support the professional development and networking of its established and new scholars. The subfield needs a space for sustained examination of its methodological and theoretical problems, its gaps, and its new lines of inquiry; it needs a dedicated venue for creating resources and scholarly networks to advance the field. IGW's aim is to support scholarly reflexivity in a collaborative and collegial setting where we can carefully address methods/approaches and the professional dimensions of research, teaching, and broader public engagement with the subfield. It is simply not possible to do this vital work without the space to focus on it intentionally and collectively.

Kecia Ali: It is also our intention to collaborate with scholars whose primary scholarly activity centers on another program unit. For instance, we might cosponsor a “state of the field” workshop with a group focused on women or feminism but not Islam, bringing colleagues together and enriching our conversation. We will cosponsor a mentoring session this year with the other Islam program units. We are not trying to usurp anyone’s territory, and we are particularly insistent on not doing things that might lead to the marginalization of women and gender from other Islam units, or Islam from women/gender/sexuality units. We aim to increase connections and collaborations while deepening scholarly engagement and conversation among those whose primary interests center on Islam, gender, and women.

The IGW Group’s statement of purpose explains that the new group will move attention away from the “woman question in Islam” and instead examine “the relational formation and subversion of genders.” Can you talk more about what this means?

KA: In thinking about the name for our group, we considered possibilities including “Women, Gender, and Islam.” The title we ultimately chose makes reference to both gender and women.

There is a long history of treating “women in Islam” or “Muslim women” or “the Muslimwoman” as a timeless, place-less, stereotyped figure who lives, as anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod puts it, in Islamland. Talk about “the woman question” often results in apologetics around women’s status in Islam or appeals to solve Muslim women’s plight. It is a deeply politicized frame. Even nuanced scholarship on the topic of women and Islam often revolves around a few questions having to do with religious source-texts and a handful of practices deemed problematic or relevant. We aim to support scholarship on a much broader range of topics and questions.

It’s a basic recognition of feminist scholarship that gender is relational, that masculinity and femininity are mutually constitutive, often defined in opposition to one another. The best research into Muslim women’s lives appreciates the variable, contingent, and complex ways in which gender is constructed in diverse contexts, past and present. Scholars in our group are interested in an array of Muslim masculinities and femininities, including dominant and emergent ways of being male or female. Gender in our group name also is meant to include investigation of gender identities that do not fit into a male-female binary.

At the same time, we did not want to only explore gender. The category “women” is socially and historically meaningful. A focus on only gender can ignore the real life circumstances of those who identify—or are identified—as women.

AH: The “woman question in Islam” is often steeped in assumptions about Islam’s supposedly unique “woman problem” and Muslim women’s need to be rescued, which lead to predetermined, reactionary, and stunted ways of talking. But who exactly are these Muslim women who are so frequently referred to as a homogeneous group? And why is it always the “status of women” in Islam that is queried—why is it never the “status of men”, especially when the two are interdependent? Thinking about how gender is inhabited allows us to pursue a far richer and more productive line of questioning.

The group’s inaugural year at the Annual Meeting will include two sessions: one cosponsored mentoring/networking session for scholars whose work focuses on gender and/or women and Islam, and a workshop on the relationship between scholarship and activism. The subject of the workshop is one most often associated with area studies—and in this case, there are three at play (Islamic studies, women’s studies, and gender studies). How do activism and scholarship intersect in this field, and what are you opinions on the rhetoric of “objectivity”?

AH: Charged discourses on Islam, women, and gender pervade media and policy discussions in both Muslim- and non-Muslim-majority contexts. So it comes as no surprise that the study of our subfield's topics would often be inspired by an interest in, and in some cases even seek to impact, efforts to rethink and reform problems engaging gender and Islam "on the ground" (for lack of a better term). This, of course, raises crucial questions about the role of the scholar—non-Muslim or Muslim—in the political engagements with which our scholarship dialogues. What are the motivations, stakes, responsibilities, and risks for scholars in this subfield? How do we honestly and ethically address the place of prescriptive or normative work, from both confessional and nonconfessional perspectives, in our scholarship? What is the impact, whether intentional or not, of our scholarship on Muslim communities? These are urgent matters for us to address in IGW.

KA: Objectivity is often a code word for purportedly disinterested studies that in reality support an unjust status quo. All scholars have biases and precommitments. It is essential to be aware of, and honest about, them. How exactly scholars go about compensating for their biases, exploring them, or connecting their normative commitments (religious or otherwise) with scholarship as well as advocacy and activism—well, that’s one of the things IGW aims to explore.

Scholarly study of gender as an identity category became a reality during the 1970s in response to—and as part of—the women’s and feminist movements. How much does this (largely North American and Western European) ancestry inform the current work in the field, and do you feel its categories are applicable across Muslim traditions?

KA: The question of the relationship of Western-identified concepts such as feminism to Muslim women’s experiences is fraught. Muslim women’s activism for gender justice or equality is often dismissed as inauthentic and “Westoxicated.” Yet there have been active feminist movements in the Arab Middle East since at least the early twentieth century. The scholarly study of gender has a lineage grounded in Western European and North American intellectual life, true, but the lines of inquiry are multiple and its internal debates manifold.

The best scholarship on gender and Islam recognizes that gender regimes in places with Muslims majorities may differ in dramatic and instructive ways from the norms now current in industrialized Western societies. India’s hijras, and the Malaysian third gender studied by Michael Peletz, confound male-female binaries. Afsaneh Najmabadi’s nuanced scholarship on trans identity and same-sex desire in contemporary Iran illustrates how gendered inquiry in dialogue with Western theory but attentive to local categories can bring not only better understanding of the ‘object’ of study but also a reevaluation of the scholarly tools used.

AH: There has been of course a robust and longstanding debate about the genealogy of feminism and the appropriateness of its terminologies as applied to Islamic contexts. There are a wide range of often contentious opinions on this, but what I think is most important is the very fact that the issues are and continue to be debatable. There is no one way to understand the origins, terms, contours, or boundaries of feminism. Even if one wants to claim that feminism and its epistemologies are irrevocably Western, there is by now a rich record of past and present debates, well documented in our subfield, with which to wrestle in formulating that position. It is an ongoing conversation.

The IGW Group has committed itself to nontraditional forms of programming. What sort of nontraditional programming does the group hope to sponsor? In general, how would you improve Annual Meeting programming?

AH: There are many ideas on the table: mentoring/advising sessions promote professional development; “speed dating” style discussion rotations for networking purposes; sessions centering on film screenings or art installations; and workshops for things such as: discussion of precirculated texts (which we’ll do this year); developing papers in progress; small discussions at "themed" tables; sharing/generating/updating annotated bibliographies;  media training; pedagogy; and collaborative work on joint publications and electronic resources.

Traditional paper sessions are not an ideal format for making connections and discussing the intellectual and professional dimensions of carrying on research and writing projects. Having more opportunities for small, focused, pre-organized discussions will help facilitate those kinds of conversations and relationships.

KA: In addition to my role with IGW, I serve on an AAR Membership Task Force. There are many challenges confronting the organization, but the quality of Annual Meeting programming is not at the top of the list. Instead, questions about scholarly connections, about academic careers, about fairness in academic life are most crucial. Having said that, AAR is interested in fostering new forms of scholarly presentation that go beyond the twenty-minute paper. A variety of new formats, session lengths, and more are being tried out. IGW fits into these new initiatives.

Tell me more about the mentoring component that is central to the group’s mission.

KA: Mentoring and networking are central to IGW’s purpose.

The AAR is a massive organization. Ten thousand people might attend an annual meeting. It’s intimidating for a lot of people, especially newer scholars. Even if one narrows it down to a smaller area of study, there are hundreds of scholars studying Islam and Muslims.

The leadership of the Islam-related program units (Study of Islam Section, Qur’an Group, Islamic Mysticism Group, and Contemporary Islam Group) coordinates activities in a way that is unusual in the AAR. We have been collectively invested in mentoring and professional development for junior scholars, and have worked toward that aim in a variety of informal and ad-hoc ways. This year, these four units along with the IGW group will cosponsor a mentoring session with thematic tables. Program unit leaders and other mid-career and senior scholars will facilitate the conversations.

Mentoring and networking are a particular interest of IGW. In fact, the group grew out of mentoring and networking breakfasts held during the annual meetings in 2012 and 2013. These breakfasts, limited to around twenty people because of funding, brought together scholars at all career stages, inside and outside the academy. It was the group consensus that this contact among scholars studying gender, sexuality, and women was important.

There are, it is vital to note, other opportunities for mentoring at AAR. The Status of Women in the Profession Committee and the Committee on Racial and Ethnic Minorities cohost a Women’s Mentoring Lunch each year with mid-career and senior scholars available to junior scholars. The Committee on the Status of Persons with Disabilities hosts a lunch, as does the Committee on the Status of LGBTIQ Persons; these lunches are less explicitly mentoring-focused and more aimed at connection and networking. These committees have also put a pilot mentoring program in place, to match advanced graduate students or junior scholars with mentors.

Needless to say, we encourage IGW members to make connections through these avenues as well.

AH: The sharing of knowledge and resources through mentorship is a mode for sharing the institutional power of established scholars with newer scholars, in line with feminist values. In my service to the AAR, I am interested in supporting not only feminist scholarship but also feminist professionalism.

The IGW Group will host a session, "Academic Scholarship and Activism: Negotiating Normativities, Subjectivities, and Feminism," on Monday, November 23, 1:00–3:30 pm, and cosponsor a mentoring session for scholars studying Muslims and Islam on Sunday, November 22, 1:00–2:30 pm (with the Study of Islam Section, Contemporary Islam Group, Qu'ran Group, and Islamic Mysticism Group) at the 2015 AAR Annual Meeting in Atlanta, GA. For more information, refer to the preliminary Program Book.

Aysha Hidayatullah (PhD, University of California, Santa Barbara) is associate professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit institution where she teaches courses on Islam, gender, race, and ethics. She is the author of Feminist Edges of the Qur'an (Oxford University Press, 2014) and serves on the editorial board for the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. Her research interests include feminist exegesis of the Qurʾan, femininity and masculinity in the Islamic tradition, representations of women in early Islam, racial imaginaries of US Islam, popular discourses on Muslim women in the United States, and the pedagogy of Islamic studies.

Kecia Ali (PhD, Duke University) is associate professor of religion at Boston University where she teaches a range of classes on Islam. Her research ranges from Islam’s formative period to the present, and focuses on Islamic law; gender and sexuality; and religious biography. Her most recent book is The Lives of Muhammad (Harvard University Press, 2014). An expanded tenth anniversary edition of Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence is forthcoming (Oneworld, 2016). She coedited the revised edition of A Guide for Women in Religion (Palgrave, 2014), which provides guidance for careers in religious studies and theology. In addition to her work with the American Academy of Religion, she became president of the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics in 2014.

Image by Kashfi Halford (Flickr user kashklick). Licensed CC BY-NC 2.0. In Sarajevo, Bosnia.