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Engendering and Experience: Teaching a Course on Women in Islam

Zayn Kassam

INSTRUCTORS EMBARKING ON TEACHING a course on women in the Islamic tradition often start out with questions such as: “How am I going to teach a course on Women and Gender Issues in Islam?” “How can I organize so much material into a one-semester format?” “How do I teach a course on women in Islam to students who may have very little exposure either to Women’s Studies or to Islam?” Beth Baron’s review article is an excellent starting point, and indeed she points out that “the scholarly literature on women in the Middle East has increased so rapidly in the past few years that it is almost impossible to keep up with this body of material.”1 As the 1991 publication of the Association for Middle East Women’s Studies (AMEWS) attests,2 the literature available in English with respect to Muslim women living in diverse societies has undergone a rapid and momentous increase over the last twenty years. The challenges facing instructors concern how to lend focus, cohesion, and integrity to the burgeoning and expanding realm of materials. This chapter will suggest some modular approaches that could be utilized by instructors within which currently available studies of Muslim women and gender issues may be set. Although this discussion is primarily situated within the interdisciplinary methodology of the History of Religions, it is hoped that each of these modules can be adapted to the specific needs and disciplines of instructors. The bibliographic references appended are provided as starting points and are not to be taken as exhaustive, especially more so given the robust rate of publication in the area of Muslim gender studies.

In devising my frameworks of enquiry, I sought to isolate some overarching principles that might organize the vast subject matter while simultaneously emphasizing the interconnections and intersections that exist in the realities of women’s lives. Since it is impossible in the course of one semester to include all the modules suggested, it is possible to vary the emphases of the course from year to year and factor in additional modules that could conceivably emerge. For instance, students have come to me with requests to develop independent courses focusing solely on, say, “Contemporary Muslim Feminist Literature,” “Writings by Iranian Women,” “The Challenge of Muslim Feminist Activism,” “Women and Politics in Muslim Societies,” “Muslim Women as Other in Colonial and Post-Colonial Discourses,” “Muslim Feminist Theology.” The possibilities are endless. My rationale for isolating the frameworks of analysis and investigation is to examine the construction of gender and gender expectations in classical and medieval Muslim sources considered authoritative in Islamic societies and inscribed in social institutions aimed at prescribing women’s comportment in the public sphere, the family, and women’s rights. Simultaneously, we need to examine women’s experiences, strategies, and discourses to understand how women have sought to name and define their own realities and negotiate their agency in contexts in which such agency is not explicitly recognized or is channeled or restricted by social and cultural custom and religious mores. Hence, the title of my course: “Engendering and Experience: Women in the Islamic Tradition.”

Thus, under the rubric of Engendering, I have included four modules: (1)-Women, Patriarchy, and Islam; (2) Authoritative Islamic Sources for Gender Roles; (3) Legal Discourses; and (4) Intersectionalities of State, Society, Economics, and Islamist Discourse. Under the rubric of Experience, I include four additional modules: (5) Feminist (or Woman-Sensitive) Critiques; (6)-Women’s Ritual Participation and Feminine Spirituality; (7) Recovering Herstories; (8)-Women’s Experiences. Although the two rubrics, Engendering and Experience, serve broadly to classify the material examined, they are by no means mutually exclusive. My rationales for each module are given under each heading.

Women, Patriarchy, and Islam

Many of my students enter with the assumption that Islam has the corner on discriminatory ideology and practices and express immediately their distaste at the sight of veiled women. This introductory module aims to expose students to a sampling of theoretical reflections on religion, society, and gender, such as those offered by Gerda Lerner, Rita Gross, and Katherine K. Young. The latter, for instance, draws attention, as a starting point, to the connection between patriarchal structures, the subordination of women, social organization, symbolic expression of gender, and female power.3 Mary Daly’s identification of patriarchal strategies employed to derail gender issues and concerns from becoming part of the social conscience is helpful in problematizing how discourses can perpetuate gender inequities.4 I also call upon an essay by Deniz Kandiyoti that investigates different forms of male dominance and the manner in which these affect the actual practice of Islam and the ideological constructions of Islamic discourse.5

Such reflections enable the transition to materials specific to Islam, especially with respect to women’s history prior to and during the founding phases of Islamic culture and society. Leila Ahmed’s classic textbook for use in courses on women in Islam frames pre-Islamic society on the eve of Islam’s appearance on the world stage within the context of Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean Middle East. She explores the argument that the exponents of Islam subsequent to Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, continued, and did not initiate, a patriarchal vision already dominant in the region.6 Her work draws on the theories advanced by Gerda Lerner and Sarah Pomeroy, among others,7 and these may be briefly discussed in class in order to give students some understanding of the structures and strategies of patriarchal institutions. Each of the above-mentioned studies provides ample references for further review. As with all suggestions made in this chapter, the instructor will add her/his own knowledge of sources germane to the issue.

Authoritative Islamic Sources for Gender Roles

Muslim students who take my course often conflate the Quran, the hadith literature, and Shariʿah law into one religiously authoritative source outlining normative behavior incumbent upon Muslim women. Non-Muslim students come in with the perspective that everything Muslim women are required to do is outlined in the Quran. Caroline Walker Bynum’s short, but probing, essay examining the multivalency of religious symbols (whether oral, written, ritual, institutional) makes the case that a symbol may be polyvalent or polysemically read by different people in different contexts. This discussion is useful in questioning why so many Muslim women, when they read the Quran, come away with the defensive claim that “Islam” does not encumber them with many of the problems faced by their Western religious counterparts. For these women, the Quran speaks to them as affirming the spiritual and moral equality between men and women, a point underscored by Leila Ahmed. Ahmed, however, does make the point that we must turn to historical factors to understand the processes by which gender inequities crept into the social sphere, thereby setting the stage within the classroom for a connection between the cultural construction of gender and the rallying of scriptural support. Leila Ahmed nicely articulates some of these views in a video titled, Islamic Conversations: Women and Islam, produced by Films for the Humanities and Sciences.

The hypothesis that gender is culturally constructed may help to contextualize the discussion of authoritative Islamic sources on gender, and this hypothesis may, as part of class discussions, be tested against those very sources if desired. These sources comprise the Quran, the hadith literature, Quran commentaries [tafsḫr], and, as a source which informs both popular conceptions as well as commentarial elaborations on prophets mentioned in the Quran, the stories relating to the prophets [qiṣaṣ al-anbiyā’] literature. The importance of these sources lies in their impact on the legal and cultural institutions which define the expected comportment of men and women as members of an Islamic society and also enforce the social view of gender. It is impossible to treat each of these literatures in depth in a one-semester course, even if English-language studies examining the gender issues in each of these categories had already been conducted and were available. An excellent work, both careful in its research and illuminating in its analyses, is that of Barbara Freyer Stowasser, titled Women in the Qur’an, Traditions and Interpretations,8 recently released in paperback, thus making it eminently accessible and affordable as a classroom text. This work details the appropriation and utilization of Quranic figures and texts by classical, medieval, and modern commentators in designating paradigmatic models for women in Islamic societies. Stowasser also examines Muslim articulations of the need for reinterpretation of authoritative sources as a modernization effort. Amina Wadud-Muhsin’s reexamination of scriptural verses pertaining to gender provides an example of Muslim activism with respect to grounding gender equity in reinterpretations of the Quran that accord with current hermeneutical tools.

The expected comportment of Muslim women in the modern world may also be examined in the conduct-manual writers’ prescriptions for virtuous Muslim women. Attention can be drawn to writings such as those of Thanawi, brought within reach of the non-Urdu reader by the efforts of Barbara Daly Metcalf.9 For an earlier perspective, Huda Lutfi in her article on fourteenth-century Cairene women presents a compelling rereading of a medieval prescriptive text by Ibn al-Hajj (d. 737/1336) that reveals the dissonance between the real and the ideal in Muslim women’s lives.10 To this instructors may, at their own discretion, add other normative writings such as those by Ayatollah Khomeini and Maulana Mawdudī, and Ali Shariati. Sometimes, in the absence of class time in which to read such works, I will ask students to “get on the Web” to see if they can find any directions on the rights, duties, and expectations made of Muslim women.

Legal Discourses

Chapters 5 and 6 of Ahmed’s work provide the context within which the development and direction of Islamic law may be discussed. Her work draws attention to the “vital but more hidden role” played by “interpretation and the biases and assumptions” inscribed into the formation of legal codes in the Muslim world. Eleanor A. Doumato’s thought-provoking essay points to the legal cohesiveness between pre-Islamic Christian society and the emerging legal discourse and may also be read in conjunction with chapter 5.11 Until a full-scale study on the status of women in the classical and medieval Islamic legal schools is undertaken, recourse must be taken by and large to edited works for essays dealing with various historical phases, up to and including the modern. Among the many worthy of citation, attention may be drawn to two recent works edited by Sonbol and Yamani, despite the uneven quality of some of the essays.12 A brilliant investigation of the problematic issue of temporary marriage in the Iranian context is offered by the cultural anthropologist Shahla Haeri, and students in my classes have benefited from the connections she draws between this institution and the socio-historical circumstances in which laws governing this practice are implemented.13 The call for the reform of laws with respect to women has been investigated within the South Asian context by several works, and as a sample, one may refer in passing to Asghar Ali Engineer’s study, in which he argues for a call to the use of fresh legal reasoning [ijtihād] in contrast to blind imitation of earlier precedents [taqlīd].14 As counterpoint, a study of case law in Pakistan spanning the last 45 years asks whether there are, in fact, any trends in the interpretation of law that have benefited women.15 Asifa Quraishi offers an insightful critique of rape laws in Pakistan,16 as an instance of how woman-sensitive perspectives can open up the debate on redressing legal injustices toward women. Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s work on divorce law may also be dovetailed with the film, Divorce Iranian Style, which is useful for talking about the context-sensitive interpretation of the Shariʿah in the cases profiled.

Much of the discussion regarding the legal status of women in the Islamic world is framed within the context of human rights, which is increasingly becoming an issue of concern to women globally, as evinced within forums such as the United Nations Conferences on Women. An additional source of concern is the growing trend in countries with majority Muslim populations (and significant minority Muslim populations) to enact Shariʿah legislation within their legal institutions. The concerns are twofold: one, that the growing number of Islamist women, while they have negotiated access to public spaces by adopting an Islamist ideology and the signifier of that ideology most prominently displayed through Islamic dress, may inadvertently perhaps weaken the significant gains that an earlier generation of Muslim feminists (including both men and women) were able to effect. The second concern is the implication that anyone interrogating current social arrangements with respect to gender must be tainted by Western ideology and hence be viewed as a traitor, or worse, a proponent of Western neoimperialism. The current environment of postcolonial rejections of Western values and lifestyles, brought about in part by the colonizing powers’ strategic identification of women’s dress and seclusion in Muslim societies as an indication of Islam’s backwardness (and consequently, of Western moral and political superiority), has fueled this view. Thus, it is supposed, for a Muslim to engage in activism, whether intellectual or practical with regard to ameliorating women’s status, results in the denunciation of such activists as non-Islamic and hence, inauthentic. As a result, ground-level organizations such as nongovernment agencies, who work with the practical dimensions of women’s lives, have attempted to do so without engaging theological constructs regarding the place of women in society. In her work on pressing social issues such as violence against women in Pakistan, Riffat Hassan has drawn attention to the dire need to engage in theological constructs. This, she convincingly argues, must be undertaken in order to educate the public with regard to the rights women are accorded in the Quran, especially since much violence against women is conducted under the understanding that the Quran accords men the right to police women’s comportment and agency. Some activists have tried to avert being labeled inauthentic by taking recourse to universalizing discourses, claiming that it is incumbent upon all nations of the world to treat women’s rights as fundamental human rights. Such a position runs the risk of losing sight of the specificities pertaining to the lives of women in concrete contexts and of predicating this universalizing discourse on the concerns of its articulators. It is critical, however, to bring governments to the table for global cooperation on issues such as marriage age, access to reproductive technologies, violence against women and children, child labor, and access to education and the waged workplace. Kandiyoti, Karam, Sabbagh, and Afkhami may be singled out as introducing issues pertinent to the interconnections between the law, the state, the Islamist call for a society regulated by Shariʿah law, and the impact these exercise on women’s rights.17 They examine how current legal discourses in Muslim societies affect the lives of women and investigate the efforts undertaken by women, both locally and through international networks, to attain equitable treatment under the law.

Studies such as these are extremely valuable in their framing of issues and the concrete directions taken by activists so as to ameliorate the legal status of women in Islamic societies, or as minorities empowered to follow communal religious law in societies such as those of India.18 Another field of enquiry concerns issues faced by immigrant Muslim communities in the European, North American, and Australian contexts.19 Some of these communities have experienced challenges to the rights of Muslim women to wear the veil in public forums such as schools (France, Canada) and the workplace (North America). Other public concerns include the practice of female circumcision in North America; the perceived and/or substantiated poor treatment of Muslim women by their male counterparts, comprising spousal abuse, the necessity of a guardian to enact marital relationships, and the seclusion of women in public spaces (The Netherlands, Germany, Britain). Rather than reading materials on these issues, I often ask students, for the end-of-semester exam rituals, to find recent and relevant newspaper articles on which they write an intelligent commentary. Students are asked, for example, to identify any perceptible reporting biases, the background or history that someone who has not yet studied gender issues in Islam might need to know, and whether there might be a Muslim woman’s viewpoint that could have been explored. All this in the hopes that students by the end of the semester will have a much more nuanced understanding of the issues at stake, when media stories relating to Muslim women enter the public forum.

Intersectionalities of State, Society, Economics, and Islamist Discourse

Much of the current Islamists’ formulation of Islamic society cannot be understood apart from the legacy left by colonization and the internal upheavals witnessed in Muslim societies by what has been termed “the crisis of modernity.” Insofar as this is relevant to women’s status, it is necessary to understand both colonial constructions of the “other” and the Islamists’ need to define an identity that stands apart from that of current hegemonies, the cultural construct known as “the West.”20 As Ahmed, among others, has pointed out,

colonialism’s use of feminism to promote the culture of the colonizers and undermine native culture has ever since imparted to feminism in non-Western societies the taint of having served as an instrument of colonial domination, rendering it suspect in Arab eyes and vulnerable to the charge of being an ally of colonial interests. That taint has undoubtedly hindered the feminist struggle within Muslim societies.21

Kandiyoti, in Faith and Freedom, makes the link between colonial discourses and the current preoccupation with women’s status in Muslim societies:

The identification of Muslim women as the bearers of the “backwardness” of their societies, initially by colonial administrators and later by Western-oriented reformers, is mirrored by a reactive local discourse which elevates the same practices into symbols of cultural authenticity and integrity…. The privileged sites for such assertions of authenticity are, once again, the dress and deportment of women.22

The classic feminist struggle to negotiate access to and fairness in the public, income-generating sphere, is thus rendered increasingly complex by the plethora of identity discourses.

Part 3 of Ahmed’s study contextualizes the postcolonial discourses of Muslim reformers and conservatives. It also critically examines the efforts of modern Egyptian women to negotiate a more equitable space for women within the specificities of class, economic, cultural, religious, and historical situations. Other articulations by and about Middle Eastern women may be encountered in several edited works available,23 the most familiar perhaps being Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak.24 An important agent of change in women’s social status is the state, which is at best an unreliable ally,25 in that it can both promote and derail women’s legal, social, and economic status. The state’s sometimes complicit, sometimes unwilling compliance with Islamist political agendas can translate into a retrenchant attitude toward effecting changes in the laws and social practices affecting women, and some of these issues have already been raised in the previous module.

Economic, political, and cultural realities have a role to play in affecting social change, as ably argued and substantiated by Valentine Moghadam. She asks whether women’s status in any society can be reduced to its religiously authoritative discourse, or whether one must necessarily also examine the social and economic realities in which women live. Moghadam argues that Middle Eastern women “are not simply acting out roles prescribed for them by religion, by culture, or by neopatriarchal states; they are questioning their roles and status, demanding social and political change, participating in movements, and taking sides in ideological battles.”26 Her work also introduces students to economic and social-scientific data that can be used to arrive at a more realistic assessment of women’s status in majority Muslim societies. Thus, in this module, I largely focus on exploring the nexus of state, society, and economics as an “engendering” frame within which women’s practical lives are lived.

Feminist (or Woman-Sensitive) Critiques

Proceeding now to the “Experience” segments of the course, there are several recent Muslim critical writings on gender that participate in the broader reexamination and reinterpretation of historical materials informing social and legal constructs of gender. While such enterprises are termed feminist in the European and North American social and intellectual spheres, the term feminist is by no means appropriated by Muslim women, whether activists or academics, in its entirety, or at all. The Western term “feminist” has been questioned from various quarters regarding whether it adequately includes women of color, whether it perpetuates an anti-Semitic or Orientalist bias, whether it is representative of local concerns in non-Western contexts, or whether it is even relevant to the agrarian economies, rural bases, and diverse cultures of many parts of the non-Western world.27

The social inequality of women is hinted at within the Quran28 if examined from a modern lens, even though the argument has been made that the verses in question allowed seventh-century Arab women rights unprecedented for the times. Mention has already been made of the notion that the Quran holds men and women to be equal before God with respect to their spirituality and their religious and moral obligations. Further indications of women’s spiritual equality are found in reports following a complaint regarding the fact that revelations were addressed only to males. This complaint, made by one of Muhammad’s wives, is offered, in part, to explain why subsequent revelations were addressed equally to men and women. Verses that assign to men greater inheritance and legal witness quotients than to women, and which are fully explicated by subsequent commentators and legislators, as well as those that indicate a preference for the male gender over the female have come under scrutiny by several scholars. Of these writings, I draw attention to Amina Wadud-Muhsin’s slim but remarkable volume titled Qur’an and Woman,29 which attempts to reframe some of the avowedly patriarchal readings of the Quran and raised, in my classes, discussions on whether her arguments are entirely convincing in dealing with problematic stances for women emerging from Quranic verses. Riffat Hassan’s essays engage in theological reconstructions of gender based largely on a careful analysis of Quranic passages.30 A critique of hadith transmissions that have served to proscribe Muslim women’s access to the political realm, and the public sphere, by extension is to be found in Fatima Mernissi’s Women and Islam,31 which is published in the United States under the rather provocative title, Women and the Male Elite. In this work she also reexamines the medieval historical and commentarial literature detailing the context of the Medinan verses, some of which have proved problematic for Muslim women. Maysam al-Faruqi proposes that the legal identity of Muslim women must be understood from within the Islamic tradition, and not from the viewpoint of a universalizing feminism that argues that patriarchy dominates all women everywhere, nor from the lens of Muslim apologists or reformists. In her analysis she calls for a review of juristic rulings on women’s rights “in the light of the Quran—this time a Quran read accurately.”32 All the above may be read and discussed within the context and parameters discussed in relevant chapters by Ahmed, if her work is being utilized as a class text.

These materials also probe issues such as whether gender is a category that can be applied to souls, since certain verses would appear to indicate that it is not; whether the term Adam as progenitor of humanity is a generically human rather than gender-specific term; what the precise role of Adam’s unnamed mate is in the primordial events that led to the expulsion of the primary couple from the Garden, and what place women will have in heaven [jannah], since the reference to the doe-eyed maidens populating Paradise might seem to indicate that women end up as little more than objects of enjoyment for men.33

Women’s Ritual Participation and Feminine Spirituality

Women’s ritual participation within the context of the mosque—or their segregation within it—has been discussed in an early article by Leila Ahmed, titled “Women and the Advent of Islam” in the Journal of Women in Culture and Society (1986). Examinations of the intersections of sexual ideologies with ritual behaviors are found in the essays comprising part 4 in Lois Beck and Nikki Keddie, eds., Women in the Muslim World (1978). The expression of female spirituality in contexts other than the mosque, such as those of the saintly sanctuary and the home, is discussed in articles pertaining to Muslim women in works such as Nancy Auer Falk and Rita M. Gross, eds., Unspoken Worlds (1987). These articles explore, among other notions, the idea that women may develop their own rituals in addition to prescribed ritual practices in order to find avenues of religious expression by finding and keeping alive their participation in the extra-mosque dimension of religious life. Laal Jamzadeh and Margaret Mills’s article titled, “Iranian Sofreh: From Collective to Female Ritual,”34 is also noteworthy in exploring the connection between the use of the commemorative meal for both religious (ritual) and secular (social) purposes. For women’s ritual participation in Shi‘i muḥarram rituals, see Vernon Schubel’s fine study on the subject.35

The subject of women as religious personages of note has been associated most commonly with the topic of noted Sufi mystics such as Rābi‘a al-‘Adawiyya (d. 801), details of whose biography and work can be found, for example, in Margaret Smith’s classic study of Sufi women, and see Javad Nurbaksh, Sufi Women (1983). See also Jamal J. Elias, “Female and Feminine in Islamic Mysticism” in Muslim World 77: 3–4 (1988). Annemarie Schimmel’s essay on “The Feminine Element in Sufism” is found in Appendix 2 of her landmark study, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (1975) and draws attention to female Sufis and to the “representation of the longing soul in the form of a woman.” This latter notion is explored at length, in addition to the inscribing of the feminine in mystical discourse, in Sachiko Murata’s erudite study titled, The Tao of Islam: A Sourcebook on Gender Relationships in Islamic Thought (1992). For the feminine element in Ibn al-‘Arabī, who stands along with Rūmī among the seminal masters of Islamic mysticism, see Henry Corbin’s chapter 2 in Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabī (1969). On the notion of the feminine as “the receptacle of the influx and effects of the celestial Spheres” in Shi‘i mystical and philosophic thought, see Corbin’s Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth: From Mazdean Iran to Shī‘ite Iran (1977), especially chapter 2, on Fāṫimah.

Recovering Herstories

A reconstruction of gender history in the Middle East and North Africa has been undertaken by Guity Nashat and Judith E. Tucker,36 a task that is no small feat given the propensity of historians, until recently, to concern themselves with the public sphere and the male point of view. Another useful source, despite its sometimes disparaging tone, for an investigation of women of note is Ruth Roded’s Women in Islamic Biographical Collections: From Ibn Sa‘d to Who’s Who (1994). This work begs an extension of the investigation of biographical materials on women beyond the parameters she has drawn, namely, the Islamic heartlands, which are specified as being the Hijaz, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. While these studies are valuable for providing background information to instructors, I have found that undergraduate students engage more readily with women’s life histories, such as those of ‘Ā’ishah, the youngest of the Prophet’s wives,37 and Nur Jahan, the fifteenth-century Mughal empress.38 Fatima Mernissi’s The Forgotten Queens of Islam (1993) attempts a recovery of some women who achieved notable political status (although her historical investigations sometimes rely too heavily on politically biased sources, especially with regard to the Shi‘ah), and works well in the classroom to counter the stereotype of politically silent or inactive Muslim women. The recovery of sociological data from which to assess the historical role and status of ordinary women is, as Leila Ahmed notes, still in its preliminary stages; nonetheless, there are studies and articles to be found for those who wish to incorporate such data into their courses.39


I have found it an imperative in this course to allow women to speak for themselves, to provide space for articulations of their own experience in Muslim societies or as minorities elsewhere. Allowing women’s voices to surface provides a lived counterpoint to the constructed discourses drawn from the religiously authoritative sources and the legal discourses mentioned above. While such sources define the gender role expectations and the proscribed limits of women’s behavior, narratives that recount women’s experiences reveal the extent to which cultural, social, legal, and religious expectations are internalized. Furthermore, such narratives enable students to explore how gender role expectations may or may not shape women’s decisions or are drawn upon as sources of strength or are subverted, and also how women craft meaningful lives for themselves in their varying contexts. How do they negotiate space for themselves in the face of patriarchally inscribed institutions, the overwhelming forces of culture and tradition, familial expectations, economic limitations, and so forth? What are their issues, their hopes, their dreams, and their imagined realms of possibility? Drawing texts from different geographical and cultural locations also enables a comparative lens to come into focus, given the diversity of Islamic expression in various cultures around the globe.

There is a rich and ever-growing pool of resources to draw from with respect to this component of the course.40 I change my selections from year to year, both in order to stay current and to keep expanding my own horizons. In terms of disciplinary focus, I have utilized texts emerging from anthropology and social studies, as well as literary texts and studies, journalistic literature, and edited texts representing a broad range of voices. While it is impossible to include more than one novel or study and a few short stories, each of the materials selected can be made to dovetail with other sections of the course. In order to underscore the point that women in the Islamic world are not a monolithic group, experiencing the same realities in monochrome, I find it essential to bring forward materials culled from different Muslim societies. For instance, Ismat Chughtai’s work highlights a keen sensitivity to class and cultural issues in North India; Erika Friedl’s sojourn among women in Iran provides a window into the courage and wiles of village women; Mariama Ba’s work from western Africa underscores one view of living with polygamy and finding selfhood; Nawal el-Saadawi’s work, which always evokes strong reaction, brings into focus women in the Egyptian context who struggle for self- expression and agency at the risk of social rejection; and Sherifa Zuhur’s study examines veiling choices by Egyptian students. This is a rich literature, indeed, and some of the more well-known authors such as Alifa Rifaat, Salma Jayyusi, Hanan al-Shaykh, Ahdaf Soueif, Sahar Khalifeh, Assia Djebar, Qurratulain Hyder, and Simin Daneshvar have provided short stories that have sparked much discussion in class. Miriam Cooke’s recent work, Women Claim Islam, provides some critical approaches to theorizing about some of this literature.41

Mention may also be made of another genre of works that is critical to include within this module, which details the transformation of consciousness accompanying the involvement of women in political or military struggles for freedom. The politicization of women consequent upon their participation in revolutionary struggles ironically has made women far more critical of restrictive measures relating to women’s status in postrevolutionary societies, suggesting that the groundswell of women’s voices has not yet attained its peak and will be heard ever more strongly in future decades.42 Students have found especially valuable Miriam Cooke’s studies on women and war.

The reader may wonder, at this juncture, why some of the problematic issues that fall under the larger rubric of violence against women have not explicitly been raised in this chapter. If there are three issues that most interest students in their exploration of gender inequities relating to the Muslim world, they are veiling, female genital mutilation (or modification or cutting), and honor killings. I will often weave these into the larger discourses of human rights or women’s experiences and include works and films included in the notes.43 My larger purpose in a course such as this is to introduce students to the complexity of the sources and the material and the methods or frameworks relevant to the study of gender in the Muslim world. Thus, by the time students encounter these materials, they are able to problematize the issues in broader currents of understanding.

In conclusion, these eight modules facilitate bringing relevant materials around an organizing principle to the classroom context. Additional modules can be added as the instructor sees fit; and not all modules are employed each time the course is taught. The publication of new materials as well as the articulation of different questions with regard to the study and teaching of gender issues, both globally and in the context of Muslim societies, can and will lead to a reconceptualization of these models, making it evident that these are offered only as starting points for the instructor. There is obviously a great deal of material available, not all of which can be taught at any given time, and the Internet continues to be a promising resource as more academics take on the responsibility of placing trustworthy materials in the public domain. Unfortunately, an investigation and mapping of these materials is outside the scope of the present review; it is a task that needs to be undertaken, however. This review has not investigated the many audio-visual materials also available for classroom viewing and discussion; another area that merits research and comment. Still, the key benefit of the module approach, in my experience, has been to enable students to connect between scriptural and ideological materials to data that is gathered from the field so as to reveal the many complexities that obtain in the study of women and gender issues in the culturally diverse Islamic world.


1. Beth Baron, “A Field Matures: Recent Literature on Women in the Middle East,” Middle Eastern Studies 32, n. 3 (1996): 172. Find it in your Library

2. Herbert L. Bodman, Jr., comp., Women in the Muslim World: A Bibliography of Books and Articles Primarily in the English Language (Providence, R.I.: Association for Middle East Women’s Studies, 1991). Find it in your Library The preparation of a much needed more current bibliography is already underway by AMEWS.

3. Arvind Sharma, ed., Women in World Religions (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1987), Introduction, 10–36. Find it in your Library

4. Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973), 1–12. Find it in your Library

5. Deniz Kandiyoti, “Islam and Patriarchy: A Comparative Perspective,” in Women in Middle Eastern History: Shifting Boundaries in Sex and Gender, ed. Nikki R. Keddie and Beth Baron (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 23–42. Find it in your Library

6. Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992). Find it in your Library

7. See Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam, n. 2, 250, and n. 8, 252. Find it in your Library

8. Barbara Freyer Stowasser, Women in the Qur’an, Traditions, and Interpretation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). Find it in your Library

9. Barbara Daly Metcalf, Perfecting Women: Maulana Ashraf ‘Ali Thanawi’s Bihishti Zewar; A Partial Translation with Commentary (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990). Find it in your Library

10. Huda Lutfi, “Manners and Customs of Fourteenth-Century Cairene Women: Female Anarchy versus Male Shar‘i Order in Muslim Prescriptive Treatises,” in Keddie and Baron, eds., Women in Middle Eastern History, 99–121. Find it in your Library

11. Eleanor A. Doumato, “Hearing Other Voices: Christian Women and the Coming of Islam,” in International Journal of Middle East Studies 23:2 (1991): 177–199. Find it in your Library

12. Amira El Azhary Sonbol, ed., Women, the Family, and Divorce Laws in Islamic History (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996) Find it in your Library; Mai Yamani, ed., Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives (New York: New York University Press, 1996). Find it in your Library

13. Shahla Haeri, Law of Desire: Temporary Marriage in Shi‘i Iran (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1989). Find it in your Library

14. Asghar Ali Engineer, The Rights of Women in Islam (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992). Find it in your Library See in this connection also John L. Esposito, Women in Muslim Family Law (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992). Find it in your Library

15. Cassandra Balchin, ed., A Handbook on Family Law in Pakistan (Lahore: Shirkat Gah, 1994). Find it in your Library

16. Asifa Quraishi, “Her Honor: An Islamic Critique of the Rape Laws of Pakistan from a Woman-Sensitive Perspective,” in Windows of Faith: Muslim Women Scholar-Activists in North America, ed. Gisela Webb (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000), 102–135. Find it in your Library

17. Deniz Kandiyoti, ed., Women, Islam and the State (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991) Find it in your Library; Deniz Kandiyoti, ed., Gendering the Middle East: Emerging Perspectives (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1996) Find it in your Library; Azza M. Karam, Women, Islamisms and the State: Contemporary Feminisms in Egypt (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997) Find it in your Library; Suha Sabbagh, ed., Arab Women: Between Defiance and Restraint (New York: Olive Branch Press, 1996) Find it in your Library; Mahnaz Afkhami, ed., Faith and Freedom: Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995). Find it in your Library

18. See, for instance, Patricia Jeffery and Amrita Basu, eds., Appropriating Gender: Women’s Activism and Politicized Religion in South Asia (New York: Routledge, 1998). Find it in your Library

19. In this regard, some pertinent works are Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Jane Idleman Smith, eds., Muslim Communities in North America (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994) Find it in your Library; Barbara Daly Metcalf, ed., Making Muslim Space (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996) Find it in your Library; Yvonnne Yazbeck Haddad and Adair T. Lummis, Islamic Values in the United States: A Comparative Study (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) Find it in your Library; Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and John L. Esposito, eds., Muslims on the Americanization Path? (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) Find it in your Library, all of which have more detailed bibliographies.

20. While Edward Said’s Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979) Find it in your Library and Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage Books, 1994) Find it in your Library are critical in framing the issues, there are works such as Sara Suleri’s The Rhetoric of English India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992) Find it in your Library; Billie Melman’s Women’s Orients: English Women and the Middle East, 1718–1918: Sexuality, Religion and Work (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992, 1995) Find it in your Library; Kumari Jayawardena’s The White Woman’s Other Burden: Western Women and South Asia During British Rule (New York: Routledge, 1995) Find it in your Library (this work deals largely with Hindu women), and Chandra Talpande Mohanty et al., eds., Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991) Find it in your Library that explore colonial legacies with respect to women. More recently: Meyda Yegenoglu, Colonial Fantasies: Towards a Feminist Reading of Orientalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Find it in your Library

21. Ahmed, Women and Gender, 167. Find it in your Library

22. Kandiyoti, in Afkhami, ed., Faith and Freedom, 21. Find it in your Library

23. Examples of such works might be Cynthia Nelson’s article titled “Biography and Women’s History: On Interpreting Doria Shafik” in the above-mentioned Women in Middle Eastern History; Fedwa Malti-Douglas, Men, Women and God(s): Nawal El Saadawi and Arab Feminist Poetics (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995). Find it in your Library There is much more available in English on Middle Eastern (including North African) and Iranian women at present than there is on South Asian women, which is more so than on Central Asian, Southeast Asian, and sub-Saharan African women. Studies on European, Australian, and North American Muslim women’s voices can be expected to emerge with greater vigor in the future.

24. Elizabeth Warnock Fernea and Basima Qattan Bezirgan, eds., Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977) Find it in your Library; Judith E. Tucker, ed., Arab Women: Old Boundaries/New Frontiers (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993) Find it in your Library; and the classic work edited by Lois Beck and Nikki Keddie, Women in the Muslim World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978). Find it in your Library

25. Attention to which has been drawn by Kandiyoti, ed., in Women, Islam and the State; Find it in your Library and in Gendering the Middle East; Find it in your Library as well as by Afkhami, ed., Faith and Freedom, Find it in your Library among others.

26. Valentine M. Moghadam, Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1993), 27. Find it in your Library

27. An essay engaging some of these issues is Margot Badran’s “Toward Islamic Feminisms: A Look at the Middle East,” in Hermeneutics and Honor: Negotiating Female “Public” Space in Islamic/ate Societies, Asma Afsaruddin, ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 159–188. Find it in your Library

28. For selections, see chapter 2: “The Koran on the Subject of Women,” in Fernea and Bezirgan, eds., Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak. Find it in your Library

29. Amina Wadud-Muhsin, Qur’an and Woman (Kuala Lumpur: Penerbit Fajar Bakti Sdn. Bhd., 1992). Find it in your Library

30. Riffat Hassan, “Women in the Context of Change and Confrontation within Muslim Communities,” in Women of Faith in Dialogue, ed. Virginia Ramey Mollenkott (New York: Crossroad, 1987) Find it in your Library, and “Muslim Women and Post-Patriarchal Islam,” in After Patriarchy: Feminist Transformations of the World Religions, ed. Paula M. Cooey, William R. Eakin, and Jay B. McDaniel (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991). Find it in your Library

31. Fatima Mernissi, Women and Islam: An Historical and Theological Enquiry, trans. Mary Jo Lakeland (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991). Find it in your Library

32. Maysam J. al-Faruqi, “Women’s Self-Identity in the Qur’an and Islamic Law,” in Webb, ed., Windows of Faith: Muslim Women Scholar-Activists in North America, 72–101. Find it in your Library

33. Such issues are discussed, as examples, by Riffat Hassan in articles such as “Muslim Women and Post-Patriarchal Islam,” in Cooey, Eakin, and McDaniel, eds., After Patriarchy; by Barbara Freyer Stowasser in Women in the Qur’an, Traditions, and Interpretation; by Amina Wadud-Muhsin in Qur’an and Woman, Find it in your Library among others.

34. Caroline Walker Bynum, Stevan Harell, and Paula Richman, eds., Gender and Religion: On the Complexity of Symbols (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986). Find it in your Library

35. Vernon Schubel, Religious Performance in Contemporary Islam: Shī‘ī Devotional Rituals in South Asia (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993). Find it in your Library

36. Guity Nashat and Judith E. Tucker, Women in the Middle East and North Africa: Restoring Women to History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999). Find it in your Library

37. Nabia Abbott, Aishah: The Beloved of Mohammad (Chicago: Arno Press, 1942) Find it in your Library; Denise Spellberg, Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of ‘A’isha bint Abi Bakr (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994). Find it in your Library

38. Ellison Banks Findly, Nūr Jahān, Empress of Mughal India (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). Find it in your Library

39. For example, see Afaf Lutfi Al-Sayyid Marsot, Society and the Sexes in Medieval Islam (Malibu: Undena Publications, 1979) Find it in your Library; Marsot, Women and Men in Late Eighteenth-Century Egypt (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995) Find it in your Library; Gavin R. G. Hambly, ed., Women in the Medieval Islamic World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998) Find it in your Library; and Beverly B. Mack and Jean Boyd, One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000). Find it in your Library

40. Thus, from South Asia I have drawn upon Anees Jung, Unveiling India: A Woman’s Journey (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1987) Find it in your Library; Anees Jung, Seven Sisters: Among the Women of South Asia (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1994) Find it in your Library; Ismat Chughtai, The Quilt and Other Stories (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1994) Find it in your Library, Patricia Jeffery and Roger Jeffery, Don’t Marry Me to a Plowman!: Women’s Everyday Lives in Rural North India (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996) Find it in your Library; Patricia Jeffery, Frogs in a Well: Indian Women in Purdah (London: Zed Books, 1979) Find it in your Library; Rukhsana Ahmed, trans. and ed., We Sinful Women (New Delhi: Rupa and Co., 1994). Find it in your Library For Iran, Erika Friedl, Women of Deh Koh: Lives in an Iranian Village (New York: Penguin Books, 1991) Find it in your Library; Farzaneh Milani, Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992) Find it in your Library; Franklin Lewis and Farzin Yazdanfar, comp. and trans., In a Voice of Their Own: A Collection of Stories by Iranian Women Written Since the Revolution of 1979 (Costa Mesa: Mazda, 1996) Find it in your Library; John Green and Farzin Yazdanfar, eds., A Walnut Sapling on Masih’s Grave and Other Stories by Iranian Women (Toronto: TSAR Publications, 1994). Find it in your Library From Egypt, the novels of Nawal El Saadawi (among others, Woman at Point Zero [London: Zed Books, 1983]) Find it in your Library; Sherifa Zuhur, Revealing Reveiling: Islamist Gender Ideology in Contemporary Egypt (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992) Find it in your Library; Lila Abu-Lughod, Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993). Find it in your Library From the Arab world, Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke, eds., Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990). Find it in your Library From Africa, Charlotte H. Bruner, ed., Unwinding Threads: Writing by Women in Africa (Oxford: Heinemann, 1994) Find it in your Library; Sarah Mirza and Margaret Strobel, eds. and trans., Three Swahili Women: Life Histories from Mombasa, Kenya (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989). Find it in your Library From Canada and the United States, Nurjehan Aziz, ed., Her Mother’s Ashes and Other Stories by South Asian Women in Canada and the United States (Toronto: TSAR Publications, 1994). Find it in your Library From England/Egypt, Ahdaf Soueif, The Map of Love (New York: Anchor Books, 1999). Find it in your Library From Afghanistan, Veronica Doubleday, Three Women of Herat (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990). Find it in your Library

41. Miriam Cooke, Women Claim Islam: Creating Islamic Feminism Through Literature (New York: Routledge, 2001). Find it in your Library Two others: Fedwa Malti-Douglas, Woman’s Body, Woman’s Word: Gender and Discourse in Arabo-Islamic Writing (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991) Find it in your Library; Roger Allen, Hilary Kilpatrick, and Ed de Moor, eds., Love and Sexuality in Modern Arabic Literature (London: Saqi Books, 1995). Find it in your Library

42. See, for example, Bouthaina Shaaban, Both Right and Left Handed: Arab Women Talk About Their Lives (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991) Find it in your Library; Haleh Esfandiari, Reconstructed Lives: Women and Iran’s Islamic Revolution (Washington, D.C.: The Woodrow Wilson Center Press, in conjunction with Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997) Find it in your Library; Haideh Moghissi, Populism and Feminism in Iran (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996) Find it in your Library; and Miriam Cooke, War’s Other Voices: Women Writers on the Lebanese Civil War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988) Find it in your Library; Miriam Cooke and Roshni Rustomji-Kerns, eds., Blood into Ink: South Asian and Middle Eastern Women Write War (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1994) Find it in your Library; Miriam Cooke, Women and the War Story (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996). Find it in your Library

43. On veiling, Ahmed, Stowasser, and Zuhur, already mentioned, as well as Fadwa El Guindy, Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance (New York: Berg, 1999) Find it in your Library; on female genital mutilation (or modification/ cutting), Evelyne Accad, The Excised (Boulder: Three Continents Press, 1994) Find it in your Library; Noor J. Kassamali, “When Modernity Confronts Traditional Practices: Female Genital Cutting in Northeast Africa,” in Women in Muslim Societies: Diversity Within Unity, ed. Herbert L. Bodman and Nayereh Tohidi (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1998) Find it in your Library; and Esther K. Hicks, Infibulation: Female Mutilation in Islamic Northeastern Africa (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1996) Find it in your Library; as well as the film by Pratibha Parmar, Warrior Marks (1993) Find it in your Library, distributed by Women Make Movies. For honor killings, the CNN-aired film, Honor Killings in Jordan; the ABC Nightline-aired film, A Matter of Honor; Human Rights Watch, Crime or Custom? Violence Against Women in Pakistan (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999) Find it in your Library; and the writings of Riffat Hassan.

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