Last May, Queen Mary, University of London held a one-day workshop to discuss the seminal work of the late Shahab Ahmed “What is Islam: On the importance of being Islamic.” The workshop attracted an array of academics working in the area of Islamic Studies – this workshop included the young and those more established, insiders and outsiders, ‘traditionalists’ and ‘modernists’. The lecture hall was at full capacity; all eager to discuss, critique, and simultaneously celebrate this pioneering work. There was no shortage of debate or polemics.
On the margins of the lively discussions, a female academic fleetingly pointed out that Ahmed could be critiqued for not citing enough female authors. A seasoned male academic interjected with his own critique he prefaced by stating that he just does not care.
There were two visible immediate reactions:
The initial response from the audience was hushed giggles at his overt bluntness. He had broken academic etiquette – if you believe that women’s voices are of little consequence you simply whitewash them discreetly. That is the unspoken rule.
The second reaction was specific to the Muslim female academics present, including myself. It was a ‘fair enough’ that he didn’t care. Not caring is an intellectually valid position to hold and female academics need to be okay with that. And we do, after all it is not really personal; except, it is personal. Should one of us take as such, however, we would not be worthy of being a part of this objective academic space.
It was true; he had verbalised what everyone already knew. It is not a great surprise that to a lot of male academics, female intellectual representation does not really matter or that it is merely a problem of political correctness. The issue here is not whether or not female authors are being cited enough, rather the dismissive academic male response. The level of authority with which he blatantly dismissed female intellectual voices as an issue of non-consequence, in a room filled with them, goes to show that overt misogyny in Muslim academic circles is perfectly acceptable. That this does not just happen in small, informal discussion circles or that it manifests simply as micro-aggressions; it is blatant, unashamed and will at best get a bemused response.
Of all the things discussed after the workshop, this incident seemed to have been collectively forgotten.
I have attempted and abandoned writing this article multiple times. At times, I would take a personal tone drawing examples from personal experiences. Other times, I thought a scholarly and impersonal critique could go a long way. It is true; an intellectual discussion of how and why misogynistic attitudes are so prevalent among Muslim academics is needed. First, however, we need to admit that there is a problem and we need to understand the ways in which it manifests.
Misogyny is not a problem specific to Muslims nor is it a problem that exists only in academia. Misogyny happens in academia among both believing and non-believing academics. It exists in Muslim societies, non-Muslim societies; albeit in different capacities and for different reasons. We, as Muslim female academics, face different forms of misogyny from non-Muslim, as well as Muslim academics. There is much that could be and should be said about the intersection of outright Islamophobia or polite liberal condescension with misogyny in the academy. The purpose of this article, however, is to prompt an internal discussion among Muslim academics about misogyny. The discussion will therefore reflect that position alone because frankly I believe we should do better.
As Muslim women in the field of Islamic Studies, our intellectual production is seen as completely gendered; whereas, the male voice transcends gender reaching a level of objective reasoning. Our intellectual positioning is seen as an outlier or as subduing any notion of orthodoxy or tradition. Whether I write in a personal or impersonal tone and capacity, the content will always be relational and subject, inevitably, to my gendered experience.
This is not entirely untrue but why is it so difficult to accept the soundness of a gendered narrative? Or rather what makes a woman’s narrative unscientific? This is not a matter of validating or rejecting a sequence of events as they are retold by women. It is viewing our entire construction of reality as suspect. Women are prejudiced by their realities while men are merely informed by theirs.
This article is therefore both clearly personal and an unapologetically political critique of some (not all) of the misogynistic tendencies of Muslim male academics. It goes without saying that this is a critique of misogynist Muslim academics not of all Muslim male academics.
On the surface, the problem may appear to be that a male academic would make a misogynistic statement or an inappropriate comment here or there. But the issue lies much deeper than the way some Muslim male academics treat their female counterparts in a professional setting. It goes beyond the organisation of the public sphere. How we are treated is but a mere reflection of how we are seen.
Professional Muslim women will always be viewed as having an uneasy relationship with the religious tradition and only through an over exertion of interpretive effort can the tradition accommodate our presence in a male dominate intellectual domain – or as is implied by many male academics. This notion from the get-go puts Muslim female academics in a precarious position. Our level of belief and religious commitment is always suspect. Women stand on the margins; while men – by virtue of their masculinity – are the centre.
I decided not to let these categorisations confine me or misdirect me from my purpose in studying Islam. I developed a philosophy of engagement. As Muslim academics, I believed, we have an ethical obligation towards our community which we cannot fulfil if we do not work together. They may be misogynists but they were ‘our’ misogynists. That philosophy could not stand. It was not because I could not handle the inherent disrespect that comes with misogyny.
Misogyny is not a simple dislike or discomfort; it is a power claim. Space is masculine and will continue to be so. Intellectually, they can engage with Fatima Mernissi or Amina Wadud but ultimately only theoretical and intellectual deliberations have their space. Empathy, I believe, is the biggest challenge to power. While they can discuss theories of gender justice, feminism, and ethical dealings with us, they can never empathise with us. To do that, they would have to accept that it is not merely an accident of history that we are here; that we deserve to be here. Realistically, I now know you cannot work together with those that see you as an obstacle or a pure accident of history. You will not be striving for the same thing; you will constantly be on the margins.
I can quite easily anticipate the response to this critique of misogyny. Any vocalisation of concern of misogyny in the academy will be abrogated as a debate on ‘feminism’; feminism is then reduced to a perceived philosophy of self-victimhood or a combative ideology of negation. This argument exemplified would be when men turn their hearing aids off and decide there is nothing else women can say.
In an attempt to transcend ideology, it has become fashionable amongst some Muslim du’at and commentators to deem most forms of political struggle as an inauthentic manifestation of Islam. That those fighting a cause will bend, shape, and break Islam to fit their cause. If one is too entrenched in the personal, societal, or generational wounds of one’s race, gender, or struggle against political injustice, their ‘ideological’ Islam is a ‘sick’ manifestation of Muhammad’s message. The problem with this ‘healthy epistemologically pure and unburdened’ Islam is that it has very little it can say to the lives of many. Race, gender, violence are not intellectual acrobatics for many; they are lived realities. God’s mercy encapsulates these margins where some of us are made to dwell and not just the ‘clean-cut’ centre.
It is not hard to see that misogyny is borne out of an anxiety and a sense of loss of the patriarchal role, the inherent respect it entailed, and consequently monopoly of the public space. In their mind, they are not consciously rejecting sharing the public space with women. Rather, it is the acute knowledge that once upon a time they did not have to do so.
This results in a looming question: what does that mean for their masculinity and social role? Essentially, do they need to prove worthy of their ‘birth right’? Instead of consciously acknowledging and dealing with the prevailing sense of identity crisis, they project it onto women. It becomes easier to dictate and police female identities in sexist categories. There is the professional academic ‘working woman’ and the unintellectual pretty woman who has the potential to be a wife and mother. As much as women discursively fought these categories, in reality many have internalised them. This created a looming sense of simultaneous inferiority and superiority among women trapping them in roles difficult to transcend. To the misogynist Muslim academic, neither could be an equal nor a partner in the private family life or in serving the community.
I have seen this culture manifest very early on in my short academic career. When I began my PhD, I was discussing my professional and spiritual life with a group of senior Muslim academics of both genders. When the discussion turned to marriage, I was warned by a progressive Muslim figure not to get ‘too smart’ or that will hurt my marriage prospects. This sentiment was echoed countless times throughout my four years by many. I had no say in the matter; I was becoming a category. My identity as a woman was constantly being dictated to me by men and they were drawing up the boundaries. The great irony is that the intellectual Muslim men that worry about us getting too smart do not actually think we can. Our tragedy, as they see it, we can never be dutiful enough to be their wives nor smart enough to be their colleagues.
As for the women they court, sometimes for sport, using their religious knowledge and authority they are expected to fulfil the misogynistic fantasy of obedience and silence. It is important to stress how common spiritual abuse is. It is quite common in young Muslim academic circles to utilise a ‘faux authority’ to almost pathologically pursue, harass, mislead, court, and abandon vulnerable Muslim girls. In fact, this pathology is so well known that it is almost seen as a cliché especially in university campuses and Muslim societies. As troubling as some may find call out culture to be, sometimes being quiet can be an even bigger moral dilemma. The decision women have to make when they choose not call out a man is the inevitable feeling of guilt when he uses his power to entrap yet another girl.
I offer no solutions except to say that it is no longer good enough for Muslim men to say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I have not seen anything’. Or to passively stand back and pretend not to know when they do know. The burden of rectifying all of the problems of the community is all of our responsibilities. In short, this is your problem too.