Photography by Shadi Ghadirian

We Need To Make Space for Muslim Women in Academia

The mainstream academia (both Islamic and beyond), which also comprises of various narratives and “facts,” stem from the viewpoints of the dominant and the powerful men. All that women need is inclusion and equity.

While men belonging to a certain status are the majority in most academic spaces and have created a notion of “default” identity within the sphere, it’s important to note that just because their perspective is present in abundance doesn’t make it a universal truth. This default identity has pushed women’s issues and involvement as secondary and extraordinary. When we hear the terms sheikh, qazi, or Islamic scholar, we quickly think of a long-bearded man with a luxurious robe. Speaking of Islamophobic/gender bias outside the realm of religious discourses, the academic world has been historically embedded with imperialistic and colonial practices; the practices of silencing the “othered” communities and passing down the “culture” of stereotyping.

Such exclusivity has hiked the phenomenon of unconscious stereotyping. This phenomenon often becomes difficult to point out, leading to invisibilized gender discrimination to the extent that it actually seems to be not relatable, especially in current times where people easily disregard gender inequalities and their prevalence in academia.

These intersectional overlaps have impelled Muslim women to the extremes of vulnerability and disempowerment.

Seeing from the intersectional feminist spectrum, communities across nations are fighting through various issues simultaneously. The Western concurrences, not to exclude the “privileged” feminists, both historic and contemporary, have been obsessed with their White savior complex to “liberate” Muslim women. Meanwhile, they continue to terrorize the entire Muslim diaspora. These intersectional overlaps have impelled Muslim women to the extremes of vulnerability and disempowerment.

The ongoing debates on gender empowerment have raised questions about the identity of a Muslim woman, her religious and academic authority, along with her involvement in scholarships and activism. Muslim women academicians are still under-represented in their careers due to the barriers coming from their personal and professional lives making them prone to exclusion, discrimination, and aggression.

This has been furthered by patriarchal procedures of recruitment and promotion, gender-based stereotypes, and work-home conflict. The conflict leads to emotional, physical, and psychological strain on women, thereby resulting in less academic engagement.

Apart from fighting in an Islamophobic discourse for her identity, her academic, social, and personal battlefields are no less challenging. “Those who are most impacted by gender-based violence, and by gender inequalities, are also the most impoverished and marginalized – Black and Brown women, indigenous women, women in rural areas, young girls, girls living with disabilities, trans youth and gender non-conforming youth,” says Kimberle Crenshaw who first coined the term “intersectionality.”

In some non-literate societies, socialization takes place almost entirely within the family, but in literate societies. People are also socialized by the educational system; and in both systems, boys are at the top of the hierarchy. This segregation starts from the very beginning and is internalized to the extent of creating gendered opportunities and professions. At the familial level, patriarchy keeps on blocking the pathways to spiritual and intellectual authority for their women and oppressing them more effectively in the name of Islam.

The spiritual and intellectual positions of authority and agency are consciously or subconsciously pushed to the extremes by the drivers of mainstream and dominant ideologies, be it the inclusion of Muslims in Westernized discourses, the inclusion of Muslim women in the masculinized knowledge production, or be it the inclusion of Shia Muslims in the Sunni dominated scholarships (the breakdown doesn’t end here though.)

Hoda Katebi in “Understanding Structural Anti-Shi’ism in Sunni Diasporic Spaces” writes:

Alongside the ongoing, intense, and structural nature of anti-Shi’ism across Africa, the Middle East (and in particular in the Gulf), and Asia, much of the power dynamics, funding, propaganda, and rhetoric of anti-Shi’ism continues to dominate Muslim diasporic spaces in the West as well. Normalized anti-Shiism manifests (sometimes even unintentionally) into microaggressions in relationships, Muslim Student Associations (MSAs) and groups, mosques, and even (though less so) non-denominational ‘third spaces’ across the Muslim diaspora in systemic and consistent ways”.

From exegesis to authority – from the leaky pipeline to experiencing censorship, women have been strategically invisibilized and invalidated in the discourse.

These create a pre-conceived, “default” interpretation of a subject matter where the audience tends to self-eliminate the minority/marginalized perspectives. However, it is to be noted that throughout history, the members of the forgotten communities have published and produced. They are very much present in the picture but are systemically invisibilized, terrorized, and pathologized.

From exegesis to authority – from the leaky pipeline to experiencing censorship, women have been strategically invisibilized and invalidated in the discourse. There have been a lot of debates regarding the gender-inclusive reinterpretation of the Quran which is the most dominant tool used against women. Leadership, employment, education, and dress policy have been the key issues Muslim women are fighting for.

The recent killing of a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman by Iran’s morality police (Gashte-Irshad) for her display of “bad hijab” in public, and the never-ending harassment and aggression towards hijab-wearing Muslim women worldwide, has put women in a position where she has been robbed of her choice and free will.

Speaking of political authority and leadership, women are sidelined accusing us of being “incapable,” “too emotional,” and “hormonal” for the position, quoting us some bizarre and falsely interpreted verses from their Quran. I recently came across a beautiful story mentioned in our Quran about Queen Bilqis of Sheba, which apparently is never referred to in mainstream discussions. The story depicts the strength of a woman, her wisdom, and her intelligence in running her state.

We can also gain insight from THE FIRST female qazi in Rajasthan, India, Jahanara, and read about her struggles and her story of breaking stereotypes and displaying enormous strength. Roger Lancaster, in his book “The Trouble with Nature” states:

Differences related to genitalia, childbearing, physical strength, and mental and emotional capacities were all variously used to justify the social position of women as inferior to men in general, and subordinate to make counterparts in workplaces, education, politics, and cultural life and within the home as wives, mothers, and daughters.”

Gender essentialism, along with social background, economic and immigrant status, ethnicity, etc. overlap and create a complex arrangement emerging in different forms of opportunities and obstacles. The experiences of being a Muslim woman (including Muslim women of color and minorities) are complex and need much more awareness, visibility, and support. These systemic gendered segregations have not only put women and non-binary individuals behind but have also incorporated feelings of inferiority among them.

Sadly, most of us who are in the leading positions lead the masses towards moral policing of women based on the length and breadth of the cloth she is wearing.

In other forms of inequalities such as class, race, and ethnicity, the gender imbalance is being doubled and overshadowed. Muslim women are trying to make their way through the oppressive and patriarchal practices within their own community and also simultaneously trying to create a positive Muslim identity within academia and beyond.

Sadly, most of us who are in the leading positions lead the masses towards moral policing of women based on the length and breadth of the cloth she is wearing. They are feeding on gendered stereotypes but not addressing the real threat; the threat of colonialism, ignorance, and backwardness. Gender-inclusive scholarships have to question the traditional patriarchal nature of the discourse and create space and acceptance for women in politics, education, and activism. 

“Masculinizing God is the first step in positing a hierarchy in which males situate themselves beneath God and above women, implying that there is a symbolic (and sometimes literal) continuum between God’s Rule over humans and male rule over women.”

 (Asma Barlas, Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an)