Why we should start with women

By Mona Oraby

This is the second of two essays on Islamic law and pedagogy written by Mona Oraby. The first is Islamic law and the liberal arts.”

The open curriculum at Amherst means that I mostly teach a captive audience. There are no gen-ed requirements to drive enrollment. Students who show up for my course on Islamic Constitutionalism, especially those who will not receive credit toward their major, have some genuine interest in the topic. But what is it about the course that interests them? What do they hope to learn? I ask these questions at the start of each semester. And each semester there’s little variation in what students report. Couched in their interests in comparative legal traditions, in a drive to become better informed about the world beyond their milieu, are subtle hints that they, like most people, are horrified by the news. Students come to my class to learn about Muslim women and religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries. Is it as bad for them as they say? 

Here, remarkably, the Internet is too vast to be of much help to the novice. Fortunately for me and their peers, many undergrads today cultivate in high school AP World History classes and later hone in college seminars a working, if not robust, skepticism of Orientalizing discourses. Many have already read Edward Said. They know better than to take sensational accounts of violence against women and minorities at face value. And they have a sharp intuition that intersectionality has universal application and relevance. But they know less where to begin to understand how sex, gender, and religious difference matter in cultural contexts dissimilar from their own. They have also rarely been invited to consider resonances between the legal cultures they are most familiar with and the legal cultures of societies that seem to them completely foreign. To get at these divergences and convergences—historically and practically—requires a shared vocabulary. Language also implicates authority.

I begin the course where I expect students will want to start: with women. But not in a ripped-from-the headlines way. Instead, I assign two short commentaries for the first day of class: “Five myths about the sharia” by Asifa Quraishi-Landes and “The politics of inaccuracy and the case for ‘Islamic law’” by Lena Salaymeh. This move does several things at once. It acknowledges students’ motivations for taking the course, anticipates challenging conversations and names the nature of those challenges, gets students thinking about nomenclature and its attendant politics, introduces students to Islamic legal studies and legal pluralism, and previews authors whose scholarship we later engage. Most importantly, on day one, we begin the vital work of confronting dominant discourses and developing skills to think and talk more critically about them. That is to say, the agenda for the first day sees the students’ wager and raises it.

The two commentaries I assign are written by women scholars in Islamic legal studies who represent a range of expertise characteristic of this field (comparative and constitutional law, as well as critical historiography and medieval Islamic jurisprudence). These commentaries also demonstrate a kind of translation work that subject experts do for non-specialist audiences, not in the linguistic sense but in an accessibility sense, as in mobilizing their knowledge to address questions that predominate a public conversation beyond their scholarly milieu. In her Washington Post op-ed, Quraishi-Landes addresses myths commonly attributed to sharī‘a and Muslims by non-Muslims in the West. And in her essay for The Immanent Frame, Salaymeh explains that imprecise use of terms like “sharī‘a” and “Islamic law” among non-specialists is a problem for and among subject experts too. Conversations about Islam and Muslims between and across these divisions are hindered by a lack of clarity around the terms of the conversation. How do we (as scholars speaking to each other, or professors speaking with students, or students speaking to each other, and so on) advance scholarship, public debate, and pedagogy absent minimal agreement about the language that names our inquiry?

When a professor foregrounds language trouble as a problem for scholars and not just a general public, students become less anxious about unfamiliar terms and more invested in a conversation that sorts their various meanings. It takes some time for students to get used to using words that are used differently by different scholars, but naming the confusion around specific terms is an effective way to understand the range of meanings and their referents. A concepts tracker grounds this exercise: As we work through the syllabus, students track in a shared document and through direct citation and exposition what scholars mean by “law,” “sharī‘a,” “sharī‘a law,” “Islamic law,” and “fiqh.” They actively sort through this lexicon during discussion and in their writing. They develop proficiency in the range of meanings that these concepts denote, and how they operate in specific cultural and political contexts—as in the cases of Amina Lawal in Nigeria, Zafran Bibi in Pakistan, and Lina Joy in Malaysia. Only then does the distinction between human fallibility and divine revelation become clear. Only then do they understand the stakes of calling references to Islam in modern constitutions “Islamic law” rather than “sharī‘a.”

What matters here is not the lesson in linguistics. Students mispronounce the Arabic letters qāf and kāf (and others) early and often and I don’t correct them. Learning the difference is not an objective for my teaching. But foregrounding the language used to talk about codification, personal status, legal modernization, constitutional establishment and repugnancy clauses, and the like compels students to be more attentive to what they do with their words. This alertness matters well beyond our learning context. Training students to pay attention to concepts and their application makes the gender misattribution that rears its head during discussions and in written assessments that much more urgent to address. Students routinely attribute male gender pronouns to the scholars whose work I assign, an impulse that, ironically, chafes against two issues they care deeply about: gender recognition and the movement to decolonize curricula in higher education. These days gender pronouns are listed in email signatures, are offered up during verbal introductions, and written on the name tents that students draw up on the first day of class. Students attuned to the historic silencing of BIPOC scholars from telling their own history sometimes slide easily into attributing male gender identity to expert voices when the histories (and names) these students encounter are new to them.

If we want to talk about the legal status of Muslim women, I say to students and colleagues, we need to also consider the politics of authoritative scholarship within Islamic studies. Learning about Muslim women cannot be disarticulated from the research done by women scholars and—as Kecia Ali shows—how that writing gets taken up, or not, and by whom and when. Gender bias in the field of Islamic studies means that certain stories about women and law and Islam get told and retold by male scholars more often than by female or nonbinary scholars across the range of scholarly work, not least citational practice. Students meet women scholars first in my class because what pedagogues decide to put on syllabi matters for gender equity in and beyond our fields. Although undergrads are largely removed from scholarly activity, they are a target consuming public of what scholars produce. Who my students meet on the syllabus shapes the kind of learning they will do, the knowledge they share with their friends and relatives and other professors, and, ultimately, the kinds of stories they tell about women and law and Islam.

Scholars and teachers should start with women by starting with women scholars. And we should start with women scholars even when our students do not want to know about women, when our courses are not about gender discrimination or seem not to concern gender in any substantive way. Gender misattribution offers up an opportunity to challenge deep-seated ideas about scholarly authority, and authority more broadly, right in our own classrooms—whether we teach in person or online. We should stage this encounter at every turn. When male scholars predominate our syllabi, the possibilities latent in an encounter staged otherwise do not arise. It is only when students confront their susceptibility for gender misattribution—when they say “he” and I say “she” enough times during discussion—that they take more care to learn about the who behind the what of scholarship.

By mid-semester, students in Islamic Constitutionalism are not only more careful about how they and others  use “law,” “sharī‘a,” “sharī‘a law,” “Islamic law,” and “fiqh.” They also develop a habit of reading up on the scholars whose work I assign. They familiarize themselves with their research areas. They read other scholarship. They chat with me and their peers about what new, interesting thing they learned from that article or essay or book. They relay the gist of conversations with friends and family that reveal direct applications of the concept work we’ve done all semester. The tendency toward gender misattribution recedes by the end of the semester. But more importantly for why this class matters after it’s over: students come to know better where to look and who to ask the next time they have questions about Islamic law.

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