“Islam and Modernity.” “Islamic Feminisms.” The titles of Professor Asma Afsaruddin’s Fall 2017 courses in SGIS’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures are intended to be provocative, she admits. “I picked the titles partly for the shock effect.” As an academic and public intellectual, Afsaruddin has dedicated her career to improving the general understanding of Muslims, but acknowledges that juxtaposing the words “feminisms” or “modernity” with “Islam” still strikes a jarring note on an American campus in 2017.
Once she’s gotten students’ attention, she hopes her classes will help them appreciate the heterogeneity of the Muslim world.
“We do a disservice to the great diversity that we find in Muslim-majority societies by reducing the Islamic tradition to a monolithic phenomenon,” explains Afsaruddin, whose book "Striving in the Path of God: Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought" (Oxford University Press, 2013) sought to expand and nuance the concept of jihad. In 2015, the book was recognized as the best new book in Islamic studies with Iran’s Jayezeh Jahani, or World Book Prize, and was a runner-up for the British-Kuwaiti Friendship Society book prize.
The notion that the charged term “jihad” can, as Afsaruddin explores in her book, refer to an inner struggle to better one's self, may be just as surprising as classical Islamic legal rulings upholding women’s rights to abortion and to property after marriage. Afsaruddin’s courses intend to “interrogate the assumptions” about the Islamic world that are reinforced by its representation in the media. She does this by broadening and diversifying the context in which Islam is considered. That’s why she refers to multiple “feminisms.”
“We assume it’s a singular phenomenon, but it’s not. There are different regional inflections—from Egypt to Turkey to Indonesia. But there are very strong women’s movements in all these societies --some are in contact with one another -- but often they’re working in very culturally specific contexts.”
In Saudi Arabia, for example, there is what Afsaruddin calls a “vibrant women’s movement” that is working to repeal such measures as the injunction against women driving. The 2016 elections ushered more women into Iran’s parliament than there had been since the 1979 revolution. And in Indonesia, a prominent female reformer is working with clerics to draft more progressive interpretations of the law as it applies to women.
The notion of Islamic feminism is not revisionist, Afsaruddin suggests, but rather, emerges out of the religion’s foundational texts. “There are a number of passages in the Quran that say that men and women are created equal,” she says. “That’s the jumping-off point for Islamic feminism.”
Using the Quran to justify strictures that are repressive of women is a function of an increasingly powerful patriarchy, Afsaruddin explains. “Most of the interpreters since the first century of Islam have been men.” As such, interpretations of scripture reflected culturally specific attitudes and beliefs that were “masculinist – even misogynist,” but not rooted in the original language of the Quran.
“If you go back to the sources, those views simply cannot be supported,” Afsaruddin explains. “They in fact run contrary to the foundational religious texts.”
Certain customs that are ostensibly rooted in scripture were in fact sociologically driven, she points out. The custom of covering one’s hair, for example, is not stipulated in the Quran, but emerged out of contact with Byzantine and Persian societies, in which the seclusion and veiling of women was a marker of upper class affiliation. High-born Muslim women, Afsaruddin explains, adopted the custom by the eighth or ninth century as a way of indicating higher social status, and women of humbler origins imitated them in turn.
Afsaruddin’s course “Islam and Modernity” queries historical assumptions in a similar way, suggesting that a Eurocentric historical narrative has quashed a general understanding of the viability of democracy in the Islamic world. “Democracy is not a western concept,” she states. “We forget about democratic Indonesia, Mali, Tunisia, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Muslim societies understand democratic governments to be in agreement with foundational Islamic values of consultation and collective decision-making. This desire for a representative accountable government – one that rules with the consent of the people -- is universal. The Arab Spring could never have happened unless there was a desire for democracy.”
Afsaruddin, who joined IU in 2009 after serving on the faculties of Harvard and Notre Dame, is optimistic about students’ desire to go beyond the headlines when it comes to the Middle East. “I think students realize they need to know more about that part of the world to be an informed person,” she finds.
But curiosity about the rest of the world is on the rise in general, she suspects. “I think the trend toward globalization on university campuses is feeding this interest in other cultures, in other societies, and fostering a desire to learn about other languages; and that’s something that IU has typically done well. Since I’ve been here in the last eight years, that interest in creating more courses in global cultures and languages has continued without interruption and resulted in the creation of SGIS.”
The school was still in the planning phase when Afsaruddin was interviewing at IU, she explains, “but it was something that piqued my interest. The fact that this is a university committed to investing in a global outlook was a categorical factor in my coming here.”