Justine Howe (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Islam and Gender (London: Routledge, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?

Justine Howe (JH): The impetus for this volume came from a few different directions. The first was the exciting and groundbreaking research that has been published on Islam and gender over the last few years. The field has grown significantly, both in terms of theoretical and methodological approaches, and the geographic regions that scholars address. I wanted to capture these important developments and suggest pathways for future research. The second was pedagogical. I teach an undergraduate class on Islam, gender, and women, and while there are many excellent edited collections, books, and essays out there, none brought together the field of Islam and gender as a whole in a way that was accessible to an undergraduate audience. Finally, I was really excited about the prospect of collaborating with scholars whose work I admire in order to produce a collective work of scholarship that could serve as a touchstone for the field.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

JH: The handbook explores Islam and gender from a variety of academic perspectives. No handbook can be comprehensive, but taken together, the chapters show the dynamic relationship between Islam and gender both historically and today. The chapters also reflect a key shift from focusing on gender instead of equating gender with women. To be clear, Muslim women tend to be overlooked as historical actors, and there is much more work to be done in exploring their experiences—especially in geographic regions that are underrepresented in Islamic studies, such as sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, this handbook shows how gender is something that all Muslims do, including men. This is because gendered frameworks and norms are thoroughly embedded in how institutions work, in the interpretation of sacred texts, and in conceptions of the divine. In short, while often implicit, gender is implicated in all kinds of social hierarchies, and related to other forms of difference. These configurations are shaped by the particular historical conditions in which they are situated and are always being reworked and negotiated. Additionally, the chapters show how gender, as a theoretical framework, leads us to new insights about textual interpretation, religious authority, politics, and everyday practice in Muslim contexts. On the whole, the handbook shows what gender theory can contribute to perennial and emerging debates in Islamic studies and in the study of religion more broadly.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

JH: One of my longstanding interests has been in the role of gender in formations of religious and national identity. My first book, Suburban Islam, focused, in part, on the role of gender in third space communities among American Muslims after 9/11. I explore how Muslim women have taken up new authority roles in these emergent spaces, while men have embraced their roles as caring, nurturing fathers. These gendered practices and roles have particular resonance in a climate of anti-Muslim hostility, as they challenge American perceptions of Muslim men as violent oppressors and women as their passive victims. Many of the scholars that contributed to this handbook helped me to understand how what I was observing ethnographically related to historical configurations of Islam and gender, and most importantly, what was at stake in contemporary debates over gendered authority.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

JH: I hope the handbook will be useful for instructors who want to teach about Islam and gender and need an entry point into the topic. The handbook was written with undergraduate students in mind and designed to be accessible to readers who do not have specialist knowledge or experience in Islamic studies. It is designed to provide broad coverage of the important debates, while also allowing students to delve more deeply into topics such as textual interpretation, consumer culture, and family dynamics. I also hope the handbook will benefit researchers and graduate students. Several essays, such as those by Ash Geissinger and Fatima Seedat, among others—set out new theoretical and methodological directions for the field of Islam and gender. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

JH: I am currently conducting research for a book on the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA). It explores how the American university has served as an indispensable site for the coalescence of American Muslim community and identity. Focusing on the MSA’s growth from its founding in 1963 until the present, the book will locate American Muslim students within the larger history of transnational political and religious activism in the United States, a history in which they have mainly been absent. I am also working on a book about Maryam Jameelah, the American Jewish convert to Islam, who became an important voice in the global Islamic revival during the 1960s and 1970s.

J: Which future directions do you see for the field of Islam and gender?

JH: There are three areas that I see as especially exciting and in need of further study. The first is in the area of queer theory and nonbinary approaches. Here I am talking about both exploring groups and individuals who, for a variety of reasons, do not fit in to the binary model of gender—and the significant contributions of queer theorists to our understanding of how gender works, and how those insights might be applied to Muslim contexts. Second, I think there is considerably more room for scholars to expand their archives and sources so that we might fully account for the dynamic interplay of religion and gender, beyond genres such as law that have typically occupied more scholarly attention (as important as those genres continue to be!). Finally, I think there are urgent conversations coming out of critical race and disability studies that we scholars of Islam ought to be engaging more fully.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, “Situating the Field of Islam and Gender,” pp. 9-12) 

This volume builds on three key strains of scholarship in the field of Islam and gender: feminist engagements with Muslim sources; historical and anthropological literature that has explored the contours of Muslim women’s lives in global contexts; and the more recent turn toward queer theory, critical race theory, and masculinity studies. Many of the chapters in this volume continue the field’s historical focus on women’s lives and experiences. Other chapters explore the experiences of non-binary people and men. But all of them use gender as their analytical framework through which to explore the broader religious and political implications of their objects of study.

In recent decades the field of Islam and gender has addressed several political concerns in both academic conversations and in broader public debates. The narrow frames through which gender and Islam continue to be represented demonstrate the enduring legacies of 18th and 19th century European colonial ventures into Muslim-majority societies. Muslim female bodies have long been sources of desire and disgust, as they signified alluring yet dangerous sites of imperial domination and rescue (Abu-Lughod 2013).

Scholars of Islam and gender have productively demonstrated how the legal, economic, and political changes wrought by colonialism created new gendered categories, identities, and practices for Muslims under imperial rule (Morgenstein Fuerst, this volume)…These gendered constructions were highly racialised as well, turning on the notions of non-white people as inherently inferior to white Europeans. Although such representations have varied over time and space, Orientalist images of Muslim women as both objects of desire and as symbols of Islam’s incompatibility with the ‘West’ have proved to be remarkably durable. These representations reflect an ideology that declares to be in the service of improving the lives of Muslim women, but ultimately it serves political ends – usually the exercise of (neo)colonial power – that often have the opposite effect.

These colonial logics are still at work today…The legacies of colonialism and orientalism continue to shape the kinds of materials that scholars focus on, with particular consequences for how gendered norms and practices are presented. The tendency to focus on texts produced in the early centuries of Islam has been an enduring feature of Islamic studies since its beginnings. Within the field of Islamic studies in general and in the area of Islam and gender in particular, there has been far more attention to the Qurʾan and legal materials, with less attention to other religious sources (theology, philosophy, ethics), not to mention the broad literary and cultural production (such as poetry and art), which have all played important roles in shaping the political, social, and religious fabric of Muslim societies (Ahmed 2016).

In the last few decades, scholars have challenged male-dominated perspectives in Muslim sources and the Islamic interpretative tradition (Barlas 2002; wadud 1999). amina wadud developed a rich feminist hermeneutic for assessing and challenging male-centred interpretations and for probing the gendered hierarchies undergirding Islamic sources. Her work has been highly generative for the field on the whole. In the process, wadud and others have proposed new understandings of Qurʾanic notions of justice, equality, and divinity as well as conceptions of Muslim authority (Chaudhry 2013; Geissinger 2015)…Such scholarship has also investigated how interpretative traditions have been shaped by patriarchal and androcentric frameworks. Recent work by scholars such as Aysha Hidayatullah has pushed this conversation further, toward a critique of how some feminist scholars map their own normative assumptions about ideals such as equality onto the Qurʾan and other sacred texts (Hidayatullah 2014).

In addition to probing the gendered assumptions and frameworks of texts, the field of Islam and gender has long focused on restoring Muslim women to the historical record and to investigating how and why gendered norms and practices took shape. Leila Ahmed’s ground-breaking Women and Gender in Islam (1992) argued that while the early Muslim community enacted more egalitarian gender norms, patriarchal practices came to be hegemonic in the decades following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Along with the work of Fatima Mernissi (1983), Ahmed’s book provided a foundational account of the contributions of Muslim women in Islamic history. Ahmed and Mernissi both noted how the construction of the classical Islamic tradition normalized patriarchy and decreased female religious and political power, as well as women’s social and legal status. Most importantly, these histories demonstrated how patriarchy came to be naturalized as God’s intended law.

Social history has also highlighted the importance of everyday negotiations of gender norms and practices in Muslim contexts. Historians such as Leslie Pierce and Judith Tucker have shown how Muslim women participated in legal proceedings, and while untrained in the realm of fiqh, have helped to shape the mechanisms and outcomes of Muslim legal proceedings….Rosemary Admiral (this volume) explores Islamic law as a site of local contestation among a variety of social actors only some of whom were specialists in fiqh. These actors bring divergent motivations, skills, and aspirations to their understanding of the relationship between sexual ethics and social order, which they marshal to greater or lesser effect depending on their contingent positions within multiple domains of social power.

Similarly, within anthropology, the themes of agency and authority have been key areas of inquiry in the study of gender and Islam, particularly in regards to the experiences of women. Saba Mahmood’s landmark study (2005) of Egyptian women affiliated with the revivalist mosque movement paved the way for more nuanced examination of female engagement with the Islamic tradition and how textual study and ritual practice facilitate their embodiment of religious norms. In Mahmood’s analysis, women do more than simply conform to, or challenge, prescriptive discourses. Rather, Muslim women possess complex goals and motivations for inhabiting conservative religious norms. Their religious practices and frameworks often complicate liberal feminist concepts such as autonomy and freedom (Mahmood 2005).

…More recent scholarship has refocused the centre of inquiry on gender, expanding the locus of inquiry to include men and masculinity (Abdul Khabeer 2016). This focus on gendered norms and practices illuminates how men and women navigate patriarchal gendered norms and expectations that can be damaging for both of them. Marcia Inhorn (2012) shows how new companionate ideals have taken hold in Arab marriages among both men and women. She shows how the agency of individual couples has been paramount in the shift toward smaller families centred on the nuclear family unit, which enable women to work outside the home, and for men to assume child care responsibilities, including family planning and struggles with infertility.

Scholars have also interrogated masculinity and homosociality in Muslim texts to show how Muslim men also negotiate gendered norms and perform gendered practices. This line of inquiry has demonstrated how foundational sources that profess to be universal are actually highly particular in their outlook, usually aimed at an elite male audience. Zahra Ayubi’s recent work on akhlaq (philosophical ethics) has shown how elite men were the presumed audience for texts aimed at cultivating ethical refinement. Non-elite men and women were merely instrumental to this project of ethical perfection (Ayubi 2019). Ayubi demonstrates how gendered assumptions in these texts produce tensions between their stated commitment of metaphysical equality of all humans and their conviction that women and non-elite men were simply not capable of ethical perfection. Other foundational work in masculinity studies (De Sondy 2013) explores how patriarchal interpretations of Muslim sacred texts have foreclosed possibilities for masculinity. De Sondy’s Islamic Masculinities called for new models of Muslim manhood that more fully account for the many roles that exemplary Muslim men have held, both past and present.

The study of Islam and gender has only recently begun to use the insights of queer theory to explore Muslim texts and practices. Fatima Seedat has called for ‘queering the study of Islam’, a project that entails both the intentional study of alternative sexualities and the study of non-normative areas of study, for example, the introduction of Islamic perspectives in hegemonically Christian contexts (Seedat 2018). Adopting a posture of ‘sitting’ with difference and irresolution, Seedat encourages scholars to resist seeing the Islamic tradition as essentially ‘straightened’ or absolutely heteronormative (Seedat 2018). For Seedat, the challenge of queering the study of Islam lies in the capacity of scholars to analyse the ambiguities around sexual and gender difference without flattening or essentializing them.

The above discussion demonstrates just a sampling of the broader insights that are generated through a focus on gender in Muslim contexts. And yet the marginalization of this kind of inquiry continues to happen on two fronts: one, the ongoing lack of attention to women and non-binary people as agents shaping their own histories and as important to the history of Islam more broadly; and two, the ongoing lack of attention to gender theory as a rich analytical lens for scholarship in Islamic studies (Kueny 2013). The contributors to this volume thus share a commitment to interrogate these power dynamics through a variety of theoretical and methodological tools, including but not limited to feminist inquiry. Although this self-reflexivity is practiced in different ways, each contributor sees this interrogation of how academic knowledge is produced, and who benefits from it, as essential to their academic practice. The contributors share this ethical stance of self-reflexivity, whether they identify as Muslim or not, whether they see their scholarship as normative or descriptive or both, or whether their work concerns premodern or modern contexts. These chapters also share a commitment to opening up new archives and new voices in the study of Islam, and to exploring expanded theoretical and methodological terrain for exploring them.