Yasmin Saikia and Chad Haines (eds.), Women and Peace in the Islamic World: Gender, Agency and Influence (I.B. Tauris, 2015, paperback 2021).*
Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?
Yasmin Saikia and Chad Haines (YS & CH): There are multiple trajectories that came together into the making of Women and Peace in the Islamic World: the United States’ imperialist wars and occupations soon after 9/11, the hope that arose from the Arab Spring, the mainstreaming of the vilification of Islam and Muslims generally, as well as our own personal journeys as scholars. Like so many, we were troubled that soon after 9/11 the call to war became strident, but it was done in the name and language of peace and human rights. In listening to former First Lady Laura Bush’s radio address speaking out against Taliban oppression of women and children and expressing her commitment to restoring “the rights and dignity of [Afghan] women,” we found ourselves asking: why is Islam projected as a violent religion and Muslims as terrorists? Do Muslim women need rescuing by the West?
Yasmin’s personal experiences having grown up as a Muslim woman in India, our research on various aspects of South Asian and Muslim world cultures and societies, and our academic travels to various Muslim countries, made us keenly aware of the contributions and powerful role women play in Muslim communities and in fostering peace. They are not silent, oppressed objects waiting to be rescued, but are instead the change-makers; we know this first-hand. The important role that Muslim women played during the Arab Spring was evident for the world to witness when countless women across North Africa and the Middle East came out on the streets, many leading the protest and encouraging the people to forge ahead in the struggle for democracy and freedom from dictatorship. Coinciding with the period of the Arab Spring, we joined the faculty of Arizona State University and, with Yasmin’s appointment as the first holder of the Hardt-Nickachos Chair in Peace Studies in the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict (CSRC), it provided us an opportunity to reimagine peace from the vantage point of Islamic values and ethics. Women and Peace in the Islamic World was the outcome of a conference and several public talks and faculty discussions and is part of a larger project called “people’s peace” focusing on the lived ethics of everyday peace.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
YS & CH: The various contributors in this book demonstrate how Muslim women draw from a rich diversity of social, cultural, and Islamic religious values and practices for peacemaking, even in conflict zones, through neighborliness, hospitality, friendship, sociality, forgiveness, and memories of co-existence. In so doing, the book addresses issues of conflict management and resolution, transitional justice, truth and reconciliation, and other institutional practices of peace, using an Islamic lens and a variety of sources, such as history, anthropology, law, religious studies, and literature. Our main focus is on Muslim women who translate the values taught by religion into humanistic ways of living in the world and creating peace.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
YS & CH: Women and Peace in the Islamic World is the first of three edited volumes we developed as a joint project. It lays the foundation for advancing our concerns on marginality, Muslim identity, gender, and informal social practices for sustainable peace. As a historian of South Asia, Yasmin previously wrote several monographs focusing on nationalism and identity. In researching and writing Women, War and the Making of Bangladesh (2011), Yasmin realized that although women’s experiences and voices are eclipsed and sidelined in the site of national history, women produce the strongest arguments, insights, complaints, and feelings that make history—even the violent history of war—accessible and relatable as a common human experience. It was the powerful idiom of insainyat (humanity) recalled by survivors to make sense of what was lost and gained in the war that inspired Yasmin to focus on history as a site for peace.
For Chad, his scholarship reflects a commitment to unraveling the multilayered complexities of lives on the margins. His previous book, Nation, Territory, and Globalization in Pakistan: Traversing the Margins (2012) explored the historical structures of marginality in northern Pakistan and the role of global forces undermining local communities. His concern with peace within an Islamic perspective is pushing his work in new directions, engaging lived ethics as a site from where marginal communities assert and claim their own agency in the world today.
For us, scholarship is a humanistic project that is not confined to the academy; our effort is to reach a wider audience of readers who are interested in a better human future. We have since edited two more volumes focusing on the theme of people’s peace: People’s Peace: Prospects for a Human Future (2019) and Peace with the Other: Challenges in the 21st Century (forthcoming).
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
YS & CH: We hope that readers who are socially engaged in purposeful, humanistic scholarship will read our book. Graduate students and scholars of peace studies, women’s studies, Islamic studies, history, law, religious studies, and literature will find the book an important intervention addressing a variety of issues that need resolving in our contemporary times. We hope that policymakers, NGO peace workers, and peace activists, too, will find this book a valuable resource for making some strategic decisions for fostering peace.
Our effort is to stir feelings and thoughts in our readers so that they too will become participants in peace work and will strengthen the work that everyday Muslim women are doing for improving the human condition. We hope that each reader can realize the power of the participatory process and recognize that they are not separate and different in their desire from others who want to lead a peaceful life. We want to enable each reader to see themselves as an indissoluble part of a common human community seeking peace as a human right to live in dignity.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
YS & CH: We are currently working on a new project, titled Unfinished Partitions in South Asia and the Making of Miyas, Biharis, and Christians into Noncitizens (1947 – the Present) and funded by the National Endowment of Humanities. The research focuses on three “noncitizen” communities to illuminate the values and practices of precarious lives at the margins of national belonging, providing a history of the making of noncitizens, and delineating the ongoing politics of South Asia’s partitions as continuous disruptions of everyday lives.
Simultaneously, we are writing individual monographs. Yasmin is writing a new book on Muslim revolutionary politics in the interwar period focusing on four revolutionaries—Barkatullah Bhopali, Obeidullah Sindhi, Fazal Illahi Wazirabadi, and Iqbal Shedai—who made the struggle for India’s freedom from British colonialism into an internationalist project by making alliances with German, Italian, American, Japanese, Russian, Afghan, and Turkish supporters. The book is anchored on the concept of freedom in Islam and highlights the Indian Muslim revolutionaries’ ideas of human freedom in the subcontinent.
Chad’s book project, Being Muslim, Being Modern: Islam and Informality in Cairo, Islamabad, and Dubai compares three diverse urban landscapes as sites where Muslims negotiate, accommodate, and/or resist the structures of modernity. The city, for Chad, is the site where multiple modernisms (for example, colonial, national, liberal, and neoliberal) converge and—through various informal practices—is where Muslims chart and assert their own place in the world today. He situates these informal practices within a Muslim ethical milieu, providing an alternative vision of peace and the modern every day.
J: Why does telling the story of Muslims as peacemakers matter?
YS & CH: Islamophobia is on the rise, once again. The representation of Muslims as violent destroyers of peace is not a new story. Islam was imagined as a violent religion immediately after its emergence by the Byzantine rulers, as early as the seventh and eight centuries. This myth making about violent Islam and aggressive Muslims continued during the Crusades and even during the Renaissance, which celebrated the human capacity for excellence. During western colonialism (the eighteenth to the twentieth century) the struggle to control, dominate, and civilize Muslims became an imperial project, and it continues even today. We ask: how can we speak about Muslims who are inspired by Islam to be peacemakers and transform the deeply divisive language of conflict to foster peace? Our book is part of this effort, to highlight Muslims who do the everyday work of peace outside the glare of media and politics. This is the story of Muslim lives that need to be told. It is also a methodological and conceptual approach to counter the extreme language of liberalism promoting and proliferating conflict in our contemporary world in the name of human rights, and to put forward an alternative framework of Islamic values and ethics for peace.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-22)
In this volume of essays, we suggest a conceptual and methodological shift by reading peace in small acts of human interactions in the everyday. The shift from the dramatic and big actors to the complex and subtle issues of the everyday requires careful attention to ordinary people and their activities, as well as, a sufficiently detailed understanding of how people conceptualize peace. Our focus is on a particular group of actors, Muslim women, whose voices and actions reconstruct for us an alternative narrative of peace inhabiting the site of the everyday.
The significance of the everyday is that it is a place of meaningful actions where Islam guides Muslim women’s deliberations and for making the journey a shared and collective effort. Taken together, women, Islam and the everyday create a new horizon for thinking about peace as both a moral process and a personal strategy creating a continuous site for human transformation with deep roots in Muslim consciousness and Islamic thought.
The chapters in this volume cover a wide array of geographical areas from Aceh to Bosnia. They are the diverse voices of individuals and collectives of Muslim women and the multiple experiences encompassing communal living in quiet segregated women’s spaces to the chaotic zones of war. In its breadth, this volume shows the persistence of women’s daily actions and the integration of religion, which allows us to interpret the everyday differently as the site of hope and to lay the groundwork for peace. In so doing, the testaments here also open up the possibility of studying Islam as a lived tradition that counters dominant stereotypes depicting Islam as inherently violent and hyper-patriarchal. Through these conversations, three issues interweave to shed light on the possibilities of peace: the everyday, Islam and Muslim women.
The negotiations that occur in the everyday lack adequate documentation in the corpus of Muslim world studies, but to understand it, we have to accept that the ‘inhabitation of the ordinary’ is the unrecorded site of transformation and peace. The everyday is the site where people imbibe and reproduce Qur’anic interpretations, moral values and ethical ideas in ordinary actions. Despite the everyday ordinary nature of lived religion for the vast majority of Muslims, the concerns for ethical living and the site of the everyday is the ‘place of relations’ with others.
The values guiding Muslims can be summed up as Islam (submission, what one should strive towards), iman (faith, what one should have) and ihsan (good and beautiful, what one should do). William Chittick and Sachiko Murata assert ihsan is the most important reference point for Muslims in ordering relations with self and others, as well as humankind and God, because it means taking one’s inner faith and expressing it in one’s actions. Refocussing on ihsan as the methodological option recentres agency in ordinary individual Muslims who, through their practical experiences, reform and live the principles of Islam in their everyday lives and allows us to see Shar’ia as a lived set of personal practices and not a set of laws dogmatically imposed.
There are four interweaving sections of the book; each delves into various aspects of women’s lived experiences struggling for peace in their communities. The first section raises significant conceptual issues and questions pertaining to some of our basic assumptions about Islam and women. The second section highlights Islamic concepts, philosophies and practices that Muslim women activists draw upon. In the third section, the essays describe women’s work through formal institutions and established cultural traditions, and the fourth section focusses on the interpersonal relationships women forge in their everyday routines. The conclusion is a response of a Western feminist scholar engaging the work of Muslim women in peacemaking as it is represented in this book. It raises questions of the differences between Western feminists’ and Muslim feminists’ approaches to peace. To situate feminist theory of peace within the lived reality of Muslim women’s work for peace, in the epilogue, we offer a public conversation between two Muslim women peaceworkers, a Sufi sheikha and a social activist. Their conversation drives home the point that much work remains for bringing into dialogue the diverse and often divided worlds of ideas and work, Western and Muslim feminists, peaceworkers and peace theory.
In the very first chapter of the book, miram cooke asks us to heed a basic observation that ‘neither violence nor peace has a gender’. She reflects on how women are just as prone to act violently and promote war, as they are to be harbingers of peace and justice. Peace is not just the cessation of war, cooke argues, but it is also about ‘human rights, societal transformation, empowerment and dialogue’. Chad Haines focuses on the potential of dialogue to improve the capacity for human interaction towards peace. Using the Arab Spring and the symbolic significance of Cairo’s Tahrir Square as his starting point, Haines transforms the basic question about peace asked in the West – how to bring peace to the Muslim world – into what does Islam have to say about peace – about world peace? In the next chapter in this first section, Richard Martin traces contemporary Muslim discourses to the Medieval Mu’tazalite philosophical tradition. The rationalist school, Martin suggests, offers contemporary Muslim feminists pathways for challenging and debating male-centric Qur’anic interpretations. […]
The chapters in the second section explore women’s activism in reshaping social institutions and creating new ones to assert their rights and claims to peace and justice. […] Elora Chowdhury shows how non-governmental organizations (NGOs) encode the elite interests and norms of society that reflect class structure. Chowdhury argues and directs our attention to the on-the-ground concerns of Muslim women in Bangladesh and their everyday small acts that generate real changes. Similarly, Asna Husin follows the lives of three Acehnese women and traces their emergent ‘gender consciousness’ as rooted in Islamic education, family and the needs, and demands of their conflict-ridden society. Souad Ali analyses the shifting terrain of Sudanese women preachers from the disjuncture of colonialism to the assertion of nationalist agendas in Sudan. […]
The chapters in the third section demonstrate the contributions Muslims can make in peace work by sharing some of the Islamic concepts Muslim women draw upon in their everyday acts for peace. Ayse Kadayifci-Orellana focuses on the work of several remarkable women struggling to bring peace to their communities in Kenya, Somalia and Afghanistan. She emphasises how ‘basing their arguments in Islamic texts and the Prophet’s examples enables Muslim women to respond to conservative interpretations much more effectively than secular arguments urging democratisation and Westernisation’. Arzoo Osanloo focuses on the Islamic concept of forgiveness … and shows how forgiveness becomes a humanitarian act performed by an individual, and this move, beyond the legal language of justice of the Iranian State and human rights discourse, allows for transcendence. Similarly, Azza Karam reflects on the diverse articulations of feminism amongst Muslim women from non-religious, to religious and to Islamist. Karam cautions that it is important to remain open and keep the multiple public discourses that arise from the Arab Spring present in the public sphere to create a paradigm shift that encompasses feminist consciousness and peaceful transformation. […]
The chapters in the final section reflect on the minute and ordinary acts of women who carve new pathways and develop various ethics of peace. Within the institutional confines of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Yasmin Saikia engages the interpersonal ethics of friendship, tolerance and dignity performed by female hostel boarders. The value system of AMU and Islamic ethics of adab (etiquette, refinement, respect and humanness) provide women with the tools to negotiate and actualize their capacity for insaniyat (humanity). Shahla Talebi situates women’s imaginings of peace and justice within the cultural expressions and performance of forming community through memory and remembrance of the martyred in Iran. Drawing upon Shi’a traditional practices of mourning, she interconnects memory with shahadat (witnessing) and amanat (divine entrustment) that provide the foundation for a sense of peace that is ‘inviting and binding in grief and joy [for] those who work to create rather than destroy communities’. Similarily, Zilka Siljak focuses on the concepts and practices of merhamet (compassion) and komsiluk (neighbourliness) to suggest ways women are rebuilding war-torn Bosnia, and engaging in interfaith and intercommunity dialogues with erstwhile enemies who are now peace-builders working towards a common goal. She finds that interpersonal ethics are fragile and easily usurped if their application was to be narrowed to ethno-nationalist agendas, which would divide communities once again, rather than seeing humanity across imagined borders. […]
The essays in this book draw our attention to a myriad of issues and the role of social institutions, and traditions as sites of liberation, as well as, oppression that force women to negotiate their place in society… This reminds us that Muslim women are human beings with agency and beliefs; Islam is a lived tradition with diverse possibilities for followers to define what it means to be Muslim, and peace is a possibility with the active engagement of individuals and collective participation.
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