Where are the women scholars? A non- reactionary approach

May 22, 2015

At some point I thought I might like to be a scholar. I suppose when I started studying Islam more actively I began to realize the dearth of female scholars. Outside of my life 123402881now, where I am blessed to have  four main teachers in my life two of which are women, there were distinctly two times I recall women on a panel for an Islam specific issue that would require Islamic knowledge and possibly five times in all for an Muslim specific issue that didn’t required knowledge (a cultural issue). Speaking on the knowledge specific lectures only, one was excellent and the other literally made me fall asleep.

The negative first, in a long three-day intensive -which I will never do again, one woman took the stage. The talk required intricate knowledge of fiqh points -it might have been on usool al fiqh, but it was painfully boring, I fell asleep and so did the people around me. Though the days were long I can’t remember any other painfully uncharismatic speaker besides her. I say this for a reason since as a former teacher myself I certainly don’t think I’m super exciting either. When she was done speaking I remember a woman coming to our table, one of the women who was present for the talk gloated to the incoming woman “There was a woman speaker!” “Really! What was she talking about?” “Um, I don’t know -but it was really good”.

This is what I hope we will avoid in a sudden zealous to have female speakers: speakers who aren’t qualified, aren’t good public speakers and/or situations in which the speakers are forced in to immodesty. In the same above talk the woman was sitting before and after her talking next to the men on the panel. As they chatted it up like speakers will intermittently I kept wondering -Is she married to that guy? This is admittedly far too judgmental (as instant reactions usually are) but I was uncomfortable with their proximity and would not want to be in such proximity if the role were mine. Should she have sat on the other side? Should there have been more space? Does it even matter? Well, maybe. It could be that some female scholars are simply turned off by the idea of having to be uncomfortably propped before an audience and seated beside men. Yes I know, don’t we do it everyday in life? Yes, but outside of a Muslim framework there is a degree of just putting up with the world as it is, inside the Muslim framework there is a desire to make things as they “should be” which will of course be different for everyone.

When me mom and I threw an event last year we had both male and female speakers, in the end my dear sister and my fiqh teacher sat to take questions. They were next to each other but at least a seat apart and maybe they should have been even further apart than that but I did not feel the distinct discomfort I felt in the previous scenario. My sister is in fact a good example, she’s an excellent speaker and has acquired some knowledge from her Islamic studies, she’s not a scholar but I think she has the proper foundation in Islam, qualifications and talent to stand before others and give an “Islamic lecture”. But maybe our idea about what an Islamic event should entail needs to change as well. Most Islamic events are just feel good Muslim fun. Serious knowledge doesn’t happen in lectures but in longterm studies with shuyukh who are not interested in entertaining you and the finishing of classical books. I realized this a few years ago when I abandoned the lecture circuit for more series study.

On the other hand (besides my sister) the second lecture I went to (where the speakers required religious knowledge) was excellent. The woman wouldn’t claim herself a scholar, she was still fairly young, but she was learned. She was an excellent speaker, engaging and interesting. Her and the shaykh present both sat in front but on opposite ends. It was a great lecture, I certainly remembered what she said and appreciated every word of it. I left the lecture wishing I knew about this sister sooner, she was at the time of the speech very pregnant and would not be giving lectures for some time.

Really the solution to there being no female scholars can’t be a simple-minded let’s find the closest female to us solution as may have happened in the first scenario. Here are a few issues:

What does it mean to be a scholar? I don’t consider someone with solely a ph.D from Yale or any other secular school an Islamic scholar someone else might. But if I or someone like me is organizing an event and you suggest a “scholar” based on your definitely and I say they’re unqualified it’s important that we realize we’re using the term differently. For me and the teacher’s I’ve learned from Islamic knowledge is transferred from “heart to heart”. Meaning you learned from a scholar who learned from scholar who learned from a scholar, etc. back to the prophet, peace to him. It’s a knowledge meant to transform heart, mind and action, not simply pass on information. People acquiring knowledge from atheist teachers of Islam are merely gathering information and are not scholars according to this definition.

The scholarship -by the definition of my teachers, takes time: Unfortunately if you’re beginning your scholarship journey at age 18 you’re about 16 years too late. If you read the biographies of great scholars they began their journey young. If we really want to see more female scholarship we need to turn to our youth and possibly be wiling to sacrifice a formal Western education for a formal Islamic one. Most of the people we consider scholars are not scholars if you compare them to past scholars they are simply smarter than the rest of us. You can learn later in life of course but don’t imagine you’ll become Imam Al Shafi’i.

This is particularly true for girls. Most of us want to be married in our 20s/30s. Once you’re married with kids unless you are extremely strict on yourself in setting aside time for studies and have a supportive husband your scholarship dreams may unsurprisingly vanish. Or they may no longer be your dreams or you may take a different approach to learning and teaching outside of the realm of being a “public scholar”.

Do women want to be scholars? We have to face this question or we’re fighting a losing battle. We may fight for equal space on the panel but do women actually want to be there? Whether it’s about modesty, shyness or simple disinterest in being a public person we can’t afford to overlook this possibility. 

Do we actually need more scholars (for these events)? Maybe we don’t need more female scholars on our panels -though I’d argue we need more (female) scholarship in general, maybe we just need more diversity in our events. Islamic lectures are not (often) places of real Islamic scholarship, they are cultural feel good events. A woman who is a good speaker and knowledgeable in either her field or her experience also deserves, if she will take it, a valid space on the Islamic lecture panel. Scholarship is one way to contribute to the wider Muslim community but it is by far not the only place. If we merely open the space to more voices that may be the greatest solution to seeing more women on our panels and feminine voices (issues) dealt with in our lectures.

Lastly let’s be helpful instead of hurtful, if it is so upsetting to you that there aren’t women speakers at a given event, make sure you let your voice be heard (please not in the Q and A at a given event), suggest women speakers and be as active as you can during the next Islamic event to make sure some are included. We shouldn’t intensify the problem by pledging to boycott all male panels, that’s just spite, not a solution.

I wrote on this topic previously: here



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