Special Topics: Women, Gender and Islam

Dr. Gisela Webb. DIPL 6009. RELS 3493. DIPL 4199. WMST 3318

Description: The purpose of this class is to examine the concept, role, and status of  women in Islamic religion and society—both historically and in the contemporary world.  As an academic study of religion and women in a post-colonial, post-modern setting, we will use the following approach. 1) We will first examine the ways in which the topic of “women and Islam” has been approached in the past in Western academic studies and in traditional Islamic studies. We will discuss what our approach to the study will have in common with these methods and how our method will differ. 2) We will then focus on the traditional sources that inform Islamic belief and practice in all areas of life, namely the Qur’an, the accounts of the Prophet and the early Islamic community, and the classical interpretations of  these sources as they pertain to women. We will look at the development of the “classical”           Islamic sciences, such as law, theology, adab (eloquent conduct and writing), and spirituality (tasawwuf), particularly in their presentation/understanding of women, “the feminine,” and gender relations through the “pre-modern” era.  We will look at both ideals and social realities as they emerge in traditional Muslim societies. 3) The third area of investigation during the semester will be to look at how the concept and role of women in Islamic society has been affected by interaction with the “West,” particularly in light of colonialism, ‘modernity,’ and globalization. This latter area includes the way in which the “east and west” have viewed each other with regard to women. Most importantly, we will pay particular attention to how Muslim              women (and men) are formulating responses --from within an Islamic perspective-- to the challenge of being caught between traditional patriarchal (taqlidi?) structures and western (hegemonic?) attitudes toward women’s rights.


Goals of this course include:

1)       Understanding fundamentals about Islamic religion and Islamic women’s history.  A humanities approach necessarily looks at the development and diversity of views on women’s nature and role that developed in Islamic society, and how the views that became ‘normative’ reflect religious, social and political realities. Our discussions will include comparisons to Christian and Jewish norms through history. 

2)        Cultivating an awareness of the issues that intersect and must be studied together if students of humanities and international relations are to have a comprehensive understanding of the topic of ‘women and Islam’. These issues include the common dynamics that all religions experience (e.g., the problem of interpreting religious experience and teachings (oral and written), the development of ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘canon’, the perennial tension between conserving and innovative tendencies, “tradition and modernity,” law and mysticism) as well as the roles that sociology, politics, and psychology play in personal and communal religious experience.

3)        Understanding current problems—“on ground issues” –that  women in Muslim societies face; becoming familiar with current activist voices, strategies, and organizations that are addressing issues of Muslim women’s human rights.


                                    Course Schedule:

1. Introductions. Goals. Review historical, social, political factors that impact on current humanities studies on women and gender in Islam. Methods and sources our study will use.

2. Begin discussion on Esposito, Islam the Straight Path. Students need to be know the paradigmatic stories of the beginning of Islam: Muhammad’s experiences, example, the basic teachings of the Quran (chapter 1), an summary knowledge of the major periods of pre-modern Islam-- the early community, the  (chapter 2), and major developments in belief (theology) and practice (law and custom). Pay particular attention to issues pertaining to women: the example of the Prophet with his wives, Quranic and hadith teachings affecting the status and role of women, the development of the Shariah (Islamic Law) and its impact on women. Special attention to discussions on “Muslim Family Law” and “Custom and Law: Veiling and Seclusion.”(chapter 3). Films: The Veiled Revolution and Saints and Spirits  

3. Continue discussion on basic history and development of traditions in theology and law defining the nature and role of woman in Islam. Read Esposito chapter,  “Modern Interpretations of Islam”. Discuss the Wahabi movement as an example of early modern reform; How did it understand reform and the problems of Islamic society? What did it seek? What actions did it take? What were the effects of 20th century reform (islah) attitudes toward structures that affected women, such as Muslim Family Law?

In Esposito chapter “Contemporary Islam” read at least the sections entitled “The Ulama and Legal Reform”, “Women’s Rights,” and “Conclusion”

4. (1) Quran and commentary (tafsir). Exemplars and their influence. Teachings on women (nature, role, duties, rights) Read Stowasser, “Introduction” (Know what she is doing), Chapter Two (on “Eve”), Chapter Four (on “Zulaykha”), and Chapter Seven (on “Mary,” Mother of Jesus). Be familiar with major variant interpretations of these Quranic figures and the socially imbedded attitudes about women/woman  expressed—in the text and the commentary.

5. Continue discussion. Contextuality of Qur’anic revelation and hermeneutics., and Wadud, ‘Alternative Qur’anic Interpretation and the Status of Muslim Women’ in WF  

6. Hadith, Xerox selections of hadith (sayings of Muhammad) and discussions on status of hadith literature on women and gender by Riffat Hassan and Fatimah Mernissi (from The Veil and the Male Elite)

7. Shariah (Law). Al-Hibri, Introduction to Muslim Women’s Rights, in WF, and selections from Barazangi, ‘Muslim Women’s Islamic Higher Learning as a Human Right’ in WF.

* Spring break. No class.

8. Shariah Case studies. Read either Faruqi, ‘Women’s Self-Identity in the Qur’an and Islamic Law’ in WF or ‘Her Honor: An Islamic Critique of the Rape Laws of Pakistan from a Woman-Sensitive Perspective’ in WF

9. Shariah. Continue case studies, past and present. Hassan, ‘Is Family Planning Permitted by Islam?’ in WF, Xerox on al-Ghazzali on Birth Control, McCloud, The Scholar and the Fatwa in WF

10. Adab. For women’s “eloquent”literary traditions and the relationship between woman’s voice in the early Islamic community and Qur’anic revelation, read Kahf,  ‘Braiding the Stories: Women’s Eloquence in the Early Islamic Era’ in WF

11. Spirituality (Traditional, contemporary). Gender in mystical poetry. Xerox selections from Ibn Arabi, Rumi and Rabia al-Adawi. For contemporary mystical exegesis of Qur’an,  Harris, ‘Reading the Signs: Unfolding Truth and the Transformation of Authority’ in WF

12. On Muslim women’s international activism, Simmons, ‘Striving for Muslim Women’s Human Rights—Before and Beyond Beijing: An African American Perspective’ in WF. Presentations on current women’s organizations and activism.

13. Continued discussion. Men’s voices on Muslim women’s rights. Farid Esack, ‘Islam and Gender Justice: Beyond a Simplistic Apologia’ in Raines and Maguire, eds. What Men Owe to Women. Wrap up.

Final exam



WF=Gisela Webb, ed. Windows of Faith: Muslim Women Scholar-Activists in North America.

Barbara Stowasser, Women in the Qur’an, Traditions, and Interpretation.

Xeroxed materials.



10 points attendance

10 points participation (quality as well as quantity. Criteria: courtesy, balance, critical thought, use of academic sciences, self-reflection and critique, success in engaging in dialogue over confrontation, reason over emotion and ideology, investigation over polemics).

10 points submission of questions/reflections/critique remarks related to readings

10 points interview

10 points participation in panel discussion on assigned topic.

50 points. Three or four short papers answering a question/discussing an issue assigned by teacher. Graduate students may opt for one longer term paper.