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Women’s Studies Departments Ignore the Plight of Women in Islam By: Sara Dogan
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, October 09, 2007


One of the central aims of Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week, which will feature events on more than 100 college campuses from October 22-26, is to highlight the brutal oppression of women by Islamic radicals and by the regimes they control such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Despite their vigilance in behalf of women’s rights in America and other Western nations, Women’s Studies Departments across the nation have been strangely passive in the face of the barbaric treatment of women in Islamic regimes. Numerous hours are spent in the classroom, dissecting the reasons for the ‘wage gap’ in America, violence against women and the ‘privileges’ accorded Caucasian males. But courses on the plight of women in Islamic regimes are strangely absent. Where there are a few courses that touch on Islamic women in Women’s Studies programs, the focus is often cultural and literary, while the abuses go unmentioned.

This failure to confront the abuse of women who live in Islamic countries stands in stark contrast to the mission statements of many Women’s Studies departments, which describe their focus as the inequality that women suffer in patriarchal societies. Thus the official mission statement of the Penn State Women’s Studies Department declares that “As a field of study, Women’s Studies analyzes the unequal distribution of power and resources by gender.” Why then does the Penn State department not offer a course analyzing the extreme inequalities that characterize the status of women in the Islamic world?

Another mission statement from the Women’s Studies Department at the University of Rhode Island is even more explicit:

The discipline of Women’s Studies has a vision of a world free from sexism. By necessity, freedom from sexism must include a commitment to freedom from nationalism; class, ethnic, racial, and heterosexual bias; economic exploitation; religious persecution; ageism; and ableism. Women’s Studies seeks to identify, understand, and challenge ideologies and institutions that knowingly or unknowingly oppress and exploit some for the advantage of others, or deny fundamental human rights. Thus, Women’s Studies envisions a world in which all persons can develop their fullest potential.

Despite this vision, the Women’s Studies Department at the University of Rhode Island offers no course whose subject is women in Islam. Instead, it refers to students to a course in the history department on “Women in Muslim Societies,” which covers “gender relations in the modern Middle East through novels, poetry, and oral histories, as well as through historical and anthropological studies.” But even though this course has been listed since 2005, no such course exists because there are no professors available to teach it.

To rectify this gap in knowledge and concern, students at several schools participating in Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week plan to hold sit-ins or silent protests at the offices of their university’s Women’s Studies Department or Women’s Center with the goal of encouraging them to provide course offerings on the abuse of women in Islam.

In preparation for these demonstrations, the David Horowitz Freedom Center researched Women’s Studies course descriptions at eight of the schools where students plan to petition their Women’s Studies programs to correct this absence: Pennsylvania State University, Temple University, George Washington University, the University of Rhode Island, the University of Pittsburgh, Emory University, the University of California-Berkeley, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Course Offerings on Women in Islam

At Pennsylvania State University, we did not find a single Women’s Studies course description that makes specific mention of women in Islamic regimes, though Judiasm and Christianity are both mentioned in course descriptions.

At Temple University, only one course specifically mentions Islam and it is exclusively within the context of the medieval world. “Getting Medieval: Gender, Sex, Power” describes how students will study “how the papacy and medieval monarchies regulated gender and sexuality among Christians and also between Christians, Jews, Muslims and so-called 'pagans' from c 500 CE to 1500 CE and in so doing creating a powerful political notion of a territorial 'inside' called Europe.”

George Washington University is one of the campuses we found to actually provide a course specifically on the topic of “Women in Islam.”

According to the description:

This course will investigate the ways in which Islam has articulated gender identity and relationships between men and women, and conversely, how women have constructed, refashioned, and articulated Islam and their place within. We will look at some of these issues as they are reflected in "classical" Islamic texts, and as they emerge in different aspects of the social, economic, political, and ritual lives of women and men in various Islamic societies.

This is a strangely value-neutral description of the subject when taken in the context of other Women’s Studies courses which speak frankly of gender inequalities and oppression in such relatively liberated societies as the United States.

Another course at George Washington on “Global Religious Feminisms” also examines the “Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,” but also does not hint at the abuse of women in Islamic regimes.

At the University of Pittsburgh, the only course that deals with the subject of Women in Islam is on “Women and Literature” which is described as:

Keeping the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in mind, we will study a number of theoretical, historical, and fictional texts that illustrate the ways in which gendered norms and their subversions structure military conflicts and are, in turn, structured by them. We will begin with the Armenian genocide in Turkey, then move on to the Jewish Holocaust in Europe, to the conflicts in Vietnam and the "killing fields" of Cambodia, and conclude with the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Throughout the course students will be asked to stay tuned into current news and the continuing legacy of these events.

While this course does touch on the lives of women in Islamic nations, the violence perpetrated against these women or their economic and sexual subjugation are clearly not its focus.

Emory University’s Women’s Studies department offers a course on “Women and Judaism.” It also offers a course on “Women and Religion” though Islam is not mentioned in the course description. Intriguingly, the department offers a course on “Violence and Memory in Contemporary Africa.” The course description asks “How is it that people can perpetrate evil against family, friends and neighbors?....How can governments and individuals stand aside and do nothing when genocide is occurring in other places in the world?” These same questions can be asked just as legitimately of Islamic countries, but Emory does not appear to have a comparative women’s studies course focusing on Islam.

At the University of California-Berkeley, a course on the topic of Women in Islam is offered, but it again appears to consider the treatment of women in Islamic countries as a topic for cultural consideration, not the focus of analytic studies of the unequal distribution of resources and power, let alone discrimination and oppression. “Women in the Muslim and Arab Worlds” is described as examining “differences and similarities in women’s lives in the Muslim/Arab world, including diasporas in Europe and North America. Analysis of issues of gender in relation to 'race', ethnicity, nation, religion and culture.” No mention is made of the subjugation of women in the Muslim world.

In a study of eight prominent universities, the University of Pennsylvania was the only school which offers a course specifically concerned about the equal and oppressive treatment of women in Islamic nations. That course, “Women Social Movements in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” focuses on the struggle of women in these nations to claim equal rights with men while still maintaining their identity as Muslims.

The course description reads:

One aspect of the position of women in Afghanistan and Pakistan is all too clear from the images and reports we see more and more frequently: veiled (or cocooned in a burka), victim of an honor killing, an acid attack or a gang rape; subject to Islamic laws that devalue them. But women in these two Muslim countries have sought to break the barriers of their rigidly patriarchal societies while refusing to surrender their identity as Muslims. Understanding how they have fared could hold the key to how women in South Asia and other parts of the Muslim world negotiate their autonomy and reclaim their right to participate as equal citizens on their own terms. At the same time, no women’s movement anywhere can develop in isolation. Therefore, this course will explore lines of conflict and co-operation between women and other groups in society, such as the rural peasantry, the urban poor, migrant labour, students and peace activists.

It is stunning that among the Women’s Studies departments of these eight prominent universities which openly declare that their missions are to analyze “unequal distribution of power and resources by gender” and to envision “a world free from sexism” there is only a single course on Women and Islam which speaks to these issues. This is why we have made this a focus of Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week.


Sara Dogan is National Campus Director of Students for Academic Freedom.


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