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EWIC Reviews- Conrad

Reviewed By: Lawrence I. Conrad
Review of Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures: Vol. 1: Methodologies, Paradigms and Sources.
Published by: Der Islam Vol 82, S. 201-205 (2005)

In her introduction as general editor to this new encyclopedia, the anthropologist Suad JOSEPH rightly describes it as “a project whose time has come” (xlviii). There has been a dramatic expansion of women’s studies and the study of gender issues since the beginning of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 70s, and this has certainly been one of the major changes in Middle East studies over the past 30 years. It is clearly time for a comprehensive review and reflection on future prospects and options. This work arose from a 1994 proposal by Peri Bearman, then at Brill, for an “Encyclopedia of Women in Islam”. Over the next nine years a plan for a much smaller work expanded into an encyclopedia of about four million words in six volumes, directed by an editorial team of six scholars assisted by an advisory board of 41 further academics representing many different fields and methodologies. From the general editor’s introduction and the contents it is clear that the work has been conceived on a vast global scale: it will consider women in any context that can be described as “Islamic” in some way; so, for example, there is coverage of Muslim women in China (120-28), North America (192-96), and Western Europe (299-303). But the ambition of the project extends far beyond matters of geography and thematic scope, for the editors have more or less sought to reinvent the genre of the encyclopedia. Arguing that such a work usually represents a positivist enterprise to stabilize concepts in some authoritative way, they have rejected this program and instead have sought “to destabilize concepts, complicate ideas, document the ‘fuzziness’ of reality” (xxiv). Their encyclopedia seeks to do this by devoting an introductory volume to “the examination of the methodologies, paradigms, approaches, and resources available to study women and Islamic cultures in different historical periods and in different disciplines” (xxi); this will be followed by further volumes on: II, Family, Law, Politics; III, Family, Body, Sexuality, and Health; IV, Economics, Education, Mobility, and Space; V, Practices, Interpretations, and Representations; and VI, a cumulative index. Within each volume entries will be arranged alphabetically, but biographical entries are specifically excluded from the work. Unlike many other encyclopedias, which often take many years to complete, this one is apparently far advanced already, with all of the volumes scheduled for publication within the next year or so.

The introductory volume under review here contains the general editor’s extensive introduction, a section of thematic articles (1-303), another section of disciplinary articles (305—443), and a bibliography of books and articles in European languages published since 1993 (445—682). The thematic entries comprise 46 articles on methodologies and sources in different historical periods and regions with the aim of problematizing their subjects: authors were asked to consider the main sources and research methods and thus to provide critical tools for future study, and most immediately for use by authors preparing the remaining volumes of the EWIC. The 22 disciplinary articles seek to provide critical assessments of the various methodologies and disciplines under whose auspices the subject of women and Islamic cultures are studied. The Bibliography, a work unto itself really, was prepared by Geoffrey ROPER and several colleagues. Elaborately subdivided and provided with its own indices of names and subjects, it lists over 5000 books and articles published in a single decade in this field or relevant to it in some immediate way.

It can hardly be doubted that this work will be seen as a landmark event in the history of women’s studies with reference to Islamic cultures. The articles are all quite well-written, and one can frequently see evidence of the detailed collaboration to which the general editor frequently refers in her introduction. Many of the bibliographies to the articles will be of immediate and considerable benefit to readers interested in these topics. Though one will need detailed indices in order to use the EWIC effectively (more on this below), this volume does convey a useful idea of the resources that are available for the subject and valuable critiques and evaluations on various methodological issues. For European language studies the list of materials compiled by ROPER and his colleagues is a state-of-the-art example of modern bibliographical research. JOSEPH quite often alludes to the fact that the vast scale of the project only gradually became apparent to the editors, and one can well believe that. The EWIC can best be seen as a first attempt to review and assess a field that has been growing in many different directions, and more rapidly than many observers may have realized. There are, however, a number of areas where the project can be seen as somewhat problematic, and as there is to be an online version of the EWIC, the following comments may be worth considering as the project proceeds past the printed book phase.

First of all, JOSEPH repeatedly argues that the EWIC is a “feminist project” and that it reflects a “feminist vision’. One editor comments that the levels of commitment dedicated to the project reflect “what women are willing to do for feminism” (xlviii). Elsewhere, however, we read that feminism means different things to different participants and that those writing for the EWIC have no unified view on the matter (xxxix, xlvi). So in what sense is this a feminist undertaking? A work that is about women and is largely written by women scholars is not necessarily feminist, and knowing what feminist perspectives or agendas have shaped the work and how is of considerable interest to the user of the EWIC.

The General Editor refers to the problem of allocating word assignments to various sections and to individual articles, but her own introduction suggests where part of the problem lies. This piece, crucial to the understanding and proper use of the EWIC, is rambling and repetitive; matters that could have been written up as a history of the project for a journal, for example, are pursued at great length, and JOSEPH is given to citing endless specifics (dates, amounts, numbers, who went where when and did what, etc). All this could most usefully have been much reduced. The flood of unnecessary detail in fact serves to obscure a number of genuinely important matters, such as the identification of the feminist approach that the work reflects. The reader is also told that one section will explain how to use the EWIC (xxi), but this task is immediately lost sight of in the general editor’s enthusiastic explanation of its structure.

As this work will be seen as authoritative in its field, greater attention needs to be paid to matters of detail like transliteration and the proper rendering of Arabic terms and book titles. Errors in the transliteration of Arabic terms include the Arabic word for “woman”, which in one chapter is consistently misrendered as mar'a. In a few cases a book title has been so badly misrepresented that it cannot be read, and if in a discussion of law an author reads masnad for musnad, this raises the question of why that author is writing this article. And how could such matters have escaped the attention of the editors? This is not a mere quibble, but reflects a larger problem that in some cases articles have been written by scholars who are not in any way authorities in that field, however worthy their contributions may be in their own area of genuine expertise. In some cases it is striking that obvious candidates for writing articles are missing, though naturally it is not always possible for editors to enlist the participation of their first choice for a topic.

One might also query the way in which the editors have set out to create a new kind of encyclopedia on a vast scale. The proof is in the pudding, of course, so one will have to wait until the entire work has appeared to assess how successful this endeavor has been, but already there is some room for reservations. JOSEPH calls into question the way in which encyclopedias usually define and package concepts in some authoritative way, but that is precisely what an encyclopedia, by its very nature, is meant to do, especially if it is aimed at a general and student audience as well as specialized scholars. Good authors will in any case convey the complexities of their topic and pay attention to the pitfalls of viewing things from the center and ignoring regional and temporal variations.

The editors’ concern for de-essentialing Islam, destabilizing received notions, decentering the Middle East, and so on, has proceeded to such lengths that even the inclusion of biographical entries on specific Muslim women has been rejected. The stated reason for this is that the editors did not want to focus on exceptional women doing unusual things; this is an “individuals and history” approach that “distorts and misrepresents the lived lives of the majority of women” (xlii—xliii; in a few exceptional cases short biographies are given in boxes, cf. 44, 274, 279). We are advised that on this the publisher gave only “reluctant agreement”, and it is easy to see why — the argument is simply false. Does the biography of Virginia Wolff misrepresent the lived lives of other English women of her time? Hardly. A competent account would, on the contrary, reveal the enormous difficulties that all women students faced in their efforts to be taken seriously and advance based on their own merits, and would reveal something of the broader difficulties faced by women in general. Apart from that, focus on the accomplished individual is typical of traditional Islamic society everywhere and at all times, as shown by the enormous attention lavished on biographical dictionaries, to which two chapters are devoted in the EWIC (29—36), and by the sharp focus on remarkable individuals in areas like literature, history, and popular piety. For a work that claims to be especially attentive to the trap of false and artificial paradigms that misrepresent Islamic culture, this error is a very great one indeed. But it does save space for other items on the very large agenda of the work.

Another dimension of this agenda is stated as preference for cultural and civilizational matters over textual and doctrinal issues (xxxiv). This is also untrue to the cultural values of traditional Islam, which was profoundly engaged with matters of doctrine as revealed in important texts and in many ways remains so today. One casualty here would appear to be the Qur’an itself. Many users of the EWIC will rightly expect that great attention would be paid to the Islamic scripture, since what the Qur’an has to say about women has been enormously influential in Islamic societies over the centuries. But there is no chapter on the Qur’an in the section on sources and methodologies, and for information one must resort to Chapter 1, where attention is paid to the topic within the context of early Islamic history. Here the problems that have arisen in both medieval and modern Islamic discussions are elided away entirely, as if there have been no problems to discuss. Behind the vague reference to a verse that “allows for a gender hierarchization” (7), for example, lies Surat al-Nisa (4), v 34, which in reality refers to a husband’s right to beat his wife and dismiss her from his presence. What the reader needs on this subject would be, for example, an account of the status of women in Muliammad’s time, what the Qur’an has to say on the subject, how these verses have been interpreted, how they have been elaborated upon in other fields (hadith and fiqh, for example), and how they have figured in modern debates.

The vast scope of the EWIC is also problematic in that the desire to include Muslim women wherever they may be found, even if not in an Islamic culture, has resulted in a number of clearly more central subjects (more “central” in that these are so important in Islamic cultures) being left out entirely. What of music, for example? Women have played a leading role in that field throughout Islamic history and in various parts of the Islamic world, and the study of this music is difficult and complex. Or theology? Islamic theology has much to say about women, and the writings of al-Ghaz1i, for example, are especially rich in this area. This figure is briefly mentioned in the article on philosophy (399—400), but is quickly dismissed, one suspects because his views would be anathema to modern women. But these views were there, nonetheless, and were extremely influential. And what of mysticism? Here one could refer not only to views about women, but also to women participants (mythic and historical) in mystical activities. Finally there is poetry, which receives scattered attention, primarily in the chapter on literature (42—50). In the various languages of the Islamic world there has been an enormous attention to women in poetry of various kinds, and women have themselves been active in this field from pre-Islamic times onward.

Attention should be drawn to the sources that underlie this volume of the EWIC. Though some chapters make full use of the excellent modern scholarship being produced in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and other languages of the Islamic world, such cases are in the minority and many chapters cite works only in English and to a lesser extent other Western languages (interestingly enough, in one chapter only works in Russian are listed: 118—19). In some cases this is understandable in light of the dominant position of English in those fields. But in many other cases excellent scholarship in languages of the Islamic world is simply ignored. The Bibliography continues this trend. While it is stated from the outset that works in these languages should not be ignored, it is claimed that it has not been possible to include such studies in this bibliography (447). Why not?

Finally, for such a broadly conceived work that is bound to be complex and difficult to use, the index is entirely inadequate. Professional standards of indexing suggest that a good index should be about a tenth of the size of the book it covers, and insist that long strings of numbers must be avoided — such strings reveal places where sub-entries need to be provided. The index to EWIC I is very short in comparison to the size of the volume, many important items have been missed out entirely, and quite a few entries bear long lists of page numbers. The indices to the Bibliography are far superior to those for the volume itself.

In sum, the EWIC is certainly a work for which there is a specific need, and what JOSEPH and her colleagues are producing will undoubtedly be of great value. At the same time, it is a first attempt in a rapidly growing field and perhaps illustrates how a worthy undertaking nurtured by unlimited enthusiasm can take on a life of its own. What we have here is an encyclopedia on a specific topic that, when complete, will be about half the size of the Encyclopedia of Islam and yet still reveal significant gaps and shortcomings.

Hamburg, Lawrence I. Conrad


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