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EWIC Reviews- Smith

Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures



Reviewed by: Tracy L. Smith
Gendering Encyclopedia Knowledge: The Making of the Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Culture
Published by: MEWS Panel Review, January 2004
Web Page:

A panel was held on November 8 at the 2003 Middle East Studies Association Conference in Anchorage, Alaska to discuss the developmental process for creating the Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures (EWIC). Titled "Gendering Encyclopedia Knowledge: The Making of the Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures," it consisted of panelists Suad Joseph, professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of California Davis and General Editor for EWIC, Seteney Shami of the Social Science Research Council and EWIC associate editor, miriam cooke, professor at Duke University and an EWIC contributor, and myself.

Suad Joseph began the discussion by generally describing the EWIC encyclopedia project, giving a brief history of its creation, its structure and the enormous amount of effort and devotion that goes into organizing such a project. Initially, the encyclopedia was divided into two sections: part one (eventually culminating into Volume I) consisted of methodologies and paradigms and part two (which eventually became a series of volumes) included more substantive entries. Section I had its share of difficulties in production with some entries having to be abandoned because there was no one to do them. However, Section II presented (and still presents) the greatest challenge, not only because of the numbers of entry topics addressed and the amount of information amassed in this section, but also because these entry topics are regionalized. Joseph described the difficulties encountered in regionalizing entries, the problems of overlapping subject matter and working with odd geographies which creates but also criticizes the consistency of regional groupings.

A total of five associate editors are involved with the project along with Joseph. All met periodically, coordinating meetings with existing conferences in order to facilitate the coordination of six different schedules, and all were responsible for generating entries, organizing and distributing them throughout the volumes. Volumes were organized topically and then alphabetized which left them somewhat uneven and inconsistent in size and word count. The decision to organize topically was difficult, involving much debate. The decision was made to organize topically based on the idea that graduate classes could utilize a whole volume when covering these topics or if buyers want to purchase only one volume at a time based on topical interests.

Seteney Shami spoke about her experience in the project, discussing the work required in coordinating and synchronizing differing systems of organizing data between the editors. Although the logistics to putting together an encyclopedia are complex and time-consuming, it is the broader implications for a work such as EWIC that make its production so exciting and so exceptional. Shami states that the encyclopedia is uniquely significant because it "contests hierarchical notions of knowledge" and also because encyclopedias act as a sort of time capsule, capturing the critical notions of an age. But perhaps what makes this aspect so interesting about EWIC is the idea that the encyclopedia may eventually become an online project. Making EWIC on online encyclopedia opens its entries up to continuous updates and constant reevaluations of current discourses, essentially creating an encyclopedia that ceases to be a capsule and develops into an ever-evolving organism, providing readers not only with a history of its development but a history of change in ideas and concepts of knowledge. Martina Rieker, a professor of history at the American University in Cairo participating in the discussion, commented that the "dialogic between the production of knowledge from the encyclopedia and the online version allows the expansion and contestation of information."

The panel concluded with a discussion of the online version of EWIC. Participants began to air their concerns about issues of security and integrity of the intellectual property produced on web-based formats and there was talk of putting together a panel specifically to cover these issues.

From my personal experience as a research assistant with the project for the past three years, I am witness to the incredible dedication it takes to successfully execute an encyclopedia project like EWIC. The coordination of e-mails, databases, and numerous reports and lists generated accounts for a major portion of my work as well as several other RAs involved with EWIC. In fact, project funding was ear-marked specifically for the hiring of research assistants by the associate editors in order to alleviate some of this time-consuming work. Maintaining the EWIC Potential Contributor Database is also hard work but it is a marvelous opportunity to see the incredible amount of work being done on gender and Islam and the willingness for scholars to be considered for the project. Perhaps the most exciting aspect about EWIC is the scholarship it has generated and will continue to generate for years to come.

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