Making Our Way – Updating the Guide for Women in Religion by Kecia Ali

dissertation, Advising, feminism and religion

Mary E. Hunt, Monique Moultrie, and I are updating the Guide for Women in Religion. The original version was edited by Mary with an impressive cast of contributors and first published ten years ago. Organized with entries from “A” (AAR) to “Z” (Zeitgeist), it was the successor to the 1992 Guide to the Perplexing, which billed itself as a “survival manual” and was team-written by a group that includes several now-legendary figures in the field, then junior folks trying to find their way in the sometimes hostile, often bewildering landscape of academic religious studies, particularly at the AAR and SBL.

With each iteration of the Guide, some important things have changed. (Others have not, but that’s another blog.)

One thing that has changed for the better:  There are now plenty of women in senior positions, women who have attained the rank of full professor (and retired as emerita), or direct major organizations, who are recognized as leaders in their scholarly fields. Women’s studies in religion has gained prominence as a serious subfield, and gender as a crucial category (or factor, or variable, or consideration, or analytic lens) appears in a great deal of scholarship and not a few job ads.

Another significant change is technology. The last edition had an entry on computers. We have decided to trash it. As Mary put it, it would be like having an entry on telephones.  We are updating entries to reflect, for instance, that you locate sessions at the AAR by app, that networking may include blogging or an page, and so forth. Whether good or bad, these shifts are inevitable; technology brings new possibilities as well as complications, and we’re trying to account for some of them.

Another change is ugly: the continual erosion of “traditional” academic jobs leading to a hauntingly large proportion of the academic workforce in adjunct or otherwise contingent positions. These sub-par jobs are disproportionately filled by women, and although the previous edition acknowledged the existence of part-time and contract teaching faculty, its advice presumed a “regular” faculty job.  This is no longer defensible. But it is not clear how to address those who move from religious or theological studies into a range of professional paths. Even the terminology perplexes. What do we use for keywords? Adjunct? Alt-ac? Independent scholar? Non-teaching scholar? What about for those who no longer do scholarship and work instead in activism, the non-profit sector, or religious bureaucracies?

Though we aim to reflect the diverse ways in which professionals and students in religious studies approach their careers, by necessity or by choice, it is difficult to give advice that suits a woman preparing for ministry, and one who is teaching classes at three local colleges for a pittance piece-wage, and one running a local non-profit, and one who works for a newspaper, and one who has gone into administration (at lower or higher ranks), and one who got a doctorate followed by a tenure-track assistant professorship.  There are simply too many differences.

It took me a shamefully long time to realize, of course, that this is just another way that women are diverse. The last edition attended to issues of race, disability, and sexual orientation, as well as religious (non)observance (see the entry on “Christian hegemony”). We are trying to do better still this time around on these and other elements that shape women’s lives.  Now we must really grapple with professional diversity as one of the myriad ways that women differ from one another.

It is one thing, though, to realize that women differ and another to attempt to offer advice that will be of service to the widest possible audience. We are still feeling our way. Thus far, the best approach seems to be to acknowledge that some entries really do apply primarily to tenure-track jobs (Third year review, anyone?) but others (Benefits, Children, Relationships) need not be mostly geared toward tenure-track faulty with others mentioned as an afterthought. Another key technique has been to give caveats, frequently, alongside suggestions: your mileage may vary. Negotiating (a key entry) is very different as an associate professor than as an adjunct, and different again as an administrator. Our aim, in the end, is not to pronounce from on high – as feminists we at least ought to know better – but to distill the wisdom of a wide group of respected colleagues and make it accessible to others.

Those who have read the Guide, do you have suggestions for additions, deletions, changes? Those who haven’t, what would you like to see? Comment here or email me:

Kecia Ali is an Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University where she writes and teaches about Islam. Her books include Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence (2006), Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam (2010), and The Lives of Muhammad (due out this fall). She lives in the Boston area with her family.

Author: Kecia Ali

Kecia Ali is an Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University. She writes on early Islamic law, women, ethics, and biography. Her books include Sexual Ethics and Islam (2006), Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam (2010), Imam Shafi‘i: Scholar and Saint (2011), and The Lives of Muhammad (2014). She co-edited the revised edition of A Guide for Women in Religion (2014). She lives in the Boston area with her family and tweets as @kecia_ali.

18 thoughts on “Making Our Way – Updating the Guide for Women in Religion by Kecia Ali”

  1. One of the things we have not yet achieved is the ability to study women and religion “out of the box” of the so-called 5 major religions. I don’t know how your book might deal with this. Yesterday Kwok Pui-Lan wrote that women are still being counseled to downplay their feminism or women’s studies if they want to get jobs. If they want to study women from a feminist perspective in new or very old religions or tribal or horticultural religions that are not part of the big 5 (and perhaps less or not patriarchal)–they might as well admit they are committing academic suicide. Can a guide based in the academy address the biases in favor of the “great” “patriarchal” religions that structure the academy? I hope so, but I am not holding my breath. PS Mary did ask me to comment on the book, but I didn’t have time last week. I still don’t, so here is my off-the-cuff response.


    1. Thanks for your comments. We’re trying to be clear about the current structures that govern academic work including its very real biases in favor of “major” religions and dominant elements within those traditions. There is an entry (which we’re revising) on Christian hegemony that addresses the hierarchy of religions; the entry on religious studies talks about the colonial origins of and assumptions of the field more generally. It’s one thing to point this out, though, and another thing to change it. I do think that having a women’s studies/gender perspective (though not a WS/GS degree, at least yet) is an asset in some job searches, though not everywhere and not always. Explicit feminism, however, is still taboo in too many places.


      1. Thanks, Kecia, for this good explanation of what we are trying to do. Thanks, too, to colleagues whose insights have been so helpful. As I said in a related post last week– — one of the good things about our work in religion is having supportive colleagues who share information. That said, things are not changing as quickly as they need to–whether in the hegemony of certain intellectual approaches or in the treatment of women as full, respected colleagues in everything from salary and course load to relationships. Hence, the Guide and books like it are crucial for moving in a feminist direction. Wish us luck!


      2. Women’s Studies is OK, but feminism is not? Either that is an oxymoron or Women’s Studies has morphed into something other than the feminist study of women and religion. Siggghhh…..


        1. At first I thought I had just put it badly, but you’re signaling a problem I hadn’t consciously recognized. Being able to teach “about women” is perceived in many places as an asset; at least in my field, there are lately some jobs have women or gender listed as part of the main job title or as a desirable sub-field (though there are also neocolonial assumptions structuring “women and Islam” discourse). And in some places, this really includes excitement about the sorts of transformative questions feminist scholarship and pedagogy bring to the table. In other places, though, the ideal is to “address” women and gender while resisting the hard questions about curriculum, canon, scholarship, methods, and institutional structure (among other things) that feminism brings.



    2. Carol, I would like to see an intensive bibliography at FAR also, not limited only to the publications of FAR contributors. The bibliography could then be divided into sections representative of all world religions, as well as important spiritualities, like eco-feminism, transcendentalism, etc. Each of us could contribute titles from our own research and eventually put something together none could come up with independently. I myself could add lots of recommendations on feminism and Taoism, Zen and the Demeter Myth, also Emily Dickinson’s nature mysticism, etc. There is so much missing from our discussion.


      1. Sarah, a bibliography is a great idea – I suspect there are good resource lists out there already but I don’t know offhand where one might the kind of comprehensive list you describe. Anyone else know?


  2. Back in the olden days when I was writing my dissertation, a friend in the Dept. of Higher Ed. got me a post-doc in his department. One of my assignments was to do a salary study. I learned that a female full professor earned as much as a male instructor. I also facilitated the first consciousness-raising group at that campus. One member was the wife of a well-known professor in my department who was a serial seducer of his female graduate students. Has very much changed??

    P.S. The professor in question taught American lit. I didn’t take any of his classes. We Chaucerians, Shakespeareans, Drydenians, and Dickensians talked about English Literature and American writing. The head of the American lit section was not amused.


    1. Thanks, Barbara. I would like to think that there are few places where those shocking salary disparities exist now, but there are definitely discrepancies, not only in the “regular” professorial ranks but due to women’s disproportionate place in the ranks of contingent faculty, as Kwok Pui-lan pointed out in her post here yesterday. Sexual harassment and problematic power-laden relationships continue to exist, though sometimes less blatantly.

      And on “literature” versus “writing”: different field, same impulse to establish hierarchies of worth!


      1. Hierarchy of worth is right–with the exception of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters (who used male names to publish while they were alive), nearly all the book we read were written in English or Western European languages by the famous canon of dead white men. Well, yeah, the men were alive when they wrote their famous books. ;-)


        1. This is a particularly acute issue for religion. Princeton is now publishing a series called “Lives of Great Religious Books.” I have suggested to the editor a few important religious books by women but would welcome suggestions from others; people can also write directly. If there are no “important” books by women, how about rather than concluding that women don’t write important books we redefine what we consider important? (On Austen: I thought about suggesting “Pride and Prejudice” as an important religious book – it’s certainly got sufficient devotees!)



  3. Hi Kecia, I have not yet seen this ‘Guide’, perhaps I’m too new to women’s studies, but I would love to see this on every bookshelf at Barnes and Noble–how ever many brick & mortar stores remain, and on amazon as well. Where could this best be marketed–every university bookstore!! I hoep I’ll get to see it at AAR this year. Thanks, for putting this out!


    1. Janice, thanks for your comment. The current edition of the Guilde is out of stock now but we hope that the revised edition will be ready in time for this year’s AAR, with an e-book version available too.



  4. I imagine there are a good number of women like me, with one foot in the academy and one foot out. Our lives are complicated. I quit my American tenure track job to move to Canada for love. I got a visiting position for one year at the University of Toronto and now happily teach there as an adjunct. I’ve been aware of tenure track jobs I could apply for but I’ve got no desire anymore for the intensity of that life.

    The best advice I got when I quit was to keep up my presence at the AAR. I was already on the steering committee of the group I helped found, the Islamic Mysticism Group, and then became co-Chair. It kept me in the swing of things in the field. That was incredibly important. I think I would have suffered as a scholar (I know I would have) without being in the thick of the field at the AAR.

    Being an adjunct is also great because it keeps me in the life of the university. At U of T, depending on the department, adjuncts are treated well. I’m one of the lucky ones. As a result of our union’s negotiations, we get a living wage (if we get enough courses to teach and we keep track of our hours resisting the temptation to work more than we are being paid for). I love teaching. It’s important to be in the social life of the university as well. I have friends here. Would I see them as much if we were not grabbing coffee during our busy days? Would I have the opportunity to discuss their work (and mine) with them? Would I really take advantage of the talks on campus? I know me, I’d stay home and bake bread.

    While people at U of T appreciate my work off-campus running the mosque and being a Facebook Feminist (lol), the academy at large has little space for that. As those in Islamic Studies are aware, Aaron Hughes and Omid Safi were scrapping recently on this issue. It seems for Hughes and his allies,”commitments” get in the way of objective scholarship. For Safi and his allies, there is no such thing as scholarship that is commitment-free (and some of us have no luxury to pretend it can be) so you might as well just be really clear about it. I tend to make distinctions between what I see as my scholarly work and my feminist work, even though I am clear that my feminist self absolutely directs why I explore women’s religious history and my resulting understanding of history absolutely directs the way I go about my feminism.

    The most interesting experience I have had through all this was the loss of perceived rank. Those who knew me and my work well never changed their manner with me, but lots of other people did. You know: I gave up because I must suck on some level. I couldn’t take it. Etc.

    On some level, I couldn’t take it. I wrote my dissertation, started my job, and wrote my first book during what (I pray) was the worst decade of my life. I was hardly able to do my best work. I got a lot of support from my close colleagues at the AAR. But I don’t think there are adequate resources in general for people going through hard times. God knows one of the hallmarks of the academy is mercilessness! Now that I am settled in a healthy and happy life, I believe that going back to being a full time scholar would mean, in part, returning to a life of petty cruelties. No thanks. I cannot handle the heat from that kitchen.

    I wonder about the way that some women undermine other women. The way that women with children are often looked at askance by those without (you had kids, what did you expect?). The way that women with histories (or presents) of violence are often looked at as stupid by those who’ve never experienced it (literally: how did you let yourself get into that situation?). Or the way women who’ve never experienced mental illness…. and so on. Or by those who have children, have experienced violence, or mental illness but were just a tad bit more resilient than others and feel everyone should have to tough it out without support because they did. It is sad to say that the majority of support I got through the worst times were from men and some of the most detrimental treatment I received was at the hands of women. There were plenty of women who gave support, don’t get me wrong. Kecia knows she is one those women who were a great support to me. The balance was just odd. I found the harm (not just a lack of help, but actual harm) some women…and most disturbingly women in women’s studies…do to other women astounding.

    So no suggestions here, just sharing experiences and observations.


    1. Laury, this is a powerful story and good advice about the AAR. That said, it is always distressing to hear about the ways women undercut other women, particularly since the terms of the debates (e.g., in the bitter Stay-at-Home-Mother/Working Mother nonsense) are so plainly scripted by a culture that places so much of the burden on individuals to “deal with” situations rather than arriving at collectively just solutions. ________________________________________


    1. Vanessa, we are indeed addressing activism. If you have specific suggestions about advice for activists, or on the relationship between activism and scholarship, we would be delighted to have it.



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