In some alternate universe I would have complete control of what becomes part of discourse about me and about my work. In THIS universe, I just try to set some minimal standards even when it might sometimes not seem generous to the persons who send requests to interview me. Must be some alignment of the stars that I’ve been inundated with requests of late, so I will share some of the “types” of request to ask you–my community at Feminism and Religion blog-sphere–what you make of these, or how better to respond? I seriously contend that all people deserve dignity even when this might clash with the dignity of another human being at times.
First, there are the curiosity seekers from the world of fast pace media sensationalism, perhaps in order to keep up with the latest, hippest media hype they rush in with their requests. While they often include the deadline they are up against, they simultaneously ignore that I might be up against my own deadlines, or just LIVING my life. I’m clear from way back…the kind of work I do is not well suited for the 30 second sound bites, one second for each of the 30+ years I’ve spent to develop coherent reconstruction of Islamic thought and practice, away from the dominant patriarchal paradigm developed during its classical period and maintained until today. By the time I explain even that previous sentence my 30 seconds are up!
Next would be sincere but slightly naive students of modern Islamic thought, Islamic reform or Islamic feminism. At one end they define the parameters of their research problem or their term paper (also on deadline) and then they ask me for references, despite particular interests that may be slightly outside my area of expertise. I usually think and sometimes reply: I am not a reference librarian. At the other end are graduate students who have more detailed inquiry to make and thus send along complex questions each one, in my mind, deserving a mini-dissertation in order to do justice with. I have to temper my desire to assist them with a realistic assessment of how long I can be at their disposal. It is not uncommon to answer one set of questions only to be sent another set.
Then there are questions indicating the bias of the questioner. I’d be so busy unpacking the location of the question to ever give it power over how my life’s work would be presented. At the moment I have such questions from a “journalist and researcher”: “The origin of feminism is a humanist idea. Islam itself is justice. Why Islam is faced with a feminist approach?” Even for questions poised in a yes no form, to respond without qualification would add to the problem of misrepresentation.
Some questioners contact me because they are experiencing moments of faith crisis. I have no illusion that I am equipped to handle with compassion the angst of another human being. Still, I try to balance a sincere response from within the spiritual locus of Islamic thought, with a gentle recommendation about professional help or deeper spiritual counseling.
Oxford Union, the seat of serious formal debate located in one of the most concentrated intellectual centers in the modern world, sent me a request through my twitter account to engage in a debate next term on Islam and gender equality. Then they ask me to DM them. Maybe, like me, you do not know that DM, or direct message, is like a private in box connected to your twitter account. However, you can only DM someone if you follow them on twitter. I have almost 9000 followers but I am not tempted to follow more than the 30 or so, mostly news agencies and women’s groups. So despite the prestige of OU, I’m not inclined to follow. So I sent a reply tweet including my email address. They sent a lengthier version of the request including a formal letter of invitation from the president.
To this letter I replied with my own set of logistical and other questions, about the detail formula of the debate and possible opponents. No response, except to say the president himself must answer. He never did. I guess the idea is you cannot question the questioner, you must just accept, because you were asked.
After giving an invited lecture at Auburn seminary, a journalist-friend tried to persuade me to allow for an interview, despite expressly indicating I was tired from the previous lecture, and wanted only to rest. She said, “but it’s the New York Times!” I ask myself: in this world of public inquiry how to effectively and responsibly use the media while avoiding its imposition.
After the “prayer event” in 2005 I received about 60 requests for interviews in a single day. I almost changed my address but in the usual fashion the fervor died down and so I finally agreed to 2 or 3 select interviews among them the Chronicle for Higher education. All went well but even then as a closing question the interviewer said, everybody is interested in their 15 minutes of fame, weren’t you just a bit trying to get yourself some media attention? The answer then and still now is, no. I believe sharing information is crucial to transformation, and thus, for example I do blog here at FAR. But with all this work on epistemology I should, above many others, be able to distinguish between words that make a difference and a difference that can be unmade by words.
Yesterday, I did an interview here in Fribourg, Switzerland, for an on-line university journal. These are part of the service to the hosting institution. It went well enough, but here’s the thing: even the one who gives the questions have the power over the results. When can anyone ever really control what the outcome is?
Who decides what the depiction of my life’s work will be, me the questioned, or the ones who question me?
amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives. Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.