Reading “Women” by Laury Silvers


My friends make my life difficult. They make me see what I could not see before. Kecia Ali, Aisha Geissinger, Karen Ruffle and Kathleen Self taught me how to read for gender in the classical texts I use for my academic work. It’s a way of doing close readings by paying attention to the way gender shows up in the text. Aisha sat with me one afternoon and walked me through my own sources pointing out references to gender in the sources. She showed me how the sources I was reading used gender to express social norms. She kept asking me, “What work is gender doing in the text?”

Don’t laugh you been-reading-gender-forever-and-a-day people! Okay laugh. I was a bit slow to pick up this gender thing at first, but I caught up okay. Now I cannot unsee it. I see it everywhere. For instance, I was heading to the stairs at work after a long day and was brain tired. I saw this sign at the stairs:

I nearly kept walking past the stairs thinking for a second that it meant they were for people that society designates as having “male” bodies only. I actually thought that. Then I started laughing at myself. I took a picture and posted it on social media with a story complaining how my friends have absolutely ruined me!

I’m ruined because what I am really seeing everywhere is male, heterosexual, and cis-gender privilege at work. I see it not just in the texts I study, but also in the way those texts relate to their particular socio-historical contexts, and in the way those texts are put to use today. Learning to read closely turned out to be an act of social justice.

Kathleen had shared with me a particularly helpful teaching tool–that she got from Kay Read at DePaul–to help students do close readings of sources by getting them to see what is in the text rather than reading into the text or past it.

She uses this assignment when teaching North American Indigenous sources. She gives the students a short text and has them illustrate it.  Drawing skill matters little. She tells them to just draw exactly what they read. Typically, they do not draw what they read; they draw what they expect to see. A good number of students add elements such as peace pipes and feathers that are not in the text because that is what they expect of indigenous people. Even in their own literature, indigenous people do not get to represent themselves because of the readers’ inability to see a native person as anything other than a peace pipe smoking, feathered Indian.

Intended or not, teaching students how to read closely turns out to be an act of social justice.

I used Read’s drawing assignment when I was teaching religion and gender. What kinds of images are assigned to different bodies?  What are these texts trying to tell us about those bodies?  How do those images teach us about the proper social roles of those bodies?  About what is natural and proper to those bodies?  I give students passages from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim sources and ask them to illustrate them. They draw what they see and include a commentary on what they’ve drawn. For the Muslim example, I use this verse from the Qur’an:

Your women are a tilth to you, so come to your tilth however you like. Be upright for your own sakes, be wary of God, and know that you will meet Him. Share this good news with the believers. (2:223)

I have recreated and rewrote the following drawing and commentary based on the work of two students to avoid sharing an individual’s work without their permission:

unnamed

The students’ commentary: Woman = Soil to be seeded and farmed. God was speaking to men only, so the drawing is from men’s point of view. Woman-Soil belongs to men. Women-Soil’s legs are spread to show them they can do whatever they want to the Woman-Soil. The Woman-Soil has no face because she has no identity other than as tilth. The Sun is God’s eye watching to see what men do with this power. The rays of the Sun are weak because men will not be held accountable for whatever they do until after they die.

Not long after this assignment, the students would be reading selections from Kecia Ali’s Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam. There they would see how such images likely contributed to a legal understanding of a married woman’s sexual organs as legally usufruct–the limited right of a user to enjoy what he possesses, typically land, and derive profit from the fruit harvested from it–on payment of the dowry. This would lead to a reflection on the contemporary position that women consent to sex once and for all when they accept the dowry and some attempts to get around that in marriage contracts.

Textual claims such as these are about more than the sexual and reproductive use of women. They tell us what these authors thought women should be:  “Women” are homo sapiens that have bodies that are passive, sexually available, and reproductive. Meaning the classical texts are arguing that proper “Women” have particular kinds of bodies that act in particular kinds of ways. What are those bodies that cannot or refuse to reproduce and nourish offspring? Are they Male? Defective females? In the Sufi sources that I read, women who step out of this accepted model of womanhood definitely need some explaining to outsiders.

But also, what about those with bodies that may or may not fit reproductively but also do not fit with other cultural norms applied to “femininity” or “women,” so much so these people may not identify fully as women or as women at all? We have examples of this in the early period. In the case of men, the mukhannath were persons of indeterminate gender or men who may or may not have had desire for women and who tended to wear their clothing in a more feminine style. Legal sources demonstrate that people of indeterminate gender posed a problem for jurists who needed to slot bodies into either “male” or “female” to render gendered rulings. Ibn al-Jawzi tells us that Dhu’l Nun met a woman on pilgrimage wearing male clothing. Is she dressed this way to remain independent and protect herself from sexual violence or is it a reflection of her own sense of gender identity? There is no way to know, but we must acknowledge it. Once we see it, we cannot read past it.

Now every time I hear the words “women” and “men,” I think “meaning what?” “for whom?” and “who is missing from those words?” I’m ruined! And glad for it.

Laury Silvers is a Muslim academic and accidental activist. She is a sessional professor at the University of Toronto for the Department for the Study of Religion. She writes on Sufism in Early Islam, as well as women’s religious authority and theological concerns in North American Islam. See her website for her publications.

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Categories: Academics, Embodiment, Feminism, Feminist Awakenings, Gender, Gender and Power, Gender and Sexuality, General, Islam, LGBTQ, Patriarchy

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29 replies

  1. Yes that sign does look like it is pointing to a toilet, doesn’t it? It really well illustrates the question of whether or not women are included in the male generic. And yes, it is not only ancient texts that tire us out. It is everywhere.

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  2. I, and I dare say many of my fellow Sisters, in the Sisterhood of Avalon do similar work with our Welsh/Brythonic mythological texts– mainly the Mabinogi. I really like Aisha Geissinger’s question- “What work is gender doing in the text?” The next re-read I do, I will have to carry that very question with me as I do.

    How very, very true that once we see or learn, we cannot unsee or unlearn. No matter how much easier that might appear to be on the days we are burnt out and tired of fighting. But I wouldn’t trade that “ruined-ness” either. Not for anything.

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  3. On the indeterminate vs. supposed male icon — I have been promoting Elizabeth Warren at FAR for the next U.S. President, forgive me, I can’t help it. I’ve seen a number of photos of her in the context of articles online and in the news media, and looking oddly like that icon, that is, dressed in pants and loose jackets, see, for instance: http://www.runwarrenrun.org — HOORAY!! How often do we wear skirts these days anyway?

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    • It’s interesting how women have to go generic–meaning sexually neuter by wearing traditionally male-dress–to be taken seriously. I hope she just wears those clothes because that is what suits her own self-understanding. You seem to think that and I hope it’s the case!

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      • Sarah and Laury,
        This is what I don’t relate to … why would “sexually neuter” have to appear in pants? :(

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      • Darla, I meant sexually neuter per society’s expectations if she is dressing that way to tone down any gender cues. The male body in the icon for the stairs is considered neuter.

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      • I just had an interesting experience along these lines. For a number of years I’ve had moderate length hair, but lost it all in the past few months from chemotherapy. It has just started to grow back and is now extremely short and gray. This afternoon a good friend told me that she loved how I looked now – that I look so powerful with my short gray hair, like someone in charge who knows who she is. I’ve had this comment from a number of people – they really seem to equate my very short hair with power. One work colleague says I now have “baditude.” Part of it, I think, is that a number of powerful older women – like Judi Dench – have very short hair, but I think some of it is just an equating of short hair, historically worn by men, with power. I’m not sure what to do – I have gotten such a good response with comments of how powerful I look with the short hair, but yet I feel more myself with the longer hair I’m familiar with (plus your head gets really cold in the winter in New England with very short hair). Well, I have a few months to decide, but I thought it was an interesting coincidence to have this conversation on the day this was posted…

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    • Well, some of us (granolas especially?) still wear skirts, speaking for myself! :)

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      • LOL! I don’t know where this anti-skirt thing is coming from! I’m not saying that. I was saying it’s a shame that women have to tailor their clothes to present as sexually neuter to be taken seriously. By sexually neuter I meant by the typical standards of the NA political scene (since this was all in reply to a comment about a female politician wearing baggy suits). We should be able to gender-tone our clothing however we like…especially given that these are constructed categories anyway. :)

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  4. Sometimes a picture IS worth a 1000 words! Good for you for using the power of art in the classroom.

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  5. Thank you again for an excellent post!

    I am trying to TEACH this to activist in our musawah training workshops. and each time we devise new exercises. I would really like to see what devices you use. Drawing something is really a good way. We also tell a story that has “undertones” of gender but since it does not state it specifically we find the gaps are filled in through our gender assumptions and THEN we question why “we” read the particulars.

    but I really would like to know the exercise you alluded to here. We can talk.

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    • The story exercise sounds very powerful! I would love to use that in a class, heck on myself! In this exercise, you simply find a passage that is gendered enough so the assignment makes sense to the students, then ask them to illustrate it. I ask them to be literal in the sense that they should pay attention to the materiality of the words. There is a great passage (I think it is Christian) in which it says that the man is the head of the woman. Well, one could read that metaphorically (which is bad enough, but can be discussed away), but if one reads it literally it gets across the gendered violence at work in the language. Literally: Draw a woman with a man as her head. It helps them see what the language is actually doing to us.

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  6. Laury, I was really struck by your description and then use of Kathleen’s drawing assignment. It’s striking how much information is conveyed by the graphic – and by the set of associations surrounding that “generic ‘man'” figure. It’s striking, too, how conditioned we are to self-police: men only? Ok, I won’t use those stairs.

    And on the tilth verse, an account of another powerful encounter with it, Lamya H’s “A Very Queer Ramadan”: http://www.tanqeed.org/2014/12/a-very-queer-ramadan/ – if you haven’t seen it, it’s both troubling and tender.

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    • The drawings are a powerful tool for understanding. It is so easy to nuance language away from uncomfortable meanings. I never considered how I policed myself! Yes, exactly. Wow.

      I hadn’t seen that blog entry, thank you. It’s perfect. In our mosque, the interpretations tend to steer away from the historical toward something profoundly personal rooted in an attitude to see the best intention in the divine word for the survival of one’s own soul. I’ve only seen positive results from this method. It’s positive in that she seems to be past the critique already. She is already uncomfortable with the verse and now she needs resources for life in her relationship with God through the Qur’an. She’s also already living life as herself, a queer woman. I don’t think that if one moves beyond the critique (or steps off of it because it remains the ground) to find an interpretation that is spiritually and socially nourishing that the person’s interpretation is compromised. So it’s not troubling to me.

      At the same time, the critique needs to be done for those who cannot see the problem with being a field to be sowed and all that follows from that. It’s troubling when that critique has never been considered because that means that one’s gendered social world has not been critiqued and opened up to change. I don’t know lots to say here and I’m not finding the words.

      I love the Musawah book, Men in Charge?, because it presents the critique and it presents ways to preserve one’s relationship with God through the Qur’an (in diverse social contexts). Not everyone will be satisfied with them, but I found much of it powerful.

      Anyway, the vulnerability she showed in having to talk about her relationship to the Qur’an with her partner was very real to me. It *is* tender, as you said, because we expose ourselves to ridicule for even trying. The connection to God through this book is intimate and so many of us are unwilling to let that go.

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      • Yes, to all of this. I didn’t mean that her bypassing of the critique was troubling but that the first range of meanings drawn out of the verse were troubling and the way we internalize damaging norms is troubling. My own scholarship tends to focus substantially more on the critique, but it’s very helpful to me to see the affirming ways that people find resources for human thriving in the text, and in the process of reading the text, and especially reading the text – as in this case – in a nurturing community.

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      • Oh sorry for the misreading. I guess it’s been on my mind, so I read that into it. I’ve been thinking about when readings are apologetic and unhelpful (maybe because they bypass critique and leave the same structures in place) or nourishing and helpful (maybe because they grow up from the ground of critique or just flip the bird at the tradition entirely so do not leave the same structures in place).

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  7. Great post, Laury! I’ve been a feminist since 1968, and I can attest that — at times — it gets easier. It’s a matter of choosing your struggles. Which ones are important and which ones can you just slough off. For instance, when my daughter discovered that she was a girl rather than a child (around age 4), she really wanted to dress in frilly pink dresses, which her grandmother supplied in great number. My spouse and I had preferred more utilitarian clothes (usually boys’ clothes). But after exclaiming that this was the revenge on the feminist parents, we let go of this issue, since to us it was superficial. What mattered was raising a strong, intelligent, loving, self-loving, and self-empowered child.

    I love the drawing exercise. It reminds me of an exercise in the “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven” (Unitarian Universalist feminist curriculum), where each woman draws her own body naked, and then talks about what her feelings and thoughts were as she drew. It helps almost all women realize the ways they have internalized self-deprecating beliefs about their bodies. And the discussion afterwards allows women to recognize that almost all women have these feelings, and, therefore, it’s an acculturated part of patriarchy.

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    • Good advice! It works well with some other good advice I got to focus more on building a new world rather than fighting the old one. Thank you.

      Your example reminds me of my stepdaughters….their parents are feminists and tried to raise them gender neutral and they were all out for the skirts, the more skirts the better, layers of skirts to make a tutu! They too raised strong, self-loving, self-empowered children. They are powerful women as I am sure your daughter has become.

      That Unitarian exercise sounds very powerful! Growing up in LA, I definitely took in some body image stuff…..I may need to do this for myself.

      Thank you!

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  8. Brilliant post, thank you!

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