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:
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.