A brilliant site has been making the rounds of social media: allmalepanels.tumblr.com. I became aware of it just in time to suggest a post: an all-male symposium at Cambridge Muslim College on the future of the madrasa. The original article, since removed, touted its diverse participants, but as someone observed, clearly they only meant diverse styles of facial hair. The organizer apparently chose “to exclude women despite having had the matter brought to his attention” in the planning stages by male participants. (As of this writing, the college still has an all-male homepage.)
Right around the same time, I learned of an Australian Muslim conference taking a slightly different route, advertising an event with thirteen male speakers and three female ones. Not an ideal ratio, but certainly better than many events. What is troubling is the way men and women appear on the poster. Each man has a picture along with his name. The women are literally faceless, represented by identical balloon figures. While the men appear in color or grayscale photographs, the women are stark black and white, clearly inhuman caricatures. (Other similar events give slightly different lists with only one woman; she appears with different line drawings, one in profile and one “full face” – except, still, faceless.)
Two other things differentiate the female and male speakers. First, and in contrast to the way women are often stripped of titles, the men only get names, the women’s names are preceded by Sr. (“sister”) or, in one case, Dr.
Second, the men’s names are presented in blue, the women’s in pink.
Perhaps the aim was to represent some timeless Muslim notion of female modesty, in which women’s faces should not appear publicly. What we have instead is a clear illustration of precisely how modern – and in key respects, Western – particular gender ideals are. Pink for girls and blue for boys is a twentieth century American invention.
This poster illustrates, brilliantly, the confluence of disparate patriarchal systems of gender differentiation and male privilege. Here, just as in a workshop on the madrasa in a storied European university town, “Islam” and “the West” present not opposed but overlapping and intersecting systems of dominance.
The #allmalepanels tumblr reveals more of the same. National borders do not constrain. There are government symposia. There are award ceremonies for creative fields. There are panels, keynote panels, and entire conferences comprised of all-male experts.
Those who treated the all-male Saudi conference on women’s rights held in 2012 as laughable were, of course, justified. But in a nation whose leaders have cynically exploited Muslim women’s suffering to justify military interventions, we have numerous examples of men alone celebrating legislation affecting women’s lives. No country, ethnicity, religion, or professional field has a monopoly on patriarchy (though many all-male panels are also all-white).
Sara Ahmed has pointed out that “When you expose a problem you pose a problem.”
Part of the problem is perception.
Noticing a problem (“Hey, there don’t seem to be any women invited to a discussion of the future of Muslim education”) is a legitimate recognition of troubling power dynamics. It is perceived, though, by those who want the exclusion to go unnoticed, or at least unspoken, as a matter of hurt feelings: you imagine this is a problem because you weren’t included.
Women, this approach says, are not rational actors capable of analyzing larger patterns of exclusion and structures of domination, but rather irrational actors prone to hysterical overreaction to unintentional slights. (This notion of women as overly emotional and insufficiently rational is, by the way, also a joint production: though it figures regularly in certain strands of Muslim writing, it gets there via nineteenth and early twentieth-century European “scientific” discourses about femininity.)
Like pointing to women’s wounded feelings, focusing on the benign intent of those who exclude women deflects attention from patterns and structures. One can attend to how any particular event came to have no women represented (check out “female conference speaker bingo” for common excuses). But it is precisely the predictable nature of these perceived obstacles that makes them possible to overcome, if there is any sincere desire to do so.
Meanwhile, if you have not read Ahmed’s essay, now is the time. And next time you come across an all-male panel, or edited volume, or bibliography, send it along to allmalepanels.tumblr.com. If nothing else, it allows us to conjoin anger with laughter.
Kecia Ali, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University where she teaches a range of classes related to Islam. She writes on early Islamic law, women, ethics, and biography. Her newest books are The Lives of Muhammad and the co-edited Guide for Women in Religion, revised edition. Her earlier books include Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence(2006),Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam (2010), and Imam Shafi’i: Scholar and Saint (2011). She currently serves on the Membership Task Force of the American Academy of Religion and serves as president of theSociety for the Study of Muslim Ethics. She lives in the Boston area with her family.