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How Not to Teach About Islam, Harvard Edition

Want to learn that white colonialists are to blame for Islamic nations’ abysmal treatment of women? Then I’ve a class for you.

Liel Leibovitz
January 25, 2016
Widener Library at Harvard University. Wikimedia

Looking for some good classes to take at Harvard this spring? If you are curious about the human rights of 1.6 billion of the world’s people, you might enjoy Professor Leila Ahmed’s Islam, Gender, Sexualities and Empire class. Herein is the course description in full:

The twenty-first century has witnessed the production of a wealth of new literature in relation both to the history of sexuality in the Islamic world and to the entangled histories of Europe and the Islamic world and the role that Orientalism has played in shaping notions of gender and sexuality through colonial, pre-colonial and post-colonial times. In addition to selected book-chapters and articles engaging contemporary debates on these topics, our readings will include (provisional list): Lila Abu Lughod, Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Khaled El-Rouayheb, Before Homosexuality, Karen Bauer, Gender Hierarchy in the Quran, Eds. Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Al-Sharmani & Rumminger, Men in Charge, Joseph Massad, Islam and Liberalism, Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle, Homosexuality in Islam, and Living Out Islam; Eds. Ayesha Mattu & Nura Maznavi, Love Inshallah.

You hardly need to look past the first book on the reading list to realize what kind of education Professor Ahmed is likely to deliver. In fact, you hardly need to look past the first book’s title. Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Let me count the ways.

In Iran, women lack the most basic freedoms, including the right to attend a soccer match or to sing on stage. Those judged insufficiently modest are subject to acid attacks, honor killings, and other violent ends.

In Egypt, 99.3 percent of women were sexually harassed, and 27.2 million have been genitally mutilated, according to reports.

In Bahrain, a rapist may avoid punishment if he opts to marry his victim, which is a touch better than Kuwait, which has no laws against domestic abuse or spousal rape as well as no shelters or hotlines to help women brutalized by their husbands. And in Saudi Arabia, sadly, women are still not permitted to drive and they need the consent of their husbands if they want to travel, enroll in classes, or gain access to healthcare. Do Muslim women need saving, then? You betcha.

But don’t count on Professor Ahmed’s class to tell you any of the above. In her 1992 book, Women and Gender in Islam, she argued that Islam was a benevolent and loving religion with nothing but respect for its female adherents before white colonialists arrived and turned women’s rights into another form of conquest.

“It was in this discourse of colonial ‘feminism,’” Ahmed wrote in her book, “that the notion that an intrinsic connection existed between the issues of culture and the status of women, and in particular that progress for women could be achieved only through abandoning the native culture, first made its appearance. The idea was the product of a particular historical moment and was constructed by the discourses of patriarchal colonialism.”

In other words, for those of you who are not fluent in academic gibberish, Muslim countries only started permitting the killing, raping, burning, incarcerating, confining, and marginalizing of women once the bad Europeans arrived and forced the natives into abandoning their inherently peaceful ways and instead taking rusty razors to their daughters’ genitalia. If this strikes you as sensible, and you have $60,659 a year to spare, I know just the university for you.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.