2022 Symposium

Writing Muslim Women in South Asia

August 2022 Online Symposium

Organisers: Zehra Kazmi, Sheelalipi Sahana, Fatima Z. Naveed

Cover image: Reya Ahmed, www.reyaahmed.in, Instagram

Concept Note and Call for Papers

From the Aurat March in Pakistan to the Shaheen Bagh protests in India, Muslim women have been at the forefront of political change and social upheaval, both in recent years and in the past. With Bangladeshi lawyer Sara Hossain as the recipient of the International Women of Courage Award in 2016 for reforming legislation on violence against women and Arooj Aftab as the first Pakistani woman to win a Grammy in 2022, these achievements are also not limited to any single sphere of cultural influence. And yet, the dominant narrative surrounding the experiences of Muslim women continues to focus on the oppressions they have faced, with little to no consideration given to the way they have overcome these challenges. As such, the category of ‘Muslim Woman’ has been essentialised in ethonographic, Orientalist and neo-liberal discourses since it began to be ‘studied’, a narrative that scholars and activists alike are seeking to challenge more and more every day.

This essentialist discourse was recently highlighted across South Asia, thus proving the necessity of challenging such narratives. On March 15th 2022, the Karnataka High Court in India upheld a government order to deny entry to Muslim women who wear the hijab into educational institutions by ruling that the “hijab is not essential to Islam”. Two separate incidents of auctioning Muslim women online for ‘deals’ were reported within 8 months of each other between 2021-22 and the perpetrators of both were let off by the Delhi High Court on “humanitarian grounds”. In Sri Lanka, a similar anti-Muslim sentiment has been reverberating through the appeals of Buddhist monk group Bodu Bala Sena (BSS) to ban the burqa as a “sign of religious extremism”. Across the border in Pakistan, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) organised a ‘Hijab March’ in solidarity with the Muslim women in Karnataka in February 2022. Rather than focusing on freedom of choice, party leaders used  the opportunity to take a stance against the Aurat March, an annual demonstration for women’s rights held across Pakistan on 8th March to coincide with International Women’s Day. Aurat March was, and is, constantly accused of violating haya (modesty), with particular reference made to“objectionable slogans” such as #MeraJismMeriMarzi.

There is a long and often neglected history of Muslim women intervening in debates about ‘reform’, decolonisation and citizenship to assert their own interests and identities, pioneering the rise of feminist scholarship and activism in South Asia. From Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hosain to Kamila Shamsie, one can trace a history of Muslim women writers and thinkers who have fundamentally altered contemporary literary and political discourse. A careful examination of these narratives surrounding Muslim women’s intellectual and political existence validates the significant work of scholars like Shenila Khoja-Moolji and Yasmin Saikia, who have argued that attempts to emancipate Muslim women have had to contend with simultaneously imposing uniform, majoritarian models of femininity– whether it is colonial modernity or orthodox religiosity. Navigating these binaries of emancipation and oppression, Muslim women have carved their own identities to interrogate and subvert these categorisations. This symposium is an attempt to bring together scholars, thinkers, artists and activists to create such a discursive space for a timely conversation on Muslim women’s pasts and present.

Each of our panels foregrounds the agential capacity of Muslim women in writing themselves and others, as they contend with shifting dynamics of race, ethnicity, gender, class, and caste, within and with relation to South Asia. This symposium hopes to disrupt the essentializing discourse on Muslim women’s identity by exploring the polyphonic nature of human subjectivities.

Discussion topics may include but are not limited to:

  • Narratives of gender, sexuality and queerness
  • Agency and artistic expression in Muslim women
  • Protest, resistance, and activism
  • Nationalism, nation and gender; Partition(s)
  • Space, place and temporality
  • Purdah, privacy and public discourse
  • Marriage, family, and domesticity
  • Technology; social media; cybercrime
  • Sair: narratives of travel, cosmopolitanism and mobility
  • ‘Modern’ Muslim women; self-fashioning in the age of empire
  • Sharif Ladki: reform, education and girlhood
  • Zaat: intersections of caste and gender in South Asian Islam
  • Begumati Zubaan: gender and multilingualisms

We invite established academics and early-career/PhD scholars within the fields of humanities and social sciences, and outside of these realms, as well as non-academic voices working on and representing Muslim women’s perspectives with reference to South Asia to present 20-minute papers, mixed-media presentations or any other forms of discussion on or around the above themes. Please send 300 word abstracts/presentation outlines including a short biography of not more than 100 words to tasavvurcollective@gmail.com. The deadline for submission of abstracts is 1st July 2022, and selected participants will be contacted with the final schedule by 15th July 2022. The symposium will be held online via Zoom on 5th-6th August 2022 (tentatively).

You can download the CFP here.

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