Several months back, a conference on the subject of Islamic thought was held at my university, featuring some of the most preeminent scholars in the field. While the organisers were successful in featuring a diversity of religious perspectives at the conference, no women scholars appeared in the entire programme – not as speakers, not as panel chairs and not as discussants.
Agreeing that this was an issue of concern, the organisers argued that they were unable to rectify the problem, despite their best efforts, largely because of the underrepresentation of women in this field and because a limited number of women applied.
This particular conference was in no way exceptional. In fact, this was only one of countless all-male events that take place regularly in Pakistan, and in many other parts of the world. There is an entire Tumblr page, humorously entitled ‘Congrats, You Have an All-Male Panel!’, dedicated to naming and shaming panels from various parts of the world that do not include women. All of this led me to reflect on wider questions about the relationship between gendered structures of power and knowledge, and to ask: why is it so important to include women in spaces of knowledge production?
Many of the people I have spoken to about this conference could not understand the reason why people were so upset about the absence of women at this particular conference; this included some people who would label themselves ‘feminists’. Their main reason for not raising an objection was the subject matter; for them, it was simply to be expected that women would be excluded from a discussion on Islamic thought as women were generally not a part of such discussions, especially not in Pakistan. In other words, this was normal.
However, I would argue that it is precisely for this reason that a special effort should be made to include women’s voices in such discussions, as women have historically been grossly underrepresented in this field. Scholars such as Leila Ahmed and Fatima Mernissi have carefully documented the active erasure of women’s voices from Islamic history and thought, which has led to the domination of largely patriarchal interpretations of Islam.
Therefore, those in the field of Islamic Studies should be actively working to correct this historical imbalance by supporting the accomplished women scholars who are already in this field and by encouraging young women to join, in order for women’s voices and experiences to begin to influence our knowledge and understanding of Islamic thought.
In general, it is no excuse that because there are few women in a particular field, it is acceptable to exclude them from discussions on the subject. In such instances, one needs to go even further out of one’s way to invite women who have knowledge of the field, or even of related fields, to participate in discussions on the subject. This will not only transform the conversation itself and the knowledge that emerges from this conversation, but will also encourage other women to also consider joining these fields when they see women in positions of authority acting as role models.
Making a special effort to include women in such spaces should therefore not be seen as ‘tokenism’. It can, in fact, have a knock-on effect, creating a virtuous cycle in which more women gain the confidence to gradually begin to join in the process of knowledge production.
Knowledge is power in more ways than one. Women have historically been excluded from spaces where knowledge is produced and shared, in this region and all over the world. While women may have formal access to education, we know that girls’ enrolment in school is often much lower than that of boys for a variety of economic, social and cultural reasons. Even when women do receive a formal education, they often have to drop out of school because of family pressures and responsibilities, or they are restricted to particular ‘female-appropriate’ fields. This denies women access to valuable knowledge – knowledge that can help them become stronger, more independent and more fulfilled individuals and contributing members of society.
Even when women do receive a formal education, they are often excluded from the higher echelons of academia, seldom acting as department heads, deans or vice chancellors – and rarely reaching the rank of full professor. Some of this is due to active discrimination, and some can be attributed to informal mechanisms of gender exclusion, combined with the pressures that women face at home.
Women are also excluded from particular fields, including those related to religion, economics, the natural sciences and various technical fields. Even in those fields that do have a significant number of female scholars, such as the humanities and social sciences, women’s entry is relatively recent, and hence there remains a historical imbalance in the type of knowledge that has been produced in these fields. When women finally do break into male-dominated fields, they are continuously sidelined and delegitimised in discussions and meetings, and continuously discouraged from speaking too much or too boldly by their male colleagues.
This is not a problem to be taken lightly. If women are not participating in the process of knowledge production, their experiences and perspectives are not influencing our understanding of particular subjects and of the world in general. This is perhaps the most detrimental aspect of exclusion, because this knowledge has a profound effect on the ways in which society is understood and organised, and in the manner in which power is distributed.
Hoping that gender imbalances will naturally correct themselves is clearly not enough. Active efforts must be made within educational institutions to include women and other underrepresented groups at all levels of decision-making and knowledge production. We will not achieve gender equality overnight, and perhaps not even in our lifetimes; but by adopting positive measures for inclusion, we can at least begin the process of achieving a more just and egalitarian society.
The writer is an assistant professor of sociology at LUMS.