No Manthology is An Island
By Kecia Ali.
No manthology is an island,(Newly discovered poem by Jane Donne)
Entire of itself,
Every manthology is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a contents list be woman-free,
Our field is the less.
As well as if a conference were.
As well as if a panel of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any manthology’s birth diminishes me,
Because I am involved in academe,
And therefore never send to know for whom the blog scrolls;
It scrolls for thee.
Over the last few years, all-male panels (a.k.a. manels) and overwhelmingly male (or even all-male) conferences have drawn ire, frustration, and well-deserved mockery. Less frequently noted, though still depressingly common, are all or mostly male collective publications—what Mara Benjamin has called manthologies.
Like its event-based cousins, to which it is often related in practice as well as spirit, the manthology reinforces and reproduces scholarly inequities via journal special issues, edited conference volumes, and festschriften. As Susannah Heschel and Sarah Imhoff point out in their reflection on women’s presence in Jewish Studies and yet utter absence from, inter alia, a major volume on Hasidism, the production of such a work, typically over the course of years, means a series of choices to ignore accomplished women colleagues.
Reading their essay, I was struck by the similarities to Islamic Studies. As I tweeted at the time, it’s like Misogyny Mad Libs: change the journal names, tinker with the percentages, substitute the titles of key state-of-the-field works, and not much would change. In my ongoing work on the gender politics of the study of Islam and Muslims in the US academy, I have been looking at a variety of overlapping qualitative and quantitative indicators which, taken together, show a field that systematically overlooks and under-engages women’s scholarship. I’ve looked at citational politics; counted women named in bibliographies, texts, and indexes; and looked at awards. I’ve read closely to see how authors discuss women’s scholarship. And I’ve begun to look at gender parity in edited works.
On the basis of that work in progress, I proffer a few observations and tentative hypotheses about manthologies within and beyond Islamic Studies.
First, a principle: Anthologies don’t merely collect; they select. They are shaped and, in turn, they shape the field. Who is included matters. It matters for the careers of the competent scholars who happen to not be men who are left out of the works. It matters for the vibrancy of the work being done, the state-of-the-field impression a volume gives, the lines of investigation left unexplored.
Second, a corollary: inclusion and exclusion in edited works are integrally related to other practices and patterns, both individual and collective. How you define your topic, who’s in your network, whom you invite to your conference, who’s a last-minute replacement, who’s overburdened by service obligations in her home department, who can’t attend because they’re contingent and have no institutional funding: all of this affects whose work ends up in the table of contents. Racism and sexism mean that white (cis and trans) women and non-binary people as well as scholars of color of all genders are less likely to hold secure faculty positions at well-resourced institutions, less likely to be part of prestigious networks, less likely to have their work celebrated as central to a given field.
Third, an observation: practices of exclusion don’t have to be conscious or malicious to do harm. Discrimination can be structural and systemic rather than deliberate.
Fourth, a caveat: there are always exceptions. They don’t disprove the rule.
One thing that’s become clear is that certain subfields within Islamic Studies are particularly bad at including women. The proportion of non-male scholars included in edited works is one indicator of which scholarly areas are more (or less) gender-balanced. American Islam, for instance, tends to be substantially more inclusive than the textually and philologically-oriented fields of Islamic origins and Qur’anic studies—both in terms of gender and race. Somewhat surprisingly, given the germinal contributions of women including Angelika Neuwirth and Jane Dammen McAuliffe, Qur’anic studies has a number of manthologies. Factors affecting gender balance include how topics are framed and the gender of a project’s editor(s).
For instance, Herbert Berg’s Method and Theory in the Study of Islamic Origins (2003) contains twelve chapters by twelve men; ditto Gabriel Said Reynolds’ The Qur’an in its Historical Context (2008). More recently, Berg’s Routledge Handbook on Early Islam (2018) has fifteen men among twenty-one contributors; they wrote sixteen of twenty-two chapters. Berg’s choice to address modern and contemporary uses of the early Islamic past partly accounts for the shift away from an all-male lineup. Four chapters by women and non-binary scholars appear in the sections on “Modern and contemporary reinterpretation of early Islam” and “Revisioning early Islam.” The other two are in “Identities and communities in early Islam.” Still, the seven-essay section on the Qur’an and Muhammad has all-male contributors. Mun’im Sirry’s forthcoming edited volume, New Trends in Qur’ānic Studies: Text, Context, and Interpretation (June 2019), has a refreshingly robust proportion of contributors from Southeast Asia; nonetheless, despite the title, the gender ratio of contributors is astonishingly regressive: fifteen of sixteen contributors are male.
When women edit or co-edit volumes, the gender balance is usually better. A quarter of the contributors to McAuliffe’s Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an (2006) are women. Similarly, the volume edited by Neuwirth, Nicolai Sinai, and Michael Marx, The Qur’ān in Context: Historical and Literary Investigations into the Qur’ānic Milieu (Brill 2010)has six women-authored chapters out of 27 (22%); there are five women among the 26 contributors (19%). McAuliffe’s volume The Qur’ān in Norton’s Critical Editions series offers a full translation along with a selection of fifty texts divided into four sections, Origins; Interpretation; Sounds, Sights, and Remedies; and The Qur’ān in America. Eleven of fifty (22%) are by women, though that percentage masks substantial variation among sections. Origins includes early texts and some more recent scholarship; it’s all male. If one sets aside pre-1500 texts, the percentage of women-authored items rises to nearly 40%.
Of course, gender balance cannot be the only consideration in assessing inclusion. It’s not a victory if anthologies are full of white North American and European cis women. While in comparison to other fields, there are relatively few all-white events and publications in Islamic studies, too many exclude Black scholars. Publications often feature only Sunni texts and perspectives. Or course, project organizers can never include everyone, but being deliberate about who is invited and selected is a start.
What my brief excursion through Qur’anic studies shows is that for editors of any gender, inclusion begins by thinking about how a project is framed. Having women editors isn’t a panacea for pipeline problems. However, women’s involvement in choosing contributors, which is related to choosing participants in conferences and symposia (and making those events accessible, physically and financially, for participants), seems to make a difference. Just as no one indicator gives the definitive story on women’s inclusion, so no single method will remedy those exclusions. And yet, positive changes anywhere are likely to have salutary ramifications everywhere—including in thematic journal issues, conference proceedings, disciplinary handbooks, and volumes in honor of our luminaries. In other words, no manthology is an island.
Kecia Ali is Professor of Religion at Boston University. Her research ranges from Islam’s formative period to the present, and focuses on Islamic law; gender and sexuality; and religious biography. She is the author of several books including The Lives of Muhammad and Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence. Her current projects include an introductory book on Women in Muslim Traditions as well as The Woman Question in Islamic Studies. You can read more about her work at www.keciaali.com