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Gender, State & Society

Debates over equality, sexuality, and the changing roles of men and women often represent the flashpoint where religious and secular communities work out their complicated relationship to modernity. The modern state plays a preeminent role in framing and adjudicating such issues, but is also confronted by political pressures demanding that it should either reinforce traditional family models or facilitate the acceptance of new norms and models of family life. A focus on gender as a point of commonality and difference enables the exploration of crucial issues such as childbearing and maternity; religious and secular education; domestic and wartime violence against women; economic mobility; the nature, structure, and exercise of religious authority; reproductive health; and marriage and inheritance law.


A recent search of the term “burqa” on CartoonStock.com turned up a plethora of images of women in black and blue veils. In one image a black-clad woman in a delivery room gives birth to a tiny, similarly garbed miniature, as a nurse proclaims, “It’s a girl!” In another, a woman in a black niqab, with only her eyes exposed, sits in front of a computer featuring the webpage “Hidden Facebook.” Read the full article »


In the wake of France’s total ban on the burqa or full-length veil, which took effect last month, on April 11th, it is an appropriate time to address the Islamic interpretation of the headscarf and its significance for Muslims. Scholars of religion inevitably get nervous when they are asked to speak about “the” interpretation of anything. So I propose to draw on my personal experience as a Muslim and as an observer of Western politics and society to establish some context that may lead us to be more aware of certain uncritical areas in our framing of the question at hand.


Like many universities around America, Notre Dame recognized Sexual Assault Awareness Week at the end of last month (February 20-27) in a world in which sexual violence against women and girls—and sometimes men and boys—remains a persistent evil. As one of the world's oldest forms of violence, present throughout the ages, particularly in situations of conflict and war, sexual violence seems distinctly anti-modern from both religious and secular perspectives. How is it that sexual violence remains such a blot on human nature, human society and, particularly, the relationship between men and women?

Catholicism and feminism


About twelve years ago, I gave a paper at a conference on “Women’s Health and Human Rights” at the Vatican. A highlight of the event was a special audience for the conference participants with Pope John Paul II. To the surprise and delight of his listeners, he benignly proclaimed “Io sono il Papa feminista"— "I am the feminist pope." And Pope John Paul II meant it. He repeatedly called for the development of a “new feminism” which would honor and celebrate the “feminine genius” in all walks of life. At the same time, it is safe to say that many people don’t share the late Pope’s easy association of feminism and the papacy.

Grandfather knows best


I wish I could have had the privilege of meeting Shahla Haeri’s late grandfather. He sounds like he was a wonderful man. In a way, he reminds me of my own grandfather. On the surface, of course, these two men would have very little in common. Her grandfather was a Shi’i ayatollah who lived in Iran; my grandfather was a Roman Catholic layman who lived in New England. But both men loved their granddaughters. And both were willing to rethink conventional restrictions on the roles of women that would prevent their granddaughters from flourishing.


The contradictions of growing up the unveiled granddaughter of an Iranian ayatollah had not occurred to me until I was confronted in 1988 by Dr. Christian Troll, a scholar of Islam and a Jesuit priest living in India at the time. “How is it possible,” he asked, "that your grandfather did not ask you to veil?” Indeed! “Why hadn’t he?,” I wondered. What was specific to him or to Iran at that time in history that made it seem perfectly normal for him to let his daughters and granddaughters go unveiled?


Two days last month I got up at 4 a.m. to attend the Fourth International Feminist Conference in Spain. Why so early? Because I participated via my computer in Washington, six hours behind Madrid time, thanks to live-streaming on Webislam. One can only imagine in how many time zones others were also coming on board. Interacting in cyber and real space has been the hallmark of Islamic feminism since it first burst on the global scene some two decades ago.