Asma Barlas

Professor Emerita, Politics
School: School of Humanities and Sciences

Title

Selected Presentations & Interviews

2021

Afghan Women, the Taliban, and Islamic Extremism

Interview, The Hankyoreh, South Korea, August 26, 2021 (solicited but not published).

-Unfortunately, many Koreans think of terrorism and patriarchal culture first when they think of Islam. You think it's a misunderstanding? So, why is female oppression, gender inequality committed in some extremist Muslims or countries? 

I’m not surprised to hear that Koreans have a negative view of Islam and Muslims; so too, does everybody else, it seems, especially after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. Although all the attackers, other than one, were Saudi men, the U.S. went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan and declared a global war on terror directed at Muslims. (Thus far, over 800,000 people have died as a result of this war, according to a Brown University study.) So, it’s to be expected that Islam and Muslims have become linked to terrorism in most people’s minds even though such a view means blaming one billion Muslims and their religion for the actions of a few men. 

However, I’d like to put this fear (and demonization) of Islam in some historical perspective since it has long and deep roots, at least in the West. In fact, as early as the ninth century, Europeans were depicting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad as the antichrist, a figure the Bible describes as the enemy of Christianity. The difference is that, these days, many in the West depict Islam and the Prophet as terroristic, that is, as enemies of the West. So, not much has changed in a millennium and a half. 

I believe the tendency to exceptionalize the violence against Muslim women—to describe it as uniquely Islamic—is also meant to denigrate the religion. Yes, unfortunately, there is violence against women in Muslim countries, which are patriarchal and, yes, many of the men who do this violence make it seem that it is their Islamic right (I’ve written about why it is not). But, why do people believe that only Muslim countries are violent and patriarchal? Certainly, the Taliban are misogynists (men who hate women) but are they the world’s first or only misogynists? According to the WHO, one out of three women, globally, is a victim of violence. Just recently, I also read on the BBC that there is a growing culture of drugging and raping young women in fancy South Korean clubs. My point, simply, is that it should be possible to condemn the Taliban while recognizing that sexism, misogyny and patriarchy aren’t “Islamic” (they pre-date Islam) and have been naturalized all over the world, including in secular countries. 

-The Taliban, so-called Islamic extremism, do you think they are faithful to Islamic doctrine? 

Well, it depends on what one means by “Islamic doctrine.” Personally, I only consider those things “Islamic” that are in the Qur’an, which is the scripture of Islam. So, if we were to go by its teachings, then, the things the Taliban are doing are not Islamic. For instance, the Qur’an doesn’t mandate covering one’s face/ hair as a woman; it doesn’t use the word “hijab” for women’s dress; it does not say women can’t be educated or work or be financially independent (the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad was); and nor does it mention things like stoning to death or beheading people for adultery or “honor” killings or female genital cutting. Yet, over the centuries even Muslims have come to consider such things “Islamic” because, not everyone knows their scripture, much less lives by its ethics or teachings. 

In passing, I also want to note that the Qur’an forbids Muslims to force religious belief on others, which is what the Taliban does by forcing its own “brand” of Islam onto the population. This is not “Islamic” tyranny; it is the tyranny of the Taliban. On the same note, a lot of what goes on in so-called Islamic countries has little to do with Islam and is rooted in centuries old patriarchal and tribal cultures, customs, and beliefs. 

-When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, they declared, "We would respect women's rights if women wore hijab." Do you believe this? 

No. Besides, I want to make it clear that the Qur’an never uses the word “hijab” for women’s dress and the rights it gives women are not contingent on obeying men or governments. In the seventh century, the Qur’an taught that women, no less than men, are God’s subjects and that men and women are one another’s guardians. But Muslims ignore this fundamental teaching and in virtually no Muslim country do women enjoy the range of rights the Qur’an gives them. 

-What efforts will be needed within Afghanistan or Islamic culture? 

To begin, there is no single or monolithic Islamic culture. The world’s billion Muslims have different cultures and histories and, while we share certain religious beliefs, no two countries are identical. The world’s largest Muslim country is Indonesia and when I visited it (I was born in Pakistan), I was struck by the fact that women drove scooters, moved around freely, and prayed in mosques by themselves. This doesn’t happen in Pakistan which underwent a forced regime of “Islamization” in the 1980s, at the hands of the military dictator, General Zia ul Haq. So, if two of the largest Muslim countries have such differing cultures regarding women in public what can we say about “the” Islamic culture? 

Second, if people want to improve Afghan women’s status, they should protest not only against the Taliban but also against the governments of the counties that have destroyed Afghanistan, in the name of saving it and its women. This would be the Soviet Union and the U.S. More to the point, there isn’t a single instance in history I know of when an external invasion improved the lot of women, despite how the U.S. is spinning its twenty-year war against, and occupation of, Afghanistan. Far from having benefitted its women, the U.S. created a whole new set of problems for them

Finally, wherever women were able to get rights, there was a combination of at least two factors: their own struggles to mobilize and a change or shift in social structures and attitudes. To think that one can gift a right to someone while leaving intact the social structures in which they live is utterly naïve. In the U.S., African-Americans have the same rights today that white people do but, as we have seen, these rights can only go so far within the political and economic structures of white supremacy. 

-Do you think Afghanistan needs international action to stop the oppression of women? 

This is a dangerous way of putting it because, after all, women’s oppression is a global phenomenon. Which country is suited to invade another when its own women are victims of violence? The fact that this violence isn’t as visible as the violence against Afghan women doesn’t make it any less heinous or less of a problem.  At best, therefore, all that women’s groups and governments can do is to continue to exert moral and diplomatic pressure on the Taliban about their ill-treatment of women. 

-What else do you want to say to women in Afghanistan or Korea? 

I wonder if Afghan women will be reading this and I am hesitant to say too much to your readers since I’m guessing they know that violence against women happens wherever we happen to live and takes many different forms. I’m guessing they also know that there’s a tendency to ignore the violence around us since it’s too close while wanting to save Muslim women in “barbaric” “Islamic” lands. Personally, I have no illusions that I can save anyone; at most, I can keep identifying the problem of violence because remaining silent brings pain and despair. 

2020

Headshot of myself during podcast.

Podcast with Sofia Rehman (U.K.), November 21, 2020

Islam, Gender and Feminism are hotly debated and rarely understood. This Zoom discussion was held following a global read along of Professor Asma Barlas's book, Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Quran, led by Dr Sofia Rehman.

Podcast with Riada Akyol: Dignified Resilience. August 16, 2020.

Bosnian writer and journalist Riada Asimovic Akyol presents a podcast about fresh narratives on confronting despair, alleviating distress, and forging ahead. ... Ultimately, this podcast is an invitation for people to engage in a thoughtful introspection, regardless of one’s geographical location or state of mind.

Believing Women

Hidden Figures: Tracing the History of Muslim Women Scholars, Islamic Center of Southern California, August 9, 2020.

New Books: Interview with Asad Dandia. August 3, 2020.

BBC interview

This week marks the beginning of the most important days in the Islamic calendar. It's the start of the Holy Month of Ramadan when the faithful are required to fast from dawn to dusk. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has cast a shadow to this year's festivities. Around the world lockdowns and restrictions have been imposed including on the Holy Lands: Mecca and Medina. Professor Asma Barlas from Ithaca College in New York is a Muslim scholar who is well-versed in the Holy Qur’an. She helps us find out what is allowed, and what is not during the pandemic.

2019

"Reading the Qur'an Justly," Keynote address, conference on (Un)Just Religion: Building Community and Identity, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Canada, March 16, 2019.

2018

“Reading the Word in a Foreign Tongue: Islam’s Scripture, the Qur’an, and Non-Arab Muslims.” Plenary address, International Linguistic Association 63rd annual conference (Language and Religion). St. John’s University, New York, April 21, 2018.

“When Gender is a Problem in Qur’anic Exegesis,” New York University Abu Dhabi Institute. Workshop on Gender and Tafsir Studies. Abu Dhabi, April 8, 2018.

2017

“Secularizing the Qur’an?” and “Decoloniality and Internal Colonialism: The secular turn in Qur’anic Studies.” Center for Intercultural Dialogues (Granada), and the University of California, Berkeley, Granada Spain, July 7, 2017.

2016

“Sex/Gender and Women in the Qur’an,” panel, Human Rights, Gender, and Sexuality in the Islamic World, DISC/WCED Symposium, Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Laureate respondent. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, October 27, 2016.

“Muslim Women and the Qur’an” Marsico Scholar Lecture, Department of Religious Studies, University of Denver, October 13, 2016.

Human Rights, Gender, and Sexuality in the Islamic World DISC/WCED Symposium.

Video of my talk

Video of Panel
University of Michigan
October, 2016

This symposium brought together a diverse group of experts who have contributed to the conversation on human rights, gender, and LGBTQ movements in an Islamic context. Panelists discussed Muslim approaches to minorities, including the the movement towards decriminalizing homosexuals, the Qur’an’s position on sex/gender, and the history of human rights in the Muslim world. This event follows a lecture by the Nobel-prize winning human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who will participate in the panel discussion.

2014

“Why is it so Hard to Speak about Islam?” NYI-St. Petersburg Institute of Linguistics, Cognition, and Culture, Russia, July 24, 2014.

“Qur’anic Hermeneutics as Ethics,” Keynote, “Critical Muslim Studies summer school, Center of Study for Intercultural Dialogues (Spain), and the University of California, Berkeley, Granada, Spain, June 10, 2014.

“Violence against Muslim Women,” Keynote, International Women’s Day, IMDI, Drammen, Norway, March 8, 2014.

2013

“Islamic Feminism, Secularism, and (De)colonization,” Summer School on Islam and Decolonization, University of Berkley and University of Granada, Granada, Spain, June 11, 2013.

“Qur’anic Hermeneutics and Internal Colonialism in Muslim Societies,” Summer School on Islam, Granada, Spain, June 17, 2013.

Video shot of myself

Why I Don´t Call Myself an Islamic Feminist
Summer School on Islam and Decoloniality, Granada, 2013.

2012

“Thinking of Muslims in ‘Morally Relevant Ways,’” Keynote, Faith and Culture conference.  The Wheeler Center, Melbourne, Australia, June 16, 2012.

“Uncrossed Bridges: Islam, Feminism, and Secular Democracy,” Keynote, Istanbul Seminars: The Promises of Democracy in Troubled Times. Reset Doc and Bilgi University, Istanbul, Turkey, May 21, 2012.

Women's Rights from within the Qur'an, Short film, Reset Doc, http://www.resetdoc.org/story/00000022334/format/html, 2012.

A Balloon for Allah

A Balloon For (To) Allah, a film by Nefise Ozkal Lorentzen, 2012.

2011

“Encountering Islam: Women and Gender Equality,” Keynote, Critical Issues Symposium. Hope College, Holland, Michigan, October 5, 2011.

“On Anti-Anti-Foundationalism: Nasr Abu Zayd’s ‘Rethinking’ of the Qur’an,” Conference on Islamic Newthinking: In Honor of Nasr Abu Zayd. Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut of Essen and the University of Zurich, Essen, Germany, June 26-29, 2011.

2010

“Abraham in the Qur’an: the unbound body,” Keynote, Conference on Religion and the Body.  Donner Institute for Research in the History of Religion, Åbo Akademi University, Åbo (Turku), Finland, June 16-18, 2010.

Interview with Fons Elders, Islam Unknown, Icarus Films, 2010

Islam Unknown: Interview with Fons Elders

video shot of myself

"Islam Unknown" A series by Fons Elders / An Icarus Films Release http://www.icarusfilms.com/new2012/is... ISLAM UNKNOWN is a collection of eight interviews with unconventional Muslim intellectuals. In each episode, eclectic Dutch philosopher Fons Elders engages the thinkers in probing discussion on topics including gender, economics, sharia, secularism, colonialism, and the nature of religious authority. What emerges is a nuanced and illuminating series of contemporary perspectives on one of the world's great religions.

PART 1: Asma Barlas — God is Uncreated, God is Without Sex and Gender

2009

“The Qur’an, Shari’a, and Women’s Rights,” Plenary Address, Re-imagining the Shari’a. University of Warwick, Venice, September 14, 2009.

“Islam and Body Politics: Inscribing (im)morality,” Keynote, Nordic Society for Philosophy of Religion conference on “Religion and the Politics of the Body.” University of Iceland, Reykjavek, June 26, 2009.

“Islamic Reform and Gender Equality: Fiqh, Feminism, or CEDAW?” Regional Conference on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in Muslim Societies. (UNIFEM/ ICIP) Jakarta, Indonesia, March 11-12, 2009.

2008

“Globalizing Equality: revisiting the debate,” Third International Congress on Islamic Feminism. Barcelona, Spain, October 25, 2008.

“Would Spinoza Understand Me? Europe, Islam, and the Mirror of Difference.” Spinoza Lecture. University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, June 5, 2008.  (Also presented at the University of Nijmegen, June 17, 2008.)

“Believing Women in Islam: Between secular and religious politics and theology,” Spinoza Lecture. University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, May 8, 2008.

2007

“Engaging Islamic Feminism: Provincializing feminism as a master narrative,” Workshop on Islamic Feminism. Tampere, Finland, August 31, 2007.

“Challenges of Reading/ Interpreting the Qur’an,” Master Class, Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, Leiden, the Netherlands, June 25, 2007.

“Still Quarrelling over the Qur’an: Five theses on interpretation and authority.” Conference on Redefining Boundaries.  Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, Amsterdam, June 24, 2007.

“Women in Islam: Between Oppression and (Self-) Empowerment,” Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. Cologne, Germany, March 9, 2007.

2006

“Does the Qur’an Support Gender Equality?” University Lecture.  University of Groningen, the Netherlands, November 23, 2006.

“Women’s Self-Emancipation through the Qur’an.” University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, November 21, 2006.

“Four Stages of Denial, or, My On-Again, Off-Again, Affair with Feminism: Response to Margot Badran,” Discussion Series, Global Fury/ Global Fear: Engaging Muslims. Ithaca College, October 23, 2006.

2005

“Qur’anic Hermeneutics and Muslim Women’s Liberation,” International Congress on Islamic Feminism. Barcelona, Spain, October 29, 2005.

 “‘Hold(ing) Fast by the Best in the Precepts:’ The Qur’an and Method,” Conference on the Changeable and Unchangeable in Islamic Thought and Practice, Sarajevo, May 7-9, 2005 (read by Christian Moe).

“Women’s and Feminist Readings of the Qur’an.” Center for Middle East Studies, Harvard University, March 22, 2005.

Mainstreaming Extremism

screenshot of CSPAN presentation

Panel on Countering Religious Extremism (Muslim Public Affairs Council, California, Dec. 18, 2004)

2004

“Gender Inequality and Scriptural Interpretation in Islam.” Stanford University, November, 22, 2004.

“Teaching about Women and Islam,” AMEWS Roundtable. Middle East Studies Association Annual Meeting, San Francisco, November 21, 2004.

“Text, Tradition, and Reason: The Qur’an and Sexual Politics.” Cardozo Law School, Yeshiva University, October 10-14, 2004.

“Islam, Gender, and Reproductive Health.” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, D.C., October 4, 2004.

 “Globalizing Equality: Muslim Women, Theology, and Feminisms.” Library of Congress, March 26, 2004.

picture of myself on video

Islamic Feminism: Debate with Margot Badran, University of Torotono, Jan. 12, 2004.

2003

“Reviving Islamic Universalism,” Conference on Contemporary Islamic Synthesis, Alexandria, Egypt, October 3-5, 2003.

“Determining Islamic Authority in North America,” Conference on Islam in America.  Harvard Divinity School, March 8, 2003.

2002

“Challenging Patriarchal Interpretations of Islam,” Anderberg Lecture, University of Nebraska, Omaha, Nebraska, November 7, 2002.

“Islam, Feminism, and Women,” Robert L. Bernstein Symposium on Fundamentalism and Modernity. Yale University, April 12-13, 2002.

 “Will the ‘Real’ Islam Please Stand Up?” Master’s Tea Presentation at Silliman College. Yale University, February 21, 2002.

2001-1998

"On Interpretation and Exceptionalism," Ithaca College, October 29, 2001.

“Jihad vs. Terrorism: Interpretive Confusion or Exceptionalism?” Karachi, Pakistan, December 20-21, 2001.

“Muslim Women and Sexual Oppression: Reading Liberation from the Qur’an,” Macalester College Roundtable, Minnesota, October, 2000.

“The Qur’an and Hermeneutics: Reading the Qur’an's Opposition to Patriarchy," Conference on Qur’an and Hermeneutics, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, October, 1999.