Oxford Arts Blog | University of Oxford

Oxford Arts Blog

Jama Masjid

Professor Justin Jones of Oxford’s Faculty of Theology and Religion, who has been working on Islam in India for the last 15 years through a variety of different projects, is now working on Sharia (Islamic law), and how it is practised among Muslim communities in modern India. 

India, by its constitution, is considered to be a secular state. However, the Indian government has always promised to protect religious freedoms by allowing minorities to live by their own religious laws in their personal and family lives. This means that Muslims in India are still subject to a version of Islamic law (known as Muslim personal law) in family matters – issues such as marriage and divorce, for instance.

In much of the Islamic world, these laws have been codified. But in India, it is very different. There is no code of Muslim family law, and much of it is handled informally, at community level. This means that community religious leaders – often known as the ulama – have a lot of power over individual lives. They make decisions on issues like marriages and divorces that have huge ramifications for individual men and women.

Professor Jones explores the complicated implications of India’s status as a secular state. His work shows that, since India’s constitutional system delegates much legal power to communities themselves, it indirectly makes ‘religious’ leaders more, not less, powerful within their communities. They have exercised authority as legal professionals, issuing legal instructions (fatwas) and running non-government legal forums, like Sharia councils, that handle community cases.

Professor Jones says his work is an attempt to explore what he calls the ‘lived law’ in India. Usually, legal historians have tended to look at the sources left behind by formal legal systems: things like court records, legal statutes or legal digests. This is also true for much legal history of India. But this project considers the exact opposite – how little these formal ideas matter in a society like this. It argues there is a huge gap between these state-driven forms of law, and how law is actually handled and experienced locally. There is a whole world in India where these government involvements in law are entirely absent: community leaders come to their own decisions themselves.

Doing this research means engaging in this informal world. Professor Jones has been working with these communities, in small villages and peripheral urban neighbourhoods across India. He has talked to the scholars actually making these informal decisions, observed ‘Sharia court’ sessions, and been given access to the records of some of these institutions.

Another set of questions raised by this research has been the impact upon Muslim women, who are often most affected by how laws of marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody are handled. Professor Jones has been working with different Muslim feminist groups within India to discuss their experiences and opinions of this uncodified system. In August 2017, he teamed up with Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), India’s foremost Islamic feminist group, to run a workshop with young activists in Delhi. He and a number of activists and NGO leaders based around India ran sessions discussing both Sharia laws and Indian laws to help them find ways to empower the women they work with. This gave these activists the opportunity to share their knowledge and experiences with academics and writers, and consider different strategies for improving women’s rights.

The BMMA argue that Islamic law and the Islamic constitution both uphold women’s rights, and offer gender justice and protection. They argue that religious scholars have sustained a flawed, patriarchal interpretation of Islam. They are making arguments from Islamic principles, using religion as a basis for building a new language of women’s rights. They have even set up their own Sharia councils, led by women, to offer their own more gender-just interpretations, and they are now arguing for an overhaul of Muslim family laws in India.

In the coming years, Professor Jones hopes to look further into Islamic feminism, and the efforts of these groups to build an equal and fair family law, both within India and around the world.

More information on this project-in-progress can be found here.


Don’t be fooled by popular wisdom — when it comes to eating disorders, books can be just as harmful as other forms of media, finds Francesca Moll...

It is a truth seemingly universally acknowledged that the mainstream media can have a negative effect on eating disorders. But what about books? According to Dr Emily Troscianko, of Oxford’s Medieval and Modern Languages Faculty, we ignore them at our peril.

Dr Troscianko, whose research spans cognitive studies and German literature, also writes a blog for Psychology Today based on her personal experience with anorexia and the science of eating disorders. She was inspired to bring together the two sides of her research when she realised how little was known about the relationship between eating disorders and reading.

As part of a Knowledge Exchange Fellowship with TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities), she teamed up with BEAT, the UK’s largest eating disorders charity, to find out how these illnesses might affect how people engage with literature, and whether reading could help sufferers adopt more healthy ways of thinking.

Together they came up with a comprehensive survey of over 60 questions, assessing how mood, self-esteem, body image and diet and exercise habits were affected by reading. This was filled out by nearly 900 respondents in varying stages of eating disorder recovery, both from BEAT’s UK volunteer network and via sister charities in the US, Canada, and Australia.

The results proved quite a shock: certain books seemed to make illness worse, and these were the ones that the theory of ‘creative bibliotherapy’ predicts would be most helpful for recovery. It is generally assumed that illness narratives, where the main character goes through the same illness as the reader, would be best at generating insight and a desire to recover.

But Dr Troscianko found that in fact the reverse was true: an overwhelming majority of respondents reported decidedly negative effects on their illness from reading such fiction. Indeed, rather distressingly, it seems that many were aware of the negative effect on their mood that they caused, and sought them out deliberately with the intention of making themselves more ill.

Although these works rarely explicitly supported disordered eating, it seems that the moral was getting lost thanks to the restrictive thinking patterns of the readers. Sufferers ended up getting trapped in an endless ‘positive feedback loop’ where the unhealthy mindset that sent them there in the first place was reinforced by reading the same thing described on the page.

‘It’s clear that people are filtering out the stuff that doesn’t accord with the eating disorder mindset and just seeing the positives, the control, the sense of superiority, all those things that are covered in the early parts of the books before the recovery happens, and not seeing that there’s any critical angle on them,’ says Dr Troscianko.

Although it’s usually glossy magazines and TV shows that are blamed for encouraging disordered eating patterns, it’s clear books can be just as harmful, although in different ways.

‘I wonder whether in a way we’re kind of image-saturated. Skeletal catwalk models are still shocking and off-putting and fascinating to some extent, but I wonder whether encountering a description of such a person in words actually might do something equally problematic, just in a different way.

‘One of the things I get frustrated about is that people tend to assume because it’s literature it must be doing good. And there’s no reason to assume that.’

On the other hand, Dr Troscianko also found that many books had a helpful effect on eating disorders. These varied greatly depending on individual taste, with everything from Harry Potter to Pride and Prejudice being mentioned. What they had in common was that they helped to jolt the respondents out of their established thinking patterns by showing them that something else was possible outside of these confining boundaries, or else simply boosted their mood by providing a much-needed escape.

Rather than a narrow focus on the grim reality of eating disorders, then, therapeutic fiction may need to take a more oblique approach. Dr Troscianko is hopeful about the possibilities of metaphor, extended allegory, or even a science fiction or fantasy setting.

‘Eating disorders, all mental illnesses probably, are so much about getting stuck in very narrow circles of thinking and not being able to break out of them, that anything that breaks into that and just forces you to widen your gaze for a moment and to think differently, even just very temporarily, is powerful.’

Dr Troscianko is keen to emphasise that this survey is just the first step; she hopes to back up the subjective data of this self-reported survey with more in-depth psychological experiments.

‘The trouble is you do a little bit of research and then you find out how much you don’t know. But we’re getting there.’

You can read Dr Troscianko’s blog here, as well as following her latest projects — including developing an app to help eating disorder recovery. Visit the BEAT website here.

Multilingualism concert rehearsal

Tomorrow (27 June), Creative Multilingualism, a research programme funded by the AHRC and led by the University of Oxford, will hold a concert with 500 local primary school children to shine a spotlight on the many languages spoken in Oxford’s schools and communities. Programme leader Professor Katrin Kohl explains what motivated this celebration of Oxford’s multilingualism.

Oxford is a multilingual city. In 2017, one third of all students in Oxford city schools had a language other than English as their first language. One secondary school in East Oxford has speakers of over 100 different languages. The value of these additional languages is not always recognised, and sometimes home or community languages are even seen as a handicap to learning.

Yet research findings show the opposite. Studies such as those conducted by Multilingual Manchester have shown that making the most of languages children speak alongside English improves their academic progress overall. By nurturing their pupils’ multilingualism, schools can also take advantage of the many benefits linguistic diversity brings, from interpersonal skills and enhanced communicative competence to cultural intelligence and open-mindedness.

Creative Multilingualism is investigating how linguistic diversity – including different languages, dialects and registers – interacts with creativity. Our team of researchers in Modern Languages, Linguistics, English, Media Studies, Education, Anthropology and Biology are finding out how our ability to use more than one language enhances the creative repertoire of both individuals and groups in expressing identities and communicating with others.

With this concert, we want to encourage bilingual and multilingual pupils to share their languages and cultures with their friends and classmates. We Are Children of the World, a choral piece composed by Lin Marsh, will feature folk songs in seven different languages which are commonly found in Oxford’s schools: Mandarin, Punjabi, Urdu, Arabic, Polish, Swahili and Portuguese. The composition follows the sun’s journey as it travels from east to west, starting in China with a song about the fragrant jasmine flower and finishing with a samba in Brazil.

The concert has been organised in partnership with the Oxford Festival of the Arts. Jon Cullen, Director of Music at Magdalen College School, took on the challenging task of teaching the piece to 500 pupils in ten different schools, including participation of the County Youth Junior Choir. He produced PowerPoint slides for each part of the composition which include audio recordings and videos of him and composer Lin Marsh singing the piece line by line alongside the musical score. He also provided each school with backing track, score and lyrics. He visited the schools with a team of staff and A-level students from Magdalen College School, who helped the students master the words of the composition.

Last week, the schools came together for the first time to rehearse as a choir of 500, accompanied by an orchestra. A show of hands at the lunch break showed that we had speakers of all the languages which feature in the composition. The rehearsal was tremendously inspiring and the participants enjoyed exploring different cultures and parts of the world through song.

The concert on 27 June at the Sheldonian Theatre will be the first ever public performance of We Are Children of the World, but we don’t want it to be the last. After the concert, we will be making the composition including musical score, lyrics and teaching resources freely available on our website. We hope that schools across the country and beyond will use the composition as a springboard for conversations about languages and cultures from different countries – and for multilingual fun with singing.

The Akcakale refugee camp in Turkey

A series of events continues this week that aims to generate dialogue around the issues facing refugees in the UK.

Initiated by Baroness Jan Royall, Principal of Oxford’s Somerville College, the series has engaged policymakers, academics, charities, students and members of the Oxford community with this important topic.

The series began with a panel discussion focusing on child refugees and access to education, and will continue tomorrow (Wednesday 20 June) with an event centred around women refugees. The event will feature not only a panel discussion but a special performance of a new composition by composer Sadie Harrison, set to a poem titled My Hazara People by Shukria Reazei, a young Afghan refugee and recent former pupil of Oxford Spires Academy secondary school.

It is the first product of a growing collaboration between the travelling, community-focused Orchestra of St John’s and the Oxford Spires poetry programme run by the poet Kate Clanchy.

The event is free and open to the public, and registration information can be found here

Co-organiser Dr Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey, a postdoctoral researcher in music at Somerville and Oxford’s Music Faculty, and associate conductor of the Orchestra of St John’s, said: ‘One of the aims of the Orchestra of St John’s “Displaced Voices” project is to amplify the voices of refugees by setting their words to music and creating opportunities for public performance. Setting a text to music does more than just create a venue for it to be heard: it adds a new dimension to the work – additional layers of meaning – by weaving in the perspectives of the composer and the performer.

‘Projects such as these that create and even magnify the constellations of cultural backgrounds and power relations between composer, poet, performers and audience members require conscientious navigation of the difficult space between collaboration and appropriation. Yet it is specifically these interstices that afford the possibilities for fruitful intercultural dialogue and warrant continued exploration.’

This week’s event will focus on the unique issues facing women refugees in this country. Chairing the panel discussion will be Baroness Royall, with contributions from Councillor Peymana Assad (Harrow Council), Fatou Ceesay (Refugee Resource, Oxford), Councillor Shaista Aziz (Oxford City Council), and Catherine Briddick (Law Faculty and Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford). A reception following the discussion and performance will feature food prepared by the women’s group at Refugee Resource, Oxford.

Catherine Briddick said: ‘Refugee women face legal and other barriers when they seek to access, receive and then benefit from international protection.

‘Asylum’s “proximity bias” – that it is only available to those who are able to leave their own state and enter one that provides protection – has meant that women have found it significantly harder than men to seek, never mind obtain, international protection. Less than one-third of protection-seekers in Europe, for example, are women, although this proportion is increasing.

‘When women do seek international protection they face ever more dangerous and illegal journeys, with women at particular and heightened risk of experiencing violence, including fatal violence.’

She added: ‘Once in the UK, women seeking protection must navigate a complex asylum system, often without having received appropriate advice and support. For example, a woman must explain why she fears persecution or harm in her country of origin but might not disclose an experience of gender-based violence if she is not given the proper opportunity to do so.

‘And the problems faced by refugee women do not end with recognition as a refugee or the granting of some other form of protection: issues and hardships include dependency on a husband’s asylum claim, separation from family members, and difficulty accessing language courses, as well as various types of prejudice.’

There will be one further panel discussion exploring the issues facing refugees held in the coming months, with the specific topic yet to be announced.

Wednesday’s panel discussion, reception and accompanying performance are supported by Somerville College, the Orchestra of St John’s and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH).

Australian War Memorial

An interdisciplinary seminar series considering the practices and politics of war commemoration over time has made its mark in Oxford this academic year.

The three-workshop series was organised by Dr Alice Kelly, a postdoctoral research fellow at Oxford’s Rothermere American Institute and Corpus Christi College, after she won a British Academy Rising Stars Engagement Award towards the project. Based on a course Dr Kelly initially devised for first-year undergraduates at Yale University, ‘Cultures and Commemorations of War’ has helped instigate an interdisciplinary dialogue about the history and nature of war commemoration across time, as well as its cultural, social, psychological and political aspects.

Dr Kelly said: ‘War scholars tend to work on just one war – for example, the First World War, the American Civil War or the Vietnam War. The aim of this series was to bring those academics – all working in different disciplines and at different stages, from early career researchers to advanced scholars – into conversation with one another, and into conversation with others outside the University working on war memory, including practitioners, policymakers, charities and representatives from the media and culture and heritage industries.’

The series, which featured four keynote lecturers, 27 speakers, and academic and public participants including veterans, was designed to have an intimate, thinktank-like atmosphere, where postgraduate students and early career researchers were able to play a major role. Dr Kelly said: ‘Being able to involve, train and champion postgraduate and early-career researchers has been one of the fundamental aims, and successes, of this series.’

Cultures and Commemorations of WarCultures and Commemorations of War workshop

The first workshop – ‘Why Remember? War and Memory Today’ – was held in November 2017 at the Rothermere American Institute and considered our current moment in war commemoration, drawing on the First World War centenary commemorations and the ongoing removal of confederate statues across the US. Keynote speaker was David Rieff, author of In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and its Ironies. Of the response from the audience, Dr Kelly said: ‘The conversation ranged from the complex politics of national remembrance to the commercialisation of 9/11 to the recovery of bodies of First World War soldiers at Fromelles. It was both academic and personal, scholarly and reflective.’

The second event, held in December 2017 at the Imperial War Museum and titled ‘Lest We Forget? Reconsidering First World War Memory’, focused on the case study of the Great War as a means of considering ‘live’ war commemoration. The event featured a keynote talk by the Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller, who devised the Somme centenary project We’re Here Because We’re Here, which took volunteers dressed as soldiers into railway stations, tube trains and other public spaces across the UK.

Cultures and Commemorations of WarCultures and Commemorations of War workshop

Dr Kelly, who has been on a Remarque Fellowship at New York University since January, came back early from the US to run the third event, held at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) in late May this year. This event – ‘Seeing War: War and Cultural Memory’ – featured a keynote talk by Professor Marita Sturken, author of Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero, which analysed the 9/11 and Flight 93 memorials. Closing with a contribution from a film historian, the day considered how different modes of seeing war shape cultural memory.

Dr Kelly added: ‘The way we remember war tells us about what our society values. The past few years have seen an explosion of commemorative activity at the local, national and international level, as well as calls to question our collective memory. Arguably there’s never been a more public culture of war memory, and memory wars, than this present historical moment. And this moment – for all of us interested in war memory – begs commentary, analysis and theorisation.’

All of the panels and keynote lectures have been podcasted and will be available soon on the website www.cultcommwar.com. The series is also on Twitter @cultcommwar. Dr Kelly is currently seeking funding to continue the series in the next academic year.