Women, leadership and mosques

Scholars and female Muslim preachers and leaders from Europe will meet in Oxford University to discuss the phenomenon of Islamic women rising through the ranks to hold important leadership roles in Muslim mosques and madrasas.

The event on March 9 at the Oxford Department of International Development marks the launch of a new book, Women, Leadership and Mosques: Changes in Contemporary Islamic Authority. The book features the case studies of women who have emerged as Muslim scholars, preachers and leaders. The women now operate within traditionally male-dominated positions of religious authority in Muslim-majority countries, as well as in Europe and the United States.

The publication sheds new light on why females are taking an active role and why they are drawn to the orthodox interpretation of Islam. It also explores the ideals of ‘empowerment’ that positions of leadership within mosques and madrasas provide to women.

The book is co-edited by two Oxford scholars: Dr Masooda Bano, from the Department of International Development, and Dr Hilary Kalmbach, the Sir Christopher Cox Junior Fellow at New College, Oxford. The launch of the book and Dr Bano’s research are supported by the Economic Social Research Council under the Global Uncertainties Programme. The programme, involving all seven UK research councils, aims to understand how ideas and beliefs interact with five global phenomena – conflict, crime, environmental degradation, poverty and terrorism – to cause global uncertainties.

Dr Bano has carried out field studies in Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria, looking at the role played by women in Muslim contexts. Dr Kalmbach’s research was completed while she was a Fulbright Fellow and focuses on Islamic leadership, authority, and education, and includes a profile of a female mosques instructor from Damascus, Syria.

Dr Bano said: 'Since the 1970s there has been a dramatic rise in the number of female madrasas across Muslim countries worldwide. They mostly promote a conservative interpretation of Islamic texts which runs counter to western liberal values on gender. This book attempts to answer questions about why the traditional interpretation of Islam speaks to Muslim women across all social classes.

'Research tells us Islam is widely perceived as a means of protecting traditional values against the seemingly inexorable rise of western modernity. The opening up of this formal sphere of Islamic authority to female leaders indicates important shifts within the working of Islamic authority.

'Next-generation preachers are now the wives, daughters, and the relatives of male preachers, who have become significant agents of Islam. We study the potential implications these female preachers and leaders have for the future shaping of Islamic authority and the social and economic picture in Muslim communities.'

Dr Kalmbach said: 'Recent increases in the ability of women to publicly speak for Islam as preachers, teachers, and interpreters of Islamic texts represent a significant shift in Islamic leadership and authority. This volume is the first to bring together analysis of female Islamic leaders active in communities spread across the globe. It also is unique in so far as it discusses the full range of women active as religious leaders, from leaders who are striving to radically change Islamic gender norms, to women who have gained places as teachers in the oldest, most influential, and most conservative of Islamic religious institutions.

'It has the potential not only to spread awareness of female Islamic leadership, but also to open up new and innovative lines of inquiry for future research on women in Islam.'

Other speakers at the ESRC-sponsored event include Dr Maria Jaschok, Director of the International Gender Studies Centre at Oxford University, who is has carried out research into the significant number of women who are Muslim religious leaders in rural and provincial parts of China. The event is sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council.