Author Interview: Professor Elora Shehabuddin speaks about her award-winning book, "Sisters in the Mirror"

June 8, 2023

Elora Shehabuddin, Professor of Gender & Women's Studies and Global Studies, speaks on her award-winning book, Sisters in the Mirror: A History of Muslim Women and the Global Politics of Feminism.

In this interview, Elora shares the inspiration for her book, as well as the questions that guided her when writing Sisters in the Mirror. Taking both a historical and transnational approach, Elora analyzes the feminist movements that have emerged from Anglo-American West and Muslim South Asia. Elora also reflects on her introduction to gender and women's studies and how it shaped her perspective and scholarly endeavors. 

Who gets to speak for Muslim women? Who gets authorized to speak, allowed to speak—and why?
Elora Shehabuddin, Professor of Gender & Women's Studies and Global Studies

What inspired you to write Sisters in the Mirror, and what are the key messages you hope to convey to your readers? 

I first started thinking about this project, in the form of conference papers here and there, in the years just after 9/11 and the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. There was, at the time, a great deal of attention on the “plight” of Muslim women, who were depicted as being oppressed—and oppressed by Islam specifically. 

Several Muslim and famously ex-Muslim writers emerged right then, very eager to speak out against misogyny in the Muslim world and curiously enough, only the Muslim world. They were quickly embraced and celebrated by the mainstream media and prominent publishers in the U.S. as the real feminists of Islam. What was interesting was that, almost without exception, each and every one of these writers combined their calls for reform in Muslim communities with warm, even vigorous support for the U.S. government’s domestic and foreign policies at the time—in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, and also against Muslims within the U.S. And these were policies that were actively harming Muslim men and women in these places.

Many colleagues in the field of women’s and gender studies responded quickly. They challenged these popular writers’ claims to be the spokespersons for Muslim women globally. They also, of course, challenged the newly energized trope of the oppressed Muslim woman.

It was in this context that I found myself thinking about a couple of questions: 

First, how, historically, have Muslim writers, reformers, and activists pointed out the very real problems in their communities without colluding with larger political forces that were claiming to save or civilize their societies, without giving fodder to anti-Muslim rhetoric? I was also curious to know whether Muslim women had always been seen as meek and oppressed.

And a second, very much related, question was: who gets to speak for Muslim women? Who gets authorized to speak, allowed to speak—and why? 

I decided to jump in with my own interventions, one that was historical as well as transnational. A longer historical approach, I believed, would help me see how Western ideas about Muslim women had changed over the centuries; second, I wanted to explore, at the same time, not only how the West had represented Muslim women but also Muslim women’s and men’s ideas about Western society and about Western women, and I wanted to do this while paying careful attention to changing power disparities between the “West” and the Muslim world; third, I wanted to write about the Muslim world from the vantage point of South Asia; and finally, I wanted to write very self-consciously in a way that would make it attractive to non-academic readers. 

In Sisters in the Mirror, I argue that feminist movements in the Anglo-American West (that is, in Britain and the United States) and in Muslim South Asia have developed in tandem rather than in isolation—and indeed helped to construct one another. I try to show how Western ideas about Muslim women have long shaped the history of Western feminism and how these same ideas, combined with Western political and economic power and Muslims’ ideas about Western men and women, have also influenced feminist ideas and activism in Muslim societies. This book, then, traces the entangled histories of representations of Muslim and Western women since the sixteenth century and the intertwined histories of movements for women’s rights in the West and the Muslim world since the late eighteenth century. I end the book in the early twenty-first century, which has seen increased Western political, social, economic, and military presence in the lands where Muslims have historically lived, but also a growing Muslim presence in Europe and North America that blurs the very distinction between so-called “Muslim” and “Western” contexts. (And of course, I use such terms as “West,” “Western,” and “Muslim” for convenience and not because I see the West and the Muslim world as distinct, unchanging, monolithic entities engaged in a pre-ordained civilizational clash. Nor do I wish to suggest that the Muslim world is more religious than is the West.)

In the book, I traced this long and entangled history primarily through accounts of encounters between Bengali and English and, later, US men and women. By starting the story before the period of formal British colonialism in South Asia, I was able to pay attention to a time that was marked by power relations between the British and South Asian Muslims that were very different to what would emerge in the late 18th century. Across this time, the British went from being supplicants in the courts of the Mughal emperor and other South Asian rulers, hoping to get permission to trade, to set up factories, etc. to becoming colonial overlords. By bringing these different contexts—Britain, Bengal, and, after the mid-20th century, the United States, and to some extent, the Middle East—into one transnational analytical frame, my goal was to show how and why ideas and efforts to improve women’s lives in even these geographically distant parts of the world have long been interconnected and interdependent.

Sisters in the Mirror shows not only that Muslim women, like other women around the world, have been engaged in their own struggles for generations, but that they have done so as individuals with a variety of personal, familial, professional, national, and international concerns that are often connected to but also extend beyond their religious identity and religious practices.
Elora Shehabuddin

Book cover for Sisters in the MirrorSisters in the Mirror shows not only that Muslim women, like other women around the world, have been engaged in their own struggles for generations, but that they have done so as individuals with a variety of personal, familial, professional, national, and international concerns that are often connected to but also extend beyond their religious identity and religious practices. In trying to be very conscious about situating or enmeshing the South Asian Muslim women in their immediate contexts, I have discussed, whenever possible, the men in their families and communities who supported their efforts—a father, a brother, a magazine editor, for example. This allows me to complicate that other trope that always accompanies that of the oppressed Muslim woman—the oppressive Muslim man. I talk also about men and women from other communities—mainly Hindu and Brahmo—with whom Muslims interacted in Bengal and alongside whom they formulated their visions for change. This is because, of course, Muslim women and men did not and do not operate in a vacuum—they lived and continue to live in multireligious communities. 

Moving up from the local and personal level, we know that Muslim women and men have engaged in these struggles as members of societies that have been deeply enmeshed in global relationships. For the most part, in the last couple of centuries, the societies in which Muslims have historically lived have been at the weaker end of disparities of wealth and power, of processes of colonization as well as policies of war, structural adjustment, economic sanctions, occupation, and Western feminist outreach. 

Throughout the book, I interweave stories of conflict—of orientalism, condescension, colonialism, and racism—with stories of encounters that led both South Asian and Anglo-American writers to pause and reconsider norms in their own society, especially, cherished ideas about women’s roles and rights, much as one might discover imperfections when studying oneself in a mirror. Hence the title of the book! I’ve tried to show different kinds of Muslim feminists as well as different kinds of Western feminists, some who were more open than others to revisiting what they saw at established wisdom.

To bring these different histories together, I have had to draw on theoretical approaches, methodologies, and research that have generally not been put in dialogue across boundaries of disciplines, historical periods, and area studies. I drew heavily, for example, on the theoretical frameworks of early modern, colonial, postcolonial, and transnational feminist studies, especially critical analyses of gender, empire, and travel, and the rich histories, ethnographies, and literary studies of and across South and West Asia, Europe, and the United States. 

I hope the stories of struggle for women’s rights across the pages of this book will make clear that no society has a monopoly on ideas about gender equality or justice and fairness, more generally, or on violence and aggression, for that matter; that struggles to improve women’s lives have not been easy anywhere; that our histories and futures are connected and interdependent; and an awareness of this long and entangled history should lead us beyond both self-congratulation and despair. It is through struggles rooted in solidarity, understanding, and shared knowledge that we can strive most effectively for a more just world. 

What led you to pursue a career in gender and women’s studies, and what drives your passion for teaching and research in this field?

I have no formal certification in gender and women’s studies, at either the undergraduate or graduate level. But I very clearly remember how it all “clicked” for me during my junior year in college when I was taking a class called something like “Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective” taught by anthropologist Pauline Peters, a class called “International Political Economy of Gender” taught by economist Juliet Schor, and also volunteering at a nearby shelter for survivors of domestic violence. I ended up writing my senior thesis on the efforts of the pioneering microcredit organization Grameen Bank, which would win the Nobel Prize in 2006), to help impoverished rural women in Bangladesh. I was strongly advised to pick a “traditional discipline” for graduate school so chose politics because I was and remain interested in the fundamental questions of politics and activism. 

Although I never took an Introduction to Gender and Women’s Studies class myself, I’ve taught such courses many times over the years, both in my first job at UC Irvine and then at Rice University, where I spent many happy years before moving to Berkeley last summer. In both introductory and upper-division classes, I love watching the students draw all kinds of connections between what they know of their own lives and what they see in the larger world, even though they usually leave such classes with more questions than answers. The scholarly discipline of gender and women’s studies is constantly changing, becoming more inclusive, more thoughtful, more worldly—and that makes it exciting for me as a teacher and a scholar. Because the classes are, ultimately, so connected to real issues and movements in the real world, the gender and women’s studies classroom becomes a very special place where, through class discussions, students learn from one another and I from them. 

As a scholar, gender and women’s studies gives me the freedom to be a “methodological opportunist” (to quote political scientist Adam Przeworski)—we tend to use whatever methods are needed to best answer the research questions that interest us. For example, my earlier book Reshaping the Holy relied primarily on ethnographic research, while Sisters in the Mirror is almost entirely based on archival and textual analysis. 

It is through struggles rooted in solidarity, understanding, and shared knowledge that we can strive most effectively for a more just world.
Elora Shehabuddin

What role do you see Muslim women playing in shaping the future of feminist movements and political activism, both within Muslim-majority countries and globally?

On the one hand, Muslim women around the world are fighting for and against the same issues as non-Muslim women, from the double burden of paid work outside the home and care and reproductive work within the home, to discriminatory practices in the workplace, discriminatory laws, domestic violence, sexual harassment, etc. On the other hand, Muslim women also have to deal with rampant anti-Muslim racism and Islamophobia. 

Various studies, including a 2020 survey by the Othering & Belonging Institute here at Berkeley, have found that Muslim women are disproportionately affected by Islamophobia. Their visibility—if they wear the hijab—makes them easy targets for physical assaults and harassment. But women also occupy a special and prominent place in Islamophobic discourse. They are seen as meek, oppressed, and in need of rescuing from the misogyny of Islam, but also as agents of uncontrollable fertility and thus responsible for the supposed demographic crisis in places like India, Kashmir, Israel, and Europe. In this discourse, the Muslim woman, no matter what her particular geographic location, has long been seen as the mirror opposite of the white, non-Muslim woman, though a historical perspective, such as that in my book, shows us that the way she’s different and the significance of that difference has varied over time. Since the late twentieth century, in any case, the white non-Muslim woman has been presented as enjoying a wide range of sexual and social freedoms—we generally hear less about economic rights in these discussions—that are supposedly denied Muslim women. Women, gender, and sexuality also figure into simplistic rants about the place of LGBTQ issues within Islam. 

Muslim women, in both Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority contexts, have, of course repeatedly organized to fight both Islamophobia and problematic practices and interpretations within their communities. However, they have also found themselves faced with charges of Islamophobia, of being agents of western powers for raising very real issues, and of giving fodder to Islamophobic discourse about the oppression of Muslim women. And again, there are parallels in the experiences of Muslim LGBTQ activists.

Are you currently working on any other projects?

My new book project traces the history of women’s activism in East Pakistan/Bangladesh and examines the nature of local, national, and transnational activism for women’s rights; how activists have negotiated their identities—as Bengali, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Third World, secular, religious, and Muslim—at different moments; and how transnational interactions and international interventions have shaped their priorities. This project emerges out of the research I did for Sisters in the Mirror but will look at the post-1947 period in much greater depth. I’ve already published a couple of articles on this and hope to be able make some progress this summer. 

I’ve also long been involved as an associate editor for both the Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures and the Journal of Bangladesh Studies. Those projects keep me busy in a different way from my own research but I always learn so much from other people’s submissions to both. 

What’s currently on your bookshelf or nightstand? (What are you reading for strictly pleasure?)

I’m halfway through Tolstoy’s War and Peace on Audiblebrilliantly narrated by Thandi Newton. On my bedstand is California: An American History, by John Mack Faragher, that I’ve started as part of my effort to better understand my new environment.