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International scholars discuss gender, Islam and Judaism at conference

Perhaps the most shocking thing about "Gendered Intersections," the conference on gender, Islam and Judaism held at Dartmouth in August, was the fact that it was the first of its kind. The conference was organized by Susannah Heschel, Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies, with funding from the Ford Foundation. Topics included feminist views of Zionism and Diaspora, redefining religion and law, modernity, subjectivity, violence and Muslim-Jewish dialogue.

Susannah Heschel
Susannah Heschel

Afasaneh Najmabadi, a Harvard University Professor of History and of Women's Studies, said, "Prior to this, all my interactions with feminists and religionists had been on a one-to-one basis." Najmabadi credited Heschel with organizing an event in which many of the participants were able to interact face-to-face.

The conference included more than 30 participants in three plenary sessions, numerous concurrent sessions and working lunches. Heschel explained that for a conference of this size, it would have been impractical to have attendees deliver finished papers. Instead, they focused on getting to know one another, discussing issues important to all of the disciplines and getting feedback on current work. For example, said Elora Shehabuddin, Professor of Humanities and Political Science at Rice University who focuses on gender, politics and Islam, "we discussed the concept of modesty, which we often hear about in terms of [Muslim] veiling, but some of the Jewish scholars also talked about modesty and...how it's defined."

The conference illustrated, said Heschel, "that scholars from the Islamic tradition, even secular scholars, are very bound up in religious texts, whereas feminists in the Jewish and Christian traditions don't rely on religious texts as much. This teaches us that we do need to be more attentive to the role of religion."

Although the presence of the Middle East academics focused much of the conference on current political strife, the subject of American academic politics surfaced as well. Discussions emerged about the recent Columbia University controversy in which students accused several Middle East studies professors of anti-Semitism, and also a proposed "Academic Bill of Rights" that would require universities to consider political balance when making tenure and curriculum decisions, among other issues.

Beyond particular issues however, participants seemed almost overjoyed by the opportunity for collaboration and communication. Shehabuddin pointed out that one impediment to such gatherings is the fact that many Israeli academics are boycotting Arab institutions of higher learning and vice versa. It was for this reason, said Lisa Pollard, Professor of History at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, that "the biggest breakthroughs were personal, not professional. What was important was co-existing, waking up together in the morning and saying incredibly difficult things in a safe space."

By GENEVIEVE HAAS

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Last Updated: 5/30/08