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Beyond the Exotic
Women's Histories in Islamic Societies

Edited by Amira El-Azhary Sonbol

Paper $45.00s    |    0-8156-3055-7    |   2005

Presents new challenges and new theories that unlock the history and life of women in the Islamic world.

"Although the essays compiled in the recent anthology Beyond the Exotic: Women’s Histories in Islamic Society do not all concern the early modern period, the text seems an appropriate one to review on this website because of many of its critical, methodological, and theoretical choices, along with the light that several essays—most notably those by Denise A. Spellberg, Bernard Heyberger, Fariba Zarinebaf, Randi Deguilhem, Nelly Hanna, Madeline Zilfi, Judith E. Tucker, Howayda al-Harithy, and Diane Apostolos-Cappadona—shed on issues relevant for the study of gendered modes of authority in the early modern world."
review continued below...

This volume introduces new sources for the study of the past and present life of Muslim women that challenge paradigms about the ways in which "they" have been studied in the past. Most research has treated stereotypical images of Muslim women's outward manifestations, such as veiling, as passive and oppressivedashwomen were depicted as different. Exoticizing (orientalizing) Muslim womendashor Islamic society in generaldashhas meant that "they" are dealt with outside of general women's history and thus have little to contribute to the writing of world history or to the life of their sisters worldwide. By approaching widely used sources with different questions and methodologies, and by using new or little-used research (with much primary research), this book redresses these deficiencies. Amira El-Azhary Sonbol and the contributors deconstruct the past and offer fresh new perspectives. Authors revisit and reevaluate scripture and scriptural interpretation; church records involving non-Muslim women of the Arab world; archival court records dating from the present back to the Ottoman period; and the oral and material culture and its written record, including art and architecture, oral history, textbooks, sufi practices, and the politics of dress.

View other books in this series

Amira El-Azhary Sonbol is associate professor of Islamic history, law, and society at Georgetown University. She is author of Women of Jordan: Islam, Labor, and the Law; The New Mamluks: Egyptian Society and Modern Feudalism; and The Creation of the Medical Profession in Egypt, 1800-1922, and editor of Women, the Family, and Divorce Laws in Islamic History, each published by Syracuse University Press.

7 x 10, 520 pages

Review continued... "Although the anthology at a few points seems to indicate that scholarship on early modern culture in general is logocentric, recent work by scholars like Heidi Brayman Hackel, Victoria Burke, Margaret J. M. Ezell, Susan Frye, Lena Cowen Orlin, and Heather Wolfe (among many others) have recently opened up the study of early modern culture to engage household manuscript writings, needlework, and other aspects of domestic life in lively dialogues with more "literary" productions. There are many synchronicities between the approaches scholars have taken to explore women’s presence in daily life in early modern British culture (and in Western culture more broadly) and the approaches detailed in the studies comprising this anthology. Apostolos-Cappadona’s breathtaking analysis of the iconological presence of women in Islamic art provokes the same sorts of questions that Sara Pennell’s recent work on early modern Englishwomen’s receipt books and Burke’s study of middle class reading practices have drawn attention to. Pennell, Burke, and Apostolos-Cappadona all showcase—from different vantage points and with a range of contextual variables in place—ways in which women’s presence should not simply be read in the traces left by upper class women. Rather, we must sort through remnants of everyday life so that we can access a wider range of female experiences.

[I would suggest that a turn toward the folk art traditions, or "low art," will open new paths of exploration, especially with regard to the more general, or perhaps better said popular, cultural and religious attitudes toward women and women’s societal roles, religious attitudes, and religion and rituals.—Diane Apostolos-Cappadona]

The similar theoretical apparatuses laid into place in this anthology and in studies of early modern Western women, along with some shared interest in recovering non-page mediums (needlework, architecture, art), makes it tempting to imagine a sustained and continuous version of early modern women’s history. Indeed, Orlin’s studies of women and the law in early modern England posit many of the same questions and answers about female agency that arise in Judith E. Tucker and Elyse Semerdjian’s groundbreaking studies. To do so, however, is to flatten many of the tremendous underlying cultural differences that span vast expanses of land and time. As Amira el-Azhary Sonbol points out in her introduction to Beyond the Exotic, it is paramount to place Islamic women’s histories inside a general trajectory of women’s history without losing a clear sense of the specific material, cultural, and ideological features that made their lives unique.

Bearing in mind these convergences, it is important to recognize that Arabic women’s history hinges on operational systems—and fundamental vocabulary differences—that make it a bit difficult for a reader unfamiliar with terms like fatwa (a nonbinding advisory legal opinion), awqaf (religious endowments), and shari'a (Islamic law) to approach the studies collected here. Fortunately, the editor has provided a glossary of Arabic terms that appear in the essays. Particularly for readers unfamiliar with terminology concerning Islamic legal codes, this glossary is an indispensable compendium to the book. The anthology thus seems as appropriate for scholars of Western women’s writing as for specialists in the Islamic world, which means that it should play a pivotal role in the growing trend toward interdisciplinary and cross-cultural approaches to early modern women endorsed by scholars like Ann Rosalind Jones and encouraged by the Renaissance Studies Association and the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women, in jouranls such as Early Modern Women: An Interdisciplinary Journal, and by web projects including Other Women’s Voices (translations of pre-1700 women’s writing).

The sources of information about women’s histories in the Islamic world that have been excavated and analyzed in this anthology include scripture, church records, archival records, oral culture, and material culture. By moving beyond male-penned biographical dictionaries and other written records and looking at women as they appear in literature, court records, and other documents (both on and beyond the page), readers can uncover a history of women that is far from passive, submissive, or subservient. The accomplishments of women--from patronizing the building of monuments and academic institutions to producing fabrics to be used in a home--involve degrees of authority and creativity that scholars are only beginning to incorporate into their views of women’s lives and their presence in early modern culture.

Although many important questions regarding slave women remain unanswered, the court archives open the door to our understanding of this subject, not simply as a phenomenon prevalent in Islamic societies for a number of centuries but in a dynamic way that puts slave women in a specific context...The whole question of slavery can, consequently, be studied in historical rather than legal or theoretical terms. —Nelly Hanna

Of great importance for scholars of early modern women’s history in general are Heyberger’s analysis of the networks of female reading communities that emerged in convents in Aleppo and Lebanon from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, Hanna and Zilfi’s remarkable explorations of documentary evidence concerning women and slavery in the Ottoman Era, and Semerdjian’s study of gender violence during the sixteenth century. Each of these essays re-embeds women’s lives into history after uncovering, clarifying, and theorizing some heretofore unstudied features of women’s cultural experiences and ideological framework.

Even the essays in this anthology that do not directly approach early modern Islamic society are keenly observed, theoretically challenging, and consistently inventive, persuasive, and controversial all at once. Like Sonbol’s introduction, which concludes with her hope that "the articles introduce new sources for the study of the past and present lives of women living in Muslim society" in order to "raise new questions" and "challenge paradigms about the way Muslim women have been studied in the past," many of the essays situate themselves as calls to action. The scholars seems self conscious of their role in providing new ways of looking at women’s histories, which means that the anthology has an almost polemical tone which will hopefully invite more scholars to examine (and reexamine) women in early modern Muslim societies with an expanded awareness of possible source materials, theoretical apparatuses, and contextual variables than have been enlisted before. With their keenly observed and tirelessly documented considerations of the cultural, material, political, and ideological apparatuses that shaped--and recorded--women’s histories in Islamic society. For scholars interested in women’s experiences in the Islamic world (past and present) as well as for individuals interested in cross-cultural variations on early modern women’s lives and stories, this anthology will become an essential resource. Hopefully the studies comprising this anthology will engender scholarship that acknowledges the complexity, variety, and nonsequentiality of early modern women’s histories in the East and the West."
dash Emily Smith
From the Woman Writers Archive at www.oldroads.org

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