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In Defense of Dr. Samar Habib

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Editor’s Note: A few Fridays ago, we published a link about the uproar over an Islamic studies course, entitled Women in Arabic and Islamic Literature, taught by Dr. Samar Habib at the University of Western Sydney in Australia.

We at MMW believe that knowledge is power (yes, clichés and all), and institutions of higher learning have a duty to provide students with as much information as possible, as well as with tools to build critical thinking and decision-making skills. It's up to the students to decide what they believe past this point.

Not only does this sound like an awesome class, but one that is necessary. Muslim women's voices are notably absent from large parts of Islamic history and literature; it's important to encourage and highlight these women because they speak of half a population's experience. Our history holds a lot of great female thinkers, writers, and political figures, and their contributions shouldn't be ignored or belittled, but taught alongside the contributions that Muslim men have made to our history.

Muslim groups, including the Australian National Imams Council and Muslims for Peace, have attacked both the university and Dr. Habib herself, accusing the class of "promoting lesbianism" and "[giving] a negative view of women in Islam". Several stories such as the one above have been published in the Australian press. We have been unable to find a press release from the university or from Dr. Habib. However, there has been plenty of negative press from the class’s opponents, notably by a group called Muslims for Peace (not to be confused with the U.S.-based group of the same name). Ironic, huh?

Anyway, because the entirety of the press surrounding this issue has been negative, we felt it important to air this email we received in support of Dr. Habib and her class. This email is from a former student who has given her permission for us to publish her voice.

"Assalamu Alaikum,

I would like to point you to this article:,25197,23637358-5013404,00.html

There are many articles just like this one circulating the Australian Media, and it enrages me.

I took this class: Women in Arabic and Islamic Literature with [Dr.] Samar Habib, and it is one of the best classes I have ever taken.

I am Muslim and I must say that there is no foundation to these accusations.

We studied many different types of Literature, 3 of those were I Am You by Elham Mansour, Nafzawi's Perfumed Garden (I loved it actually), and various Bukhari Ahadith pertaining mostly to Aisha.

I absolutely loved the course. [Dr.] Samar Habib did not ever push anti-Islamic sentiment down anyone's throat. She was educated and well-knowledgeable and held a feminist's view that I admire. The fact that she said that women are oppressed in Islam is not incorrect. It is true, but not because of Islam, rather it is because of a patriarchal society that likes the idea that men have the power when it comes to translation and transliteration of Islamic text.

We also studied the Qur'an as it relates to hijab. We (the class) all agreed that the Qur'an does not specifically say that believing women must cover their heads. But it is implied and it comes down to personal choice whether to hijab or not to hijab. The one point always made though was that there is more to Islam than hijab. We all have other obligations. It seems that the 5 pillars of Islam are forgotten over issues like to shake hands or not to shake hands and hijab.

Anyway, I would just like to know your views. I have written to countless newspapers about my experience in the class, but of course I have been ignored.

I also want to add that there were many non-Muslim students who walked away from the class with a better understanding of Islam. Many of them realised that Islam is not a religion where women are seen as inferior. History, and the action of certain Muslims, have obscured the 'real' Islam. They were able to hear many different points of view; especially from those who actually took the class.

The course was also not entirely about Islam. As the name of the course suggests, it was also about women in Arabic literature. That was the reason for reading novels like I Am You; which has absolutely nothing to do with Islam, but rather homosexuality in Beirut: a secular Arabic culture.

Houda H."

If any of you can find other links or discussions, please feel free to post them in the comments.

Posted by Zeynab at 12:00 AM

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