In this blog post, our PhD student Sofia Rehman writes about her recent experience of public engagement and impact work with the Muslim Women’s Council in Bradford.
By Sofia Rehman
Shortly after starting my PhD programme, I was invited by the School of Philosophy, Religion, and History of Science, to submit an application for the Postgraduate Impact Fellowship scheme. The award provides successful applicants with a bursary of up to £200 to engage in work that takes their research directly into communities outside of academia, and which could potentially allow for new partnerships to form between non-academic groups and PRHS. I swiftly responded and before long received the great news that my application had been selected. Previously I had been in touch with the Muslim Women’s Council, a Bradford based grass-roots women’s organisation. I was involved in the Council’s year-long research project probing the issue of head-coverings, from Muslim, Jewish and Christian perspectives. The project pulled together 5 women from each of the faith traditions to participate in group discussions as well as one-to-one interviews. The project culminated in the publication of the book, Shared Heritage of Daughters of Eve. Headcoverings – Reflections from Women of Faith (2016) The book launch took place in front of a full house at the National Media Museum in Bradford. Having been involved in such a successful project, and seen firsthand the enthusiasm of the MWC to bring new perspectives and empowering narratives of faith to the local community of Muslim women, I was encouraged, and gladly agreed, to setting up a critical reading group for the MWC base in Bradford. Following a discussion on practical aspects involved with a reading group with MWC Director, Bana Gora, and other Council members, we eventually settled on the idea of running a three-part seminar series on A’isha, which would draw directly from my research and therefore focus on her intellectual contribution to Islam, and also sessions on the lives of the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, Fatima, and his grand-daughter, Sakeenah. A’isha is well known as the most beloved wife of the Prophet Muhammad, and is a central figure in Sunni Islam, honoured with the title Mother of the Believers, and accepted as a paragon of female Muslim piety, and a source for Islamic knowledge.
The three sessions were a huge success, with a great deal of positive feedback from those in attendance. There was an impressive turnout of about 50 women per session. The standout session was undoubtedly the one on A’isha, in which I introduced the audience to the work of Imam Badr al-Din al-Zarkashi, whose 12th Century text on A’isha I am busy translating for my PhD and framing as part of a feminist critique of Hadith science. The highlight of the sessions was without doubt the small group discussions where I presented Prophetic traditions that are each problematic for their ostensible misogyny. I asked each group to discuss whether or not they had come across these traditions previously, and if they had, how had they understood them and how had they incorporated them into their own belief system. It was both fascinating and inspiring to see how the women responded. After a tentative start in which some women expressed concerns about being overly critical of statements which were clearly problematic, the group soon found their confidence and voices, especially after I presented them with A’isha’s own views on the same traditions in which she outright rejected that they could have be uttered by the Prophet Muhammad. Using A’isha’s voice, I was able to empower the women to engage confidently and critically with the traditions, and to think about how they may have been mis-transmitted. The whole experience was not only fulfilling and engaging for all involved, it served as a bridge building opportunity between the academy and a grassroots organisation working in the heart of Bradford’s Muslim community; this was in many ways an early fulfilment of what I have always wanted my work to be.
The three sessions led to a full day seminar on Islam and Feminism, run again by the MWC. I was subsequently invited to join their Board of Advisors, and the MWC is now also in touch with staff members in the CRPL. Thus, this has not only been a rewarding experience for me personally and for my research, but has also greatly contributed to the Centre and its impact and engagement activities.
Sofia Rehman is a second year PhD candidate with joint supervision in Theology and Religious Studies (Rachel Muers) and Arabic, Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies (Tajul Islam). She is also currently involved in an upcoming anthology with Unbound entitled, Cut from the Same Cloth.