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ASU prof explores feminism, Islam and politics in new book

August 13, 2019

“Islam” and “feminism” are two words most people in Western society wouldn’t usually associate with one another. But recent developments in the historically conservative Persian Gulf region, and in Kuwait in particular, suggest that may be changing.

In 2005, Kuwait, a country that is more than 90% Muslim, passed laws granting women both the right to vote and the right to run in elections. In her new book, “Perspectives of Five Kuwaiti Women in Leadership Roles: Feminism, Islam, and Politics,” ASU Professor and Founding Chair of the Council for Arabic and Islamic Studies Souad T. Ali reveals how these and other advancements have affected them on an individual and societal level.

A native of Sudan who became a naturalized U.S. citizen after the 1989 Sudanese coup d'état replaced her original home country’s newly elected democratic government with a totalitarian regime, AliIn addition to serving as the Founding Chair of the Council for Arabic and Islamic Studies, Ali serves as faculty head of classics and Middle Eastern letters and cultures; associate professor of Middle Eastern studies, Arabic literature and Islamic studies; and is an affiliate faculty for women and gender studies. was inspired to write “Perspectives” during her 2009–2010 Faculty Fulbright Fellowship at the American University of Kuwait.

“I admire the fact that Kuwaiti women are very outspoken,” Ali said. “They're very interested in improving their society and they don't fear speaking out against what they see as oppressive aspects of their society.”

front cover of ASU Professor Souad T. Ali's book "Perspectives of Five Kuwaiti Women in Leadership Roles" 

Based on ethnographic research and in-depth interviews with five women, Ali’s new book discusses these women’s work in diverse leadership roles. They include Rola Dashti, a leading Kuwaiti economist, politician and human rights activist who was among the first four women elected to the Kuwaiti parliament; Sheikha Hussah Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah, a patron of Islamic art and museums; Sara Akbar, an oil industry engineer leader and co-founder of Kuwait Energy; Sheikha Dana Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, founder of the American University of Kuwait and an established businesswoman; and Safa al-Hashem, a powerful Kuwaiti politician and entrepreneur who is currently the only elected female member of the Kuwaiti parliament.

Ali, who serves as head of Middle Eastern and classics studies, and coordinator of Arabic studies, turned down an offer from Princeton in order to build ASU’s Arabic studies program from the ground up. Since joining ASU in 2004, she has established three concentrations, including a certificate in Arabic studies, the Arabic studies minor and most recently the Arabic studies bachelor’s degree concentration.

She also is the author of more than 25 articles and three booksIn addition to “Perspectives of Five Kuwaiti Women in Leadership Roles: Feminism, Islam, and Politics,” Ali is the author of “A Religion, Not A State: Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq’s Islamic Justification of Political Secularism,” (University of Utah Press 2009), and the edited volume “The Road to Two Sudans,” (Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2014), including “Perspectives,” and she has participated in more than 100 scholarly presentations and academic conferences in her fields of Middle Eastern studies and Islamic studies. Her forthcoming book, an edited volumeTitled “Retrieving Subjugated Voices: the Marginalized, Colonized, and Out of Place.” with colleague Emily Silverman will explore subjugated voices in religion.

Ali has been active nationally and internationally representing ASU as president of the American Academy of Religion/Western Region branch; as president of the Sudan Studies Association of North America; as a Fulbright Scholar in Kuwait and the Persian Gulf; and as a State Department’s speaker and specialist in Senegal on issues including Islam and democracy, Sufism and religious freedom.

ASU Now sat down with Ali to talk about her new book and how Islam and feminism aren’t as disparate as you might have thought.  

Question: How does the feminist movement in Kuwait compare to other countries in the Persian Gulf region?

Answer: From my perspective, the issue of women’s rights is just one issue. But there are many brands of feminism, given the fact that women come from different cultures and have different backgrounds and different histories. Kuwaiti women have a marginal freedom within their government, which is a parliament. There isn't any other parliamentary government anywhere else in the Gulf region. I discuss feminism in Islam in much detail in the last chapter of my book, highlighting the fact that it emphasizes the inclusion of Muslim women in the religious sphere, with no conflict with their call for their political rights or their active participation in public life. There have been several Muslim women elected as prime ministers in their countries, for example.

Q: What are some of the issues you discussed with the women in your book?

A: The book discusses multiple issues addressed by these women in their leadership roles. These include women’s rights, the issue of reform, political change, equality, gender segregation, veiling, etc., and how these women view feminism and their similar or different perspectives therein. This of course includes the issue of interpretation in Islam that affects how people view issues such as veiling and whether or not it is required by the religion, the need to respect difference in interpretation as much as it does not infringe on others’ perspectives and freedom of expression, and most importantly, respecting women’s agency.

Q: What accounts for the lack of understanding of Muslim women’s rights?

A: I would say the majority, or at least 50% of Muslim women, don't know their rights, if they don't read the Qur'an directly. Many of them depend on the male interpretation. And the Qur'an, for the past 14 centuries, has been interpreted by men projecting male perspectives to the exclusion of women’s voices. Only recently has it begun to be interpreted by women. I have been teaching a very popular class at ASU since 2007 titled Qur’an Text and Women. Among the texts we read are “Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective,” by Amina Wadud; “'Believing Women’ in Islam: Un-reading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an,” by Asma Barlas; and “Woman's Identity and the Qur'an: A New Reading,” by Nimat Hafez Barazangi, among others. These women are among the first Muslim American women to interpret the Qur’an. There were some earlier female interpretations of the Qur’an in the region. However, those were seen by many as appeasing to the male interpretation.

Q: Are there aspects of feminism in Islam?

A: Yes, except they didn't call it feminism at that time. My research on “a focus on the egalitarian message of the Qur’an” can help answer this question. I discuss the issue of feminism in Islam in detail in the last chapter. Further, feminism is not a monolithic concept and can differ based on women’s history, background and culture, as I and several other scholars — including Barbara Christian — argued. Based on historical records, several aspects of Islam, in their correct interpretation, speak to women’s rights, despite other controversial aspects. In her book, “Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate,” Dr. Leila Ahmed, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, argues that the prophet Muhammad’s wife Aisha contributed 2,210 HadithA collection of traditions containing sayings of the prophet Muhammad which constitute the major source of guidance for Muslims apart from the Qur’an. narratives. The Hadith is the second source of Islamic law, next to the Qur’an. She maintains that women in seventh century Arabia were sought out by the prophet’s companions and included their testimonies into the Hadith. At the society level, the prophet’s marriage story with his first wife Khadija, who was 15 years his senior and a very wealthy merchant, could be interpreted and seen through the prism of those egalitarian aspects. At first, she employed him because she perceived him to be an honest person, then she proposed to marry him. This was in the seventh century, and at that point, the pre-Islamic society was very misogynistic. They remained married within a monogamous situation for 25 years until her death. She was also the first person to embrace religion of Islam.

Q: Why is this something everyone around the world should care about?

A: The fact that there are so many misconceptions about women and women’s rights in Islam. The book gives readers the opportunity to see facts that have been distorted. For example, Muslims in general, but especially Muslim women, are perceived to be oppressed by their religion, which is a fallacy. They are oppressed by their society, by tradition, by governments and politics. Several of these oppressive measures are in fact criticized in the Qur’an itself, such as female infanticide — used as basis for the so-called “honor-killing” in some countries. Polygamy, that had existed before the advent of religion and had existed in all monotheistic religions, including Islam that inherited it, is very much discouraged in the Qur’an with clear verses within the context of a fair interpretation. Although there are other controversial aspects of Islam that we continue addressing as scholars, Muslim feminists draw attention to the importance of emphasizing those egalitarian aspects of Islam that have largely been neglected by male interpretations that endured for centuries, unfortunately. I cordially invite the audience to read the entire book to help them learn more of these aspects on women in Islam, and Kuwaiti women, the focus of the book.

Top photo: ASU Professor and Founding Chair of the Council for Arabic and Islamic Studies Souad T. Ali. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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Pseudoscience is a danger, says ASU physics prof

August 13, 2019

A quick how-to user guide to debunking scientific myths and rumors

Even though it may seem at first that the internet is an almost infinite source of knowledge, one needs to know how to properly navigate it in order to discern what’s truthful.

The web has generated lots of fake news on both sides of the political spectrum, conspiracy theories and pseudoscience.

Take for example the anti-vaccination movement, which erupted about five years ago thanks to group of celebrity “anti-vaxxers” who expressed concern on social media that certain shots could be harmful.

So how does one distinguish between exciting scientific breakthroughs and just plain baloney?

Arizona State University’s Maxim Sukharev is knowledgeable in debunking various pseudoscientific claims.

ASU Now spoke to Sukharev, a physics professor with the College of Integrative Arts and Sciences, about telling fact from fiction.   

Question: Let’s start off with a good definition of what pseudoscience is.

Answer: Pseudoscience, quackery and junk science is everything but science: claiming things that never happen — telekinesis, ghost haunting, etc., pretending to use scientific language to misguide the public for personal gain, such as that infamous example of Airborne, which turned out to be just a primitive vitamin supplement and settled a $23.3 million class-action lawsuit for false advertisement. Fraud science is when actual scientists purposely misrepresent/fabricate data. Unfortunately, there are quite a few examples of that as well. The scientific community does fight such instances harshly but it takes obviously a significant amount of time to uncover fabrications.

Q: Has pseudoscience always been around?

A: There was time when there was no science at all. There was just pseudoscience all along: astrology, palm reading, etc. Slowly the scientific method emerged from the abyss of ignorance when people began to realize that the objective truth can only be understood through meticulous scientific scrutiny, which cannot be subjective.

Ancient Greeks were arguably the first ones who laid the very foundation of modern science. The scientific revolution brought us cures for many diseases we thought were God-sent and were lethal. Humans learned how to fly when the Wright brothers did something everyone thought was impossible. We now sit comfortably in an airplane moving over 500 mph and complain that the WiFi on board is too slow.

Science brought us deep understanding of very fabric of space-time, we are one step closer to uncovering the mysteries of the Big Bang and may be just a decade away from being able to cure cancer. Yet the pseudoscience is still alive and well. It feeds on our ignorance and natural desire for mystery and miracle. When scientists say that they cannot solve a given problem just yet, many turn to junk science simply because people do not understand that the scientific inquiry is a long and sometimes painful process. It does take time to cure cancer, it does take time to understand how to make a rocket fly. We will get there eventually and the junk science will disappear. Hopefully sooner than later.

Q: Why is pseudoscience so popular and why are people so willing to believe in it?

A: I wish I had an answer to that. Many scientists do. We would have jumped straight at the very cause of it trying to get rid of it once and for all. Personally, I think the best way to fight pseudoscience is to popularize science. Giving free open public lectures on various scientific issues including quantum mechanics and other fascinating subjects is the first step. Getting engaged with our local communities, high schools. Show students how impeccably fascinating real science is. Once exposed to that they will never turn to pseudoscience.

Q: Other than spreading misinformation, what are some other drawbacks about pseudoscience?

A: There are plenty of harmful examples, but this one stands out for me most: As scientists, not only do we have to be able to work on pressing scientific issues but also we must engage in fearless competition between ourselves for funding. The latter usually goes to sponsor PhD students, postdoctoral fellows, equipment for a lab, attending conferences. The success rate for getting funded is quite low. It is thus absolutely appalling when limited resources are spent on funding obvious pseudoscience. There is one infamous incident with one of the federal agencies and its intent to fund physics teleportation studies. The scientific community quickly realized how wasteful and shameful this looked. However, $25,000 was spent on the report. At first, the report looks “scientific-ish.” Two-thirds of it is scientifically sound — some statements in this report appeared to be a copy-paste from textbooks. The real fun however begins right on Page 1: “As for the psychic aspect of teleportation, it became known to Dr. Forward and myself … that anomalous teleportation has been scientifically investigated and separately documented." Mysterious Dr. Forward appears only once in the report and is never mentioned anywhere else. Apart from this excerpt and a few others there is nothing that would make a regular person cringe. This report, minus its copy-paste part, falls into the category of “conspiracy theories.” For fun, try to use Google Street View with the address seen on the title page of the report. Remember this address was used as an official address for the organization called “Warp Drive Metrics.”

Q: What are some tools you can give people for debunking pseudoscientific examples?

A: In my recent essay on pseudoscience, I am trying to provide a possible remedy, i.e. explain the scientific method. If properly followed, these steps most of junk science/quackery/pseudoscientific claims can be exposed.

Step No. 1: Observe 
You observe some phenomenon, say, a UFO, for instance. This very step needs to be repeated multiple times not only by you but by others independently to make this observation objective.

Step No. 2: Question
Here we question our observation, trying to understand what this observation means in the grander picture of what we already know.

Step No. 3: Hypothesis
Come up with a concise, logical hypothesis.

Step No. 4: Predict
Come up with a possible experiment based on No. 3.

Step No. 5: Test prediction

Step No. 6: Draw a conclusion based on outcomes of our experiments
Most importantly, we must remember that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof.

Q: What if a real breakthrough in science is taken as a pseudoscience?

A: Indeed, how can we ensure that our skepticism is not filtering out what may be the next scientific revolution? Real scientific discoveries, no matter how insane or amazing they may look, are within the realm of scientific method. Moreover, these discoveries are tirelessly verified and scrutinized by the scientific community over and over and over again. All of this goes through the process of peer review, in which our scientific colleagues check and question every part of your discovery. You may get engaged in a heated discussion, and if for some reason reviewers do not like what they see, they may reject your work. You may appeal and prove them wrong. All of that is solely based on objective science and nothing else. Once your publication passes, your other colleagues may want to repeat your experiments or calculations. If your observations are confirmed, this becomes another solid brick in the wall of science. For example, the revolutionary ideas of Einstein on relativity of time, no matter how controversial they may have sounded, were scrutinized numerous times. These ideas withstood many experimental tests and passed all of them. You may say that science is to make miracles a part of reality. 

Reporter , ASU Now