Gender in Judaism and Islam

Common Lives, Uncommon Heritage

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Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, Beth S. Wenger
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , December
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This volume of eleven essays is the only extensive work to date that compares gender relations in Judaism and Islam. As the editors state in the introduction “…it is particularly useful to consider the connections and commonalities between these two cultures and religious civilizations. Jewish and Islamic histories have long been interrelated” (1-2). Given that both traditions largely protect masculine access to sacred texts, even when debating women’s issues, this volume offers critical perspectives on the consequences for women of these male hegemonies.

The editors chose to organize what presents itself as an almost interminable field into four large thematic sections, focusing on essays spanning historical attitudes and texts to contemporary body politics, as well as women’s representations in film and literature.

The book begins with a comparative section. Susannah Heschel’s chapter on the dialogues between Jewish and Muslim feminist theologies explains the extralegal impediments in both traditions to women’s active participation in religious public structures. She also speaks to how patriarchy functions to the detriment of women’s intellectual participation in their own religion. Amira Sonbol continues by comparing Jewish and Islamic legal traditions. Initially she draws parallels between Judaism and Islam’s transition between legal orality to written text. Sonbol shows that the evolution of law occurs differently in certain cases such as that of stoning as a punishment for adultery. The use of stoning is condoned by the text in certain Muslim legal systems that exist in largely tribal societies, but Judaism has given up this type of punishment. Sonbol’s conclusion is that in order to reform gender laws an understanding of the developmental processes of the creation of the laws in question is imperative.

Section two focuses on the relationship between power, the body, and sexuality. Marion Katz presents the issue of menstruation and its relationship to ritual purity in Islam. She takes the reader through the varied and sometimes surprising minutiae of whose authority establishes purity—the male scholar or the experienced woman. She shows the general contemporary mistrust of women’s reliability, and the establishment of male authority over women’s bodies, be they religious scholars or medical doctors. Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobret’s chapter on gender duality presents the legal conundrum of the androgynous body in a Jewish legal system that is based on the duality of the sexes. Fonrobert shows how Talmudic Rabbis grapple with a third gender category that complicates their categories of male and “other.” If female is the traditional “other,” what then of an in-between gender that is neither female nor male: how do laws of ritual purity adapt to this body? The open ended nature of this ancient debate creates spaces in feminist scholarship that allow for new readings of gender that are rooted in traditional texts. The final chapter from this section presents contemporary Shia Iran and its response to reproductive technology. Soraya Tremayne’s long-term project demonstrates how reproductive technologies used in the interest of the religious state inadvertently and irreversible changed the freedom, educational opportunities, and labor aspirations of women in Shia Iran.

Section three, “Crimes of Passion: Formative Texts and Traditions,” begins with textual comparisons of the biblical/quranic Joseph and attitudes towards masculinity. Lori Lefkovitz’s chapter shows how both textual traditions treat the same characters in radically different manners: the Jewish Yosef is a flawed, anxious hero, while the Muslim Yusuf is a positive hero who embodies sexual desirability and self-restraint. Lefkovitz describes Yosef as embodying the weak diasporic man who becomes successful through hard work and mentation. However, Yusuf in the contemporary Muslim psyche is less developed. He is a flatter character: perfect prophet, dreamer, beautiful, and confident. The chapter would benefit from a deeper reading of the quranic Yusuf and its consequences for contemporary Muslim attitudes towards masculinity. Catherine Warrick’s chapter on law and virtue in Muslim communities engages with the legal and cultural background of honor killings. She demonstrates how the valuing of the community’s interests over the individual’s undermines women’s rights and status (198). The primacy of tribal honor and its relation to women’s bodies exists in both Muslim and Jewish communities, albeit with starkly different contemporary responses. Lisa Fishbayn Joffe offers a chapter on gender, Jewish law, and rabbinical courts in Mandate Palestine that shows how decisions made during the creation of the state of Israel impacted Jewish women’s legal status and rights in the modern state.

The fourth and last section is dedicated to literary and cinematographic depictions of women. “Cultural Depictions of Jewish and Muslim Women” begins with Andrea Siegel’s chapter, which shows a complex combination of tropes in early Zionist literature: domestic violence, the woman question, and the Arab question. A clearer chronological and contextual framework for the pieces discussed would benefit the reader. Orit Bashkin’s chapter on an Iraqi Jewish woman’s autobiography elucidates the complexity of previously unheard subaltern narratives in the Israeli landscape. The only male author, Hamid Dabashi, is left for the end. He writes on the women in the films of Bahram Bezai, an Iranian director. This chapter is not written within a feminist theoretical perspective, nor does it focus on the Islamic aspects of Iranian society. It presents a chronology of Bezai’s filmography, showing how the filmmaker uses both mythology and Iranian tradition to present women as the ultimate force of vision and strength in Iranian society.

This volume is a solid beginning to a serious scholarly treatment of the topics surrounding gender in Judaism and Islam. It fills an important gap in the scholarship and promises to open the field to further critical studies. It addresses similarities and differences in women’s issues and experiences within Jewish and Islamic national, religious, and ethnic identities. Further development could explore similar gender issues through a broader transnational and cross-religious lens, analyzing the quantitative and qualitative divergences and similarities between different social and sociological contexts. This would help clarify if the majority of gender issues are related to religious traditions and their texts, or to larger historical and cultural societal mores.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Vanessa Paloma Elbaz is a PhD candidate at Centre de Recherches Moyen-Orient Méditerranée at Sorbonne Paris Cité.

Date of Review: 
May 24, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet is Robert I. Williams Term Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, where she currently serves as Director of the Middle East Center. Kashani-Sabet’s most recent book is Conceiving Citizens: Women and the Politics of Motherhood in Iran, which won the 2012 book award from the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies

Beth S. Wenger is Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, where she currently serves as Chair of the History Department. Her award-winning books include The Jewish Americans: Three Centuries of Jewish Voices in America and New York Jews and the Great Depression: Uncertain Promise.


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