The Routledge Handbook of Islam and Gender

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Justine Howe
Routledge Handbooks
  • New York: 
    , October
     528 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The subject of gender and Islam is often assumed to be about women and the question of whether Islam is “good/bad” for Muslim women. This assumption reduces Islam, Muslim women, and men into monolithic static concepts. The Routledge Handbook of Islam and Gender, edited by Justine Howe, goes beyond this restrictive framework, offering a range of introductory essays on Islam and gender—as complex categories—from a variety of disciplinary lenses. By locating the discussion at the intersection of Islam and gender—as well as race and class—the handbook highlights the diversity within Muslim texts, practices, and identities. This includes the intricacies of power structures operating both within Islamic systems and from the outside, such as those inherent within European and North American discourses about Islam.

Zahra Ayubi’s essay, “Islamic Gender Ethics” (57–67), for example, emphasizes that the hierarchies suggested by premodern Muslim texts do not reflect a simple binary, consisting of men followed by women; rather, they include non-elite male identities, which are also marginalized. Furthermore, the essays introduce us to the significant methodological and theoretical developments occurring within Islamic studies. In her introduction, Howe writes that the project was motivated by a desire to fill a gap in the scholarship, and to demonstrate that a critical understanding of gender is crucial to “exploring the complexities of Muslim social worlds, not just the particular experiences of women” (3). Indeed, many of the essays establish that when we ignore questions about gender—or treat it as synonymous with women—we lose valuable information about Islam and Muslims.

The volume is divided into eight parts, each centering on a different dimension of the topic at hand. Part 1, “Foundational Texts in Historical and Contemporary Contexts,” focuses on gender in the premodern Muslim literature, such as the exegetical traditions (tafsir) and Islamic law (hadith). The second part, “Sex, Sexuality and Gender Difference,” demonstrates the precarity of assuming a straightforward gender binary, both when examining the premodern sources and when considering contemporary experiences of Muslims. Part 3, “Gendered Authority and Piety,” highlights the role of Muslim women as historical actors who contribute to authoritative Islamic knowledge, including fatwas (Islamic legal opinions). Part 4, “Political and Religious Displacements,” foregrounds the relationship between sociopolitical contexts, historical paradigms, such as the legacy of British colonialism, and Muslim gendered identities/representations. Part 5, “Negotiating Law, Ethics and Normativity,” introduces readers to the fluid and varied ways in which Muslim jurists and communities approach gender in Islamic law. Part 6, “Vulnerability, Care, and Violence in Muslim Families,” brings our attention to the immediate experiences of women within contemporary Muslim communities and families. This includes the various facets of life directly affecting female bodies, such as reproduction, aging and domestic violence. The seventh and final section, “Representation, Commodification, and Popular Culture,” examines the depictions of, and the capitalization on, Muslim women’s bodies in advertisements, (non-)Muslim films, and American public discourses on Islam. Each of the thirty-one chapters presents a distinct scholarly voice that is easily brought into conversation with one another. The essays differ and yet overlap in important ways, thereby creating a space for vibrant discussions about gender, feminism, intersectionality, Islam, and Muslim lived experiences.  

The strength of the volume lies in the way in which it introduces readers to various topics without compromising the nuances inherent within them. Many of the authors not only destabilize static notions about Islam/gender, but they also challenge traditional theoretical frameworks about feminism, religion, and secularism. Several contributors, for example, building on the scholarship of the late Saba Mahmood, elaborate on the ways in which Muslim women practice their agency within traditional religious structures. This includes Sarah Tobin’s essay, “Modeling Exile,” which argues that greater social access to religious learning in Jordan by Syrian women refugees correlated with greater access to sociopolitical opportunities (282–295). Others, such as Marcia Inhorn’s discussion on (in)fertility and reproductive technology in the Muslim world, problematizes the dichotomy between Islam and modernity (343–357).   

The book’s most salient critique, however, is the way in which gender continues to be treated as a binary concept—based on notions about sexed bodies and heteronormative sexual desires—by many Islamic studies scholars as well as by policy makers. Ash Geissinger (101–115) and Indira Falk Gesink (116–129), for example, highlight the existence of other gender and sexual identities within the premodern Muslim literature. This includes the term khuntha’, which symbolized a range of fluid gendered identities—neither male nor female—invoked rhetorically as a ranking device, or for the sake of fleshing out legal concerns, such as marriage and inheritance. Other contributors expose the heteronormative colonialist values underlying European policies related to Islam. Kirsten Wesselhoeft (146–159) and Shabana Mir (435–446), for example, demonstrate the way in which the French ban on the veil functions to maintain patriarchal norms and anti-immigrant positions. By insisting that Muslim women’s bodies become visually available, the law privileges the male gaze and reinforces certain ideas about sexual citizenship and French femininity.

To help illustrate the dynamic relationship between gender, society, and Islam, many of the authors skillfully utilize the concept of intersectionality. Moving forward, however, I would love to see more discussions, such as those offered by Kayla Renée Wheeler (423–434) and Megan Goodwin (463–474) that directly address racism against Black bodies and especially Black Muslim women. It is important to apply intersectionality without forgetting the population that it was intended to serve when the term was originally coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw. Another intersectional frame of analysis absent from the volume is that of gender and disability. Drawing on Goodwin’s incisive observation that American anti-Muslim discourse is both gendered and racialized, we might consider, for example, how anxieties about (dis)abled bodies are also invoked to otherize Muslims.

The Routledge Handbook of Gender and Islam is a valuable resource to both scholars of Islam and general readers alike—even those not directly interested in Islam or gender. The essay, “Muslima Theology,” by Jerusha Tanner-Rhodes, for example, not only introduces readers to the debates concerning the relationship between feminism and Islam, but it also introduces the subjects of religious pluralism and comparison (68–82). Given the diversity of discussions and the critical analyses presented by the contributors, this volume will prove beneficial to a variety of fields, including theology, religious studies, anthropology, area studies, and history.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Halla Attallah is a doctoral candidate in theology and religious studies at Georgetown University.

Date of Review: 
August 31, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Justine Howe is associate professor of religious studies at Case Western Reserve University, USA.


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