On Day 13 of the 16 Days of Activism campaign we speak to Sofia Rehman, PhD student at the University of Leeds and activist.
Tell us about yourself: who are you and what do you do?
My name is Sofia Rehman and I am a second year PhD candidate at the University of Leeds. My research allows me the pleasure of being supervised in the Theology department as well as the Arabic, Islamic and Middle Eastern department. My current research centers around a 12th Century Islamic text by Imam Badr al-Din al-Zarkashi entitled al-Ijāba li-Īrādi mā Istadrakathu cĀ’isha cala al Sahāba – The Corrective: Aisha’s Refutations of the Companions, in which the statements of Aisha, the wife of the Prophet Muhammad, are collected wherein she is found to be correcting, refuting, or outright disqualifying statements made by invariably male Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, on matters pertinent to the understanding and practice of religion by Muslims. I am working on a translation and feminist study of the original text.
What’s your involvement with gender activism? Does your work intersect with gender activism? How?
Before returning to academia, I spent a number of years teaching within my local Muslim community, either in local mosques, or in my own home. This made me privy to many of the issues Muslim women face, and the ways in which both patriarchal interpretations of the religion within the community and gendered Islamophobia from outside the community oftentimes leave Muslim women doubly violated and doubly silenced. I had already studied in Islamic seminaries and received traditional instruction in Islam, so in 2014 I decided to return to academia and embarked on my Masters in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Leeds, and continued on to do my PhD thereafter. Whilst I had entered academia with the aim of expanding my own understanding of gender and religion, with particular emphasis on Islam, I was also invested in contributing to the effort of unreading patriarchal interpretations of its texts, more specifically the hadith tradition which purports to transmit the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad.
It is central to my outlook on research that my work be not only academically rigorous, but also of service and benefit to the Muslim community, most particularly the women. In pursuit of this then, I was able to secure some funding as Impact Fellow (2015) in the Theology and Religious Studies department, which I used to deliver a series of three workshops through the Muslim Women’s Council to a group of local Muslim women from Bradford. Each session spotlighted a different Muslim woman, one of which was Aisha, for whom I presented findings directly related to my research. We were able to discuss the importance of historicizing and contextualizing Prophetic statements, and the importance of being at liberty to question the veracity of such statements. It was thoroughly rewarding to witness the electric atmosphere of women feeling empowered through their faith tradition.
Additionally, I have recently been asked to take part as a contributor to an upcoming anthology, Cut From the Same Cloth, with Unbound Publishers, which recently enjoyed a flurry of attention when Hollywood actor, Riz Ahmed tweeted about the project. The aim is to platform 15 British Muslim women from a range of backgrounds to write on their experiences. This is an opportunity to allow Muslim women the chance to speak for themselves instead of being spoken over and about; to not be tokenized in a campaign aiming to tick a diversity box, weaponized in anti-terror political rhetoric, or utilized to the satisfaction of someone’s saviour complex. More can be learned about the project here.
How does or could The Shiloh Project relate to your work and activism?
I was made aware of the Shiloh Project through Johanna Stiebert. While the primary focus of the project is the Bible and interpretations of it, I can see how many of the efforts can inform my own work on Islamic texts, and showcase approaches that can be transferred too. Understanding that religion plays its own role in the rape culture inherent to the society in which we exist, allows for a more effective dismantling of this culture through the deconstruction of its component parts. The interrogation of narratives constructed around religious texts that allow for gender-based violence to be perpetrated, is vital in not only providing thought-provoking, insightful academic contributions but also in facilitating grassroots changes and actively impacting on people’s lives.