#MeToo, #TimesUp, and the Study of Religion | May-June Issue
This year has brought a reawakening and amplification of social awareness on gender-related issues in the public sphere. Inspired by the voices of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, the May-June issue of the Forum takes up the question of how scholars whose research informs discourses about religion can uniquely contribute to extending an awareness of these issues through their scholarship and teaching. Using the resources available in the academic study of religion, contributors to this issue reflect outwards considering how their scholarly work is informed and transformed by movements like #MeToo, along with the various ways in which they hope this work can contribute to the wider conversation on gender, consent, and power dynamics.
The Forum was thrilled to collaborate with the Divinity School Women’s Caucus in putting this issue together. Allison Kanner (PhD student at the Divinity School and coordinator of the Women’s Caucus) and Anna Lee White (MA student at the Divinity School and Women’s Caucus representative) served as guest editors for this month’s issue. Throughout the month, scholars contributed diverse essays on the theme of gender and religion in the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp. Professor Sarah Hammerschlag closed out the roundtable with a response. We invite you to join the conversation by submitting your questions and comments.
- In her essay, “Textual Harassment: Reading Medieval Arabic Love Verse in the Context of Consent,” Rachel Schine (University of Chicago) looks at the differences between the speakers and objects of adoration in the poetic genre of mannered love verse (ghazal). Addressing the inequalities of participation in the medieval Arabic literary playing field, Rachel discusses the works of the Umayyad-era poet ‘Umar b. Abī Rabī‘a in light of an anecdote regarding his behavior in the fictional Arabic popular epic, Sīrat Dhāt al-Himma, where the caliph’s daughter intentionally secludes herself to avoid becoming an unwilling subject of his poetry. Through analyzing this anecdote, Rachel problematizes a paradigm that any evidence of women in pre-modern sources should be valued, and instead prompts us to think about the role of consent in such works and our reception of them as contemporary readers in the aftermath of #MeToo and #TimesUp. She argues that women’s absences from certain literary and social domains can be read not only as a form of patriarchal exclusion but as an agentive gesture of denying consent.
- In “#MeToo and Discourses of Love: A Mormon Case Study,” Elizabeth Brocious (University of Chicago) analyzes the impact of the institutional structure of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in creating vulnerability to abuses of power from the perspective of a member of the Mormon community and a student of feminist theology. She focuses on how “discourses of love”—which includes such concepts as trust, admiration, and inclusion—foster instances of abuse that can occur in superordinate/subordinate relationships. Using two case studies from the Church, she theorizes that discourses of love often simultaneously exacerbate and obscure the vulnerability created by such relationships.
- In “The Will to Ignorance: #MeToo as Pedagogical Crisis” Samuel Catlin (University of Chicago) asks to what extent the cultural habits and institutional biases that sustain rape culture, as identified by the #MeToo campaign, are imparted or reproduced in the university classroom. Taking a request for trigger warnings on course content at Columbia University, feminist author Rebecca Solnit’s critique of the separation between art and life, and Samuel Richardson’s influential 1740 novel Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded as examples, he argues that the encouragement of critical thinking—vital to the pedagogy of the humanities at today’s universities—can actually risk reifying the oppressive structures such thinking is intended to call into question. He concludes that scholars and teachers in the humanities must engage this problem seriously and that the discipline of religious studies may offer a uniquely generative model for how to do so.
- Response by Sarah Hammerschlag (University of Chicago), #TimesUp and the Myth of Neutral Space.
Rachel Schine is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, focusing on pre-modern Arabic literature, with comparative interests in Judeo-Arabic and Persian. Her research focuses include orality and storytelling practices, gender/sexuality and race/race-making in pre-modern works, popular narrative, and popular exegesis and prophetology. Her dissertation analyzes black heroes and their figuration in the popular sīrahs, a body of medieval legendary conquest literature, and is tentatively titled, “On Blackness in Arabic Popular Literature: The Black Heroes of the Siyar Sha‘biyya, their Conception, Contests, and Contexts.”
Elizabeth Brocious is a PhD student at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She studies Christian and Mormon theology, with a particular interest in feminist thought and the ethos of religious communities. She studies philosophical and theological concepts of the self and agency and the implications of an agentive self embedded in ecclesiastical structures.
Samuel Catlin is a joint Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature at the University Chicago and Ph.D. student in Religion, Literature & Visual Culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He works on the history of literary criticism and theory, rabbinic and modern Jewish thought, and biblical and philosophical hermeneutics. His dissertation offers an historical and theoretical account of the surge of interest in rabbinic exegesis among American literary scholars during the heyday of postmodernist literary theory, situating the ensuing debates in a longer intellectual history of the role ideas about Judaism play in the formation, definition, and institutionalization of the modern category “literature.”
Sarah Hammerschlag is Associate Professor of Religion and Literature, Philosophy of Religions and History of Judaism at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Her research thus far has focused on the position of Judaism in the post-World War II French intellectual scene, a field that puts her at the crossroads of numerous disciplines and scholarly approaches including philosophy, literary studies, and intellectual history. She is the author of The Figural Jew: Politics and Identity in Postwar French Thought (University of Chicago Press, 2010) and Broken Tablets: Levinas, Derrida and the Literary Afterlife of Religion (Columbia University Press, 2016) and the editor of the forthcoming volume Modern French Jewish Thought: Writings on Religion and Politics (Brandeis University Press, 2018). The Figural Jew received an Honorable Mention for the 2012 Jordan Schnitzer Book Award, given by the Association of Jewish Scholars, and was a finalist for the AAR’s Best First Book in the History of Religions in 2011. She has written essays on Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot which have appeared in Critical Inquiry, Jewish Quarterly Review and Shofar, among other places. She is currently working on a manuscript entitled “Sowers and Sages: The Renaissance of Judaism in Postwar Paris.”
Allison Kanner is a Ph.D. student in Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Her research focuses on intersections between medieval Islamicate romance literature, mystical literature, and gender and sexuality in Religious Studies. She currently leads the Women’s Caucus, a student-founded club at the Divinity School, as well as a weekly Persian language conversation group.
Anna Lee White is an MA student in History of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Her studies focuses on the history of South Asian religious literature. She plans to pursue research on devotional poetry and hagiographies from early-modern North India during a PhD at McGill University. She is also a member of the Divinity School Women’s Caucus.
The Martin Marty Center's Religion & Culture Forum is an online forum for thought-provoking discussion on the relationship of scholarship in religion to culture and public life. Each month the Marty Center, the research arm of the University of Chicago Divinity School, invites a scholar of religion to comment on his or her own research in a way that "opens out" to themes, problems, and events in world cultures and contemporary life. Scholars from diverse fields of study are invited to offer responses to these commentaries.
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The Religion & Culture Forum is edited by Joel A. Brown, Divinity School PhD student in Religions in America. Emily D. Crews, Divinity School PhD candidate in the History of Religions, was the previous editor.