Prof speaks about Islam and women

Miriam Cooke spoke to about 25 people at Kelly Writers' House.

The Daily Pennsylvanian
January 29, 2002

While many Americans may view women in the Middle East as passive, Miriam Cooke has dedicated most of her professional career to challenging this assumption. Cooke -- a professor of Asian and African Languages and Literature at Duke University and president of the Middle Eastern Women's Association -- came to the Kelly Writers' House on Wednesday to share her work with roughly 25 members of the Penn community.

While those in attendance expected to listen to Cooke read from her recent novel, Hayati: My Life, Cooke instead chose to read from her essay on Middle Eastern women's struggles within Islam.

She discussed how Americans have become more aware of women's religious issues in the wake of Sept. 11. She stressed that Muslim women are not necessarily as passive as Americans often assume, highlighting the efforts of many Middle Eastern women to fulfill the Muslim concept of jihad -- personal improvement and community betterment.

Robert Allen, a professor of Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies, introduced Cooke as a woman "who has made a tremendous name for herself" in writing about Middle Eastern women.

Cooke became involved in the plight of Middle Eastern women in 1980 when she was assigned to do a piece on women writers in Lebanon for Middle East magazine.

"Women writers? Bet there aren't any!" she said she thought initially.

But Cooke said she soon learned otherwise, overwhelmed by the large number of female Middle Eastern writers that actually published works.

After completing her piece for the magazine, Cooke traveled extensively in Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco and Syria, learning more about war, gender and Islam.

While outrage over the mistreatment of Afghan women seems to have resurfaced after Sept. 11, Cooke warned that this is an issue that Afghan women have been dealing with for a long time and should not be the sole reason to support a war in Afghanistan.

Some audience members said they agreed with Cooke's sentiments.

"The rhetoric of the role of women in Afghanistan is used as justification for the war in slippery ways," said Scott Kugle, a Swarthmore College Religious Studies professor.

Contrary to American assumptions regarding the passivity of Muslim women, Cooke suggested that Afghan women have been active in different kinds of resistance. While women have likely been fighting for their religious beliefs throughout history, she mentioned that historians have traditionally not emphasized this view.

Cooke spoke of Islamic women referring to themselves as soldiers and believing that they are stronger than men. Cooke noted that many female activists hold the belief that men do not have the right to deprive women of their Islamic missions, and that Islamic women holding feminist views believe in balancing "national, transnational and feminism agendas."

Audience members felt Cooke's talk brought an important perspective to the table.

"There is a lot we don't understand as Americans or that we assume," Fine Arts graduate student Marjorie Van Cura said.

Wednesday's audience included writers, graduate students and professors. Cooke's talk was cosponsored by the Middle East Center and the Women's Studies Department.