Written by Sara Rahnama, Assistant Professor of History, Morgan State University
Uncommon Courses is an occasional series from The Conversation U.S. highlighting unconventional approaches to teaching.
“Women and War”
What prompted the idea for the course?
When I was on a fellowship at the Library of Congress finishing my first book, “The Future is Feminist,” I had the opportunity to connect with other scholars. One of those scholars, historian Martha Jones, encouraged me to design a class based on my research interests. With that in mind, I designed a new freshman seminar, “Women and War.” The seminar bridges my research on gender and Islam in French colonial Algeria with my new project, a history of girlhood in the 1970s Middle East.
What does the course explore?
The course looks at how particular depictions of Muslim women – as veiled, oppressed, constrained and yet sexually alluring – have been used to legitimize political intervention and wars in three contexts: colonial Algeria, Iran before and after the Iranian Revolution, and Afghanistan since 2001.
Why is this course relevant now?
Tensions over gender and Islam reappear regularly in the news. Examples include developments in the Middle East, such as the case of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody in Iran after being detained for violating the country’s dress code. Other examples include new laws in Europe that curtail Muslim women’s right to wear a veil. Yet, these discussions are often disconnected from political and military intervention in the Middle East.
I begin the course with a look at how in 2001, former U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York wore a burqa on the floor of the House of Representatives. She did so to argue in favor of United States military intervention on behalf of Afghan women. She assumed the public would read the burqa as a visible marker of women’s subjugation – and many people did. This gives students a concrete example of the themes we discuss in the course and their ongoing relevance.
What’s a critical lesson from the course?
One example is how, from the very beginning of the French colonial rule in Algeria, French photographers produced postcards that depicted Algerian women, usually either fully veiled or in various states of undress. These photographs evoked both notions of oppression and exotic allure. The images also helped make the colonization of Algeria a more popular enterprise, with people at home both fascinated by Algerian women and convinced that they needed intervention to emancipate them from the shackles of their oppressive religion.
Later, we examined how even as the French empire was struggling to survive in Algeria during the Algerian War of Independence, the French army targeted Algerian women through unveiling campaigns and veil-burning ceremonies.
What materials does the course feature?
The class has used a wide range of materials, from an art exhibition that showcases the women who participated in Algeria’s war of independence, to the 1971 book “Fatima is Fatima,” written by the Iranian leftist revolutionary Ali Shariati. It describes how Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, could be a model of revolutionary action for Iranian women.
We have also looked at vintage Iranian photographs on social media. In one montage that has garnered almost 100,000 likes on Instagram, color photographs of women in bikinis and miniskirts during the time of the shah transition to black-and-white photographs of women in black chadors in Iran after 1979. The first two photographs were actually Mexican American women. Still, such images could be subbed in such montages for Iranian women and used to convey a shorthand: Freedom means the freedom to be unveiled, while veiling can only mean restriction and oppression.
What will the course prepare students to do?
The course prepares students to critically engage with news from the Middle East by being able to identify and analyze the recurrent misogynistic and Islamophobic ways the region and its peoples are represented.
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