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Teaching about Women and Islam in North Africa: Integrating Postcolonial Feminist Theory in the Classroom

By Zayzafoon, Lamia Ben Youssef | Foreign Language Annals, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Teaching about Women and Islam in North Africa: Integrating Postcolonial Feminist Theory in the Classroom


Zayzafoon, Lamia Ben Youssef, Foreign Language Annals


Abstract: Using postcolonial feminist theory, the researcher attempts in this article to redefine the interpretive framework through which courses on Islam and North African women are being taught in American undergraduate classes. Several conceptual limitations have been identified: inadequate knowledge of the geography and history of North Africa; the discursive dichotomy between East and West; the production of the Muslim woman as a single category; the tendency to de-historicize Islam and Eastern cultures in general into unchanging and closed systems of religious practices and beliefs; the uncritical adoption of Islamic exegesis as an explanatory prism to understand all the woes of the Islamic world; and the cultural essentialism underlying the discourse of multiculturalism in American textbooks. To each one of these limitations, the author proposes alternative teaching strategies such as the historicization of all discourses on Muslim women; inclusion of the scholarship of Maghrebian women scholars in the classroom; role-playing; cross-cultural comparisons; and the integration of medieval maps and Renaissance drawings as well as audiovisual materials produced in North Africa and the Middle East ranging from political cartoons and commercials to youth programs like ''Star Academy.''

Key words: Arabic, culture, Islam, Maghreb, teaching approaches, women

Even though poststructuralist thought has emerged in France since the 1960s and postcolonial criticism appeared in America 30 years ago with the publication of Said's Orientalism (1978), the insight of these two schools of literary criticism seems to have little impact on the textbooks and teaching methodologies adapted in American undergraduate courses about ''Eastern'' cultures in general and women and Islam in particular. A possible reason for this is the established hierarchy within American academia between literature and its darker sister pedagogy, which although of no lesser scholarly value is often deemed a liability for faculty promotions. Against the widespread academic prejudice that constructs literary theory and teaching pedagogy as separate fields, the researcher reconstructs them in this article as overlapping and interrelated disciplines.

Using the insight of postcolonial feminist theory generated in the Muslim world and beyond, I seek not just to redefine the interpretive framework through which North African Muslim women's experiences in literature, history, and film are being read and taught in American undergraduate classes, but also to identify the spatial and cultural limitations connected with the knowledge of Muslim women and the Middle East1 in the United States. The author addresses six epistemological limitations in particular: the clash of civilization thesis; the dichotomy between Western modernity and Islamic tradition; the discursive production of the ''Muslim woman'' as a special category (Mohanty, 1991); the construction of Islam as a monolithic belief system with no ties to ancient Middle Eastern cultures; the exclusive and uncritical adoption of Islamic exegesis as an explanatory prism to read and understand the contemporary problems of North Africa and the Middle East; and finally the essentialist view of non-Western cultures that underlies the American rhetoric of multiculturalism, which often conceals the complicity of culture with global capital and ethnographic politics (Young, 1995). In the last section of this article, the researcher explores how the tensions between Islamic and Western feminism can be exploited in the classroom to facilitate American students' understanding of the complexity of the issue of women's rights in the Maghreb. In each section of this article, I question a particular scholarly code and propose alternative teaching strategies. Because North Africa has historically been home to diverse civilizations and because globalizationFwhether through Americanization or ArabizationFhas reshaped identity politics in the Maghreb, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, in this article I propose to include as classroom materials not just literary or audiovisual works generated in North Africa, but also those produced in Europe, the Middle East (Egypt and Lebanon), and even America, because all of these texts are well known to the general public and academia of the Maghreb.

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