Women's Studies Branches Out


Sharmila Lodhia and Khanum Shaikh (Photo by Mary Watkins)

The UCLA Graduate Quarterly reports on international directions in women's studies. Three graduate students are profiled.

I realized I can't get away from my Muslim heritage, you know. I need to do this work, I need to understand more; this stuff is not going away.

This article was first published in the Spring 2007 issue of UCLA Graduate Quarterly.

By Jacqueline Tasch

IN THEIR EARLY YEARS, both women’s studies and feminism were criticized as being the province of middle-class American white women, with no relevance to women of color, the poor, or women outside of the United States. UCLA has been in the forefront of a movement to bring a transnational perspective to women’s studies. Three of its most advanced doctoral students—Azza Basarudin, Khanum Shaikh, and Sharmila Lodhia—are in different ways both a cause and an effect of that new academic direction.

Professor of Anthropology and Women’s Studies Sondra Hale, mentor to all three women, says the women’s backgrounds—they hail from Malaysia, Pakistan, and India via South Africa, respectively—indicate the diversity of the Women’s Studies graduate group. “Since our curriculum has included quite a bit of transnational and postcolonial material, we’ve been attracting women from other countries,” Professor Hale says.

Their work emphasizes the transnational direction: Azza researching organizations of Muslim women scholar-activists struggling for gender justice in Islam, Khanum Shaikh looking at a fast-growing Muslim women’s reform movement, and Sharmila examining legal advocacy for Indian women, both in their home country and in U.S. immigrant communities. “A lot of people talk about doing transnational studies,” Professor Hale says, “but very few are actually following the flow of people, ideas, and commodities transnationally.” Clearly, her students are in that unusual group. Here are their stories.

Azza Basarudin: Negotiating Gender, Religion, and Feminism

Azza Basarudin was an undergraduate in her native Malaysia when she became interested in how the implementation of the Islamic legal system affected Muslim women’s lives. A heightened consciousness encouraged her to pursue an MA in Women and Gender Studies at Roosevelt University in Chicago. Because of the transnational appeal of the Women’s Studies program—and her “profound interest in and respect for the scholarship of Dr. Sondra Hale and Dr. Karen Brodkin”—she decided to pursue a PhD at UCLA.

Azza Basarudin

Azza’s research examines how Muslim women intellectual-activists negotiate issues of gender, Islam, and feminism in order to advocate for gender justice. She began her graduate career by researching gender politics and religious activism in the Middle East. Her interest in Southeast Asia was piqued after discovering “the groundbreaking work” of an organization in her home country, and she decided to redesign her project to “incorporate women’s advocacy there through a transnational feminist analysis.” Islam and Islamic practices in Southeast Asia, Azza says, “more often than not have been understudied in relation to Middle Eastern Islam.” She hopes the portion of her research on Southeast Asia can contribute toward “a better understanding of Islam and Muslim women."

Last spring, Azza taught her own class, “Gender, Islam, and Feminism,” focusing on the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia. It was an “incredibly satisfying and rewarding experience,” she says. “I had a wonderful group of students, who, while having little or no knowledge of gender in Islam, were nonetheless enthusiastic to learn about religious-based feminist projects.”

Once her PhD is in hand, Azza hopes to find a position in a Women’s Studies program that has a strong transnational focus while continuing her involvement in community-based activism.

Sharmila Lodhia: Activism in the Academy

A graduate of Santa Clara University, a Jesuit school with a social justice orientation, Sharmila Lodhia went to Hastings College of the Law with an eye on future advocacy work. Afterward, she got a job as an attorney on the Breast Cancer Legal Project at the California Women’s Law Center. There, she “got some insights into the lack of access to the legal system for poor women, women of color and immigrant women,” she says. She also met Professor of Law Christine Littleton, who served on the Center’s board of directors. Professor Littleton told her about what was then a new graduate program in Women’s Studies, and Sharmila signed on for a master’s degree as part of the first class.

At UCLA, she added Women’s Studies teaching experience to her background in legal education and outreach work, concluding that a PhD and an academic career were her goals. “I think of teaching as a form of activism,” she says, “particularly in a field like women’s studies.” Activism also plays a role in her dissertation research, which views domestic violence laws through the eyes of advocacy groups in both India and the United States. “What engages me is using transnational feminist ideas to analyze constraints on contemporary anti-violence advocacy, which can be traced through various local, national, and global sites,” she says. “My doctoral research highlights how this work has been altered by a growing interconnectedness between the United States and India that has been engendered by globalization. I also look at new patterns of marriage and migration and the specific forms of violence these shifts have enabled.” One aspect of this research involves an analysis of recent changes in laws on domestic violence in both countries.

In 2005, after years of dedicated advocacy by women’s groups, India passed a civil law on domestic violence that includes prohibitions against physical, emotional, sexual, and economic abuse.  The civil law also contains an innovative remedial framework for safeguarding the rights of women, including a “right of residency” provision that allows a woman to remain in the family home, regardless of whether she has a legal claim or share in the property.

In the same year, the Violence Against Women Act in the United States was reauthorized with an amendment of great significance to battered immigrant women. Previously, the wives of professionals who were working in the United States through the H1-B visa program, were not legally allowed to work in the United States until the green card process began, which could take several years.  In addition they are unable to obtain social security numbers and in some states need the consent of their spouse to obtain a driver’s license. Indian wives in these circumstances are often “trapped in abusive marriages” because they are entirely dependent on their spouses both financially and in terms of their legal status, Sharmila says. One Silicon Valley-based women’s advocacy group estimates that 40 percent of its clientele are Indian wives of H1-B visa holders. The VAWA 2005 contains a provision, promoted by activists, that allows the spouses of non-immigrant professionals to obtain work authorizations if they can prove abuse.

Sharmila believes it is important to link researchers and teachers with people in the activist and service community. “That’s why I crafted my project the way I did,” she says, and she also encourages her students to investigate what nonprofits in their area of study are doing and “to build their research around the needs of advocacy groups.”

Khanum Shaikh: Exploring the Politics of Gender in Muslim Reform Movements

As an undergraduate economics major at UCLA, Khanum Shaikh felt her studies had “no relevance to my life.” A class in Third World Development Studies was fascinating–“I was hanging off the edge of my chair every single lecture,” she says—and eventually led her to take a master’s degree in international development at the University of Oregon.

However, she still hadn’t settled on a long-term career direction when she took a job as a community activist at the California Women’s Law Center—and met Sharmila. One day while they were walking along in a breast cancer march, Sharmila told Khanum she belonged in the UCLA Women’s Studies program; Khanum applied and, somewhat to her surprise, was accepted. “It just kind of happened,” she says.

Sharmila may have brought her to UCLA, but world events created a crucial turning point in her academic career. Khanum was in Pakistan on September 11 and, in the next couple of weeks, worried about whether she and her family might lie beneath America’s retaliatory bombing. When she returned to the United States, she experienced “feeling under scrutiny,” along with a considerable amount of hostility from her students. “In an ideal world, I might have done research on music in Trinidad,” she says, but after September 11, “I realized I can’t get away from my Muslim heritage, you know. I need to do this work, I need to understand more; this stuff is not going away.”

A topic came easily to mind. Khanum’s aunt had been transformed by Al-Huda, a women’s reform and educational movement founded in Pakistan by Farhat Hashmi. With a doctoral degree in Islamic studies, Hashmi began to hold weekly study sessions in the homes of well-off Pakistani women, teaching them about Islam from a women’s perspective. Hashmi’s guiding principle is that “Islam itself is an incredibly just and equitable religion for men and women,” Khanum says, “but it’s the cultural adaptation of religion that has distorted our knowledge and its applications.”

Hashmi’s teachings, now spread to other countries through formal educational institutes, videocassettes, and a Website, have transformed lives in ways that are seen as both liberal and fundamentalist. While critics from the right argue that her teachings are antisectarian, critics from the left point out that her teachings promote orthodox values. Hashmi, for example, always appears in public fully veiled.

Khanum’s research describes Al-Huda’s growth and how it “managed to mobilize hundreds of thousands of women, particularly women from the upper classes, who had not historically been politically active.” Her degree in hand, Khanum will look for a job as a university teacher but hopes to remain involved in both local and international activism.

Khanum, Sharmila, and Azza are all aware of the white, middle-class bent of old-fashioned women’s studies, but they also know things are changing—with their help. If there are still too few women of color among the faculty, they can help change that as well, and in the meantime, they have each other. Her outstanding fellow students are “a great base of support for each other,” Khanum says. “We’ve learned a lot together—hey, how do you do footnotes?”

The Women’s Studies Program and the Center for the Study of Women are collaborating on the Global South Gender Initiative, which links UCLA with women’s studies programs at nine universities in India, Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine, Pakistan, Iran, Malaysia, and the Sudan. An outgrowth of consulting projects by Professor of Anthropology and Women’s Studies Sondra Hale, the Initiative is seeking funds to fully implement its activities.

The goal is “what amounts to an enormous exchange program” bringing together students and faculty at all of the universities, Professor Hale says. This year, a scholar from Pakistan will spend a month at UCLA on a Fulbright Fellowship, and Professor Hale has traveled to the Sudan and Egypt. Also on the agenda are shared research, a Website, teleconferencing, and shared pedagogical strategies. “I think we will learn a great deal,” Professor Hale says. For example, students at participating Ahfad University in Sudan are “encouraged to do some applied aspects of theoretical research,” she says. “That might be quite a gift to our graduate program, offering ideas about how to link up more directly with communities.”

Published: Tuesday, October 30, 2007