Dr Karen E H Skinazi

Bridging the Great Divide: the Jewish-Muslim Encounter


I am a scholar of multiethnic, women's, and American literature, and as of September 2018, senior teaching fellow and Director of Liberal Arts at the University of Bristol.

In the final stages of writing my research monograph, Women of Valor: Orthodox Jewish Troll Fighters, Crime Writers, and Rock Stars in Contemporary Literature and Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2018) last year, I found myself repeatedly comparing the situations and experiences of Orthodox Jewish women to those of Muslim women. Why was it, I wondered, that the attitudes toward both were near identical? In mainstream, secular culture, Orthodox Jewish and Muslim women are regarded as victims of archaic, oppressive, patriarchal religions, and their commitments to their faiths suggest the women are, at worst, coerced into their religious practice, and at best, suffering from false consciousness. I knew this view was narrow and limited when it came to Orthodox Jewish women. Was it not possible—nay, likely—that the same was true regarding Muslim women?

It was at this time that I first saw an advertisement for Bridging the Great Divide: the Jewish-Muslim Encounter. I hoped that the course would offer me the opportunity to learn more about Islam and about Muslims, and also to help me develop an understanding of the relationship between Jews and Muslims. To be honest, the course was far more comprehensive and engaging than I could have imagined. We covered a large swathe of history and geography and gained insights into the exciting research that is being done by many scholars in the field.

There is a lot from this course that I will carry with me. I work at University of Birmingham, which supported my enrolment as part of a collaborative project with a scholar in the United States. This course has helped me think and read deeply about the subject; my collaborator, Dr Rachel Harris of University of Illinois, and I are currently putting together a special issue of the journal Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies on religious women's feminist art, and I am using some of the reading material and my assignments to help inform my own contribution to the issue. I also intend for my next book to pick up where my first one left off, in that rich interface between Orthodox Jewish and Muslim women's lives and literature.

I am a resident of Birmingham (UK), a multicultural city, and a governor of an Orthodox Jewish school with a student population that is about 80% Muslim. Thus, I am also grateful that the ideas arising from and discussion on the course with peers and tutors have helped develop my thinking in ways that allow me to better navigate complex, intercultural, and interreligious relationship in my everyday life.

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