Center for Conflict Studies Knowledge as Action, Action as Change

Panel IV: Gender, Culture and Religious Law

Saturday, November 9, 2012 at 8:30 a.m.

1. Alex Free: Gender differences among Jewish youth in the United States

2. Ingrid Lilly: “Let the Weakling say, ‘I am a Warrior’”: The Phantasmic Sword of Jerusalem’s Destruction in Hebrew Prophetic Literature

3. Mohamad Abdun Nasir: Sharia, the State and Gender: Women’s Judicial Divorces at Indonesian Religious Courts

4. Mahmoud Abdalla: The Impact of Arab Spring on National and Gender Identity

Alex Free


Alex Free is currently a student at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies working toward a Master's Degree in International Policy Studies with a focus on Conflict Resolution. He completed his undergraduate education at the University of Colorado, Boulder in 2009, receiving his Bachelor's in International Affairs with a focus on the Middle East.

After studying post-conflict reconstruction in the former Yugoslavia in 2009, Alex's focus has turned toward post-war reconstruction and conflict transformation particularly with regards to ethnic and religious-based conflict. He is also interested in pursuing a career in post-war development in divided societies.


Gender differences among Jewish youth in the United States

This paper explores the dynamics of religiosity amongst Jewish college students based on gender. Are male or female youths more likely to remain faithful to the religion as they become independent? How do these youths remain faithful, and do they consider themselves religious or rather "culturally Jewish?" What role do the parents and the extended family play for this generation of young Jews? This research delves in to these questions through interviews and secondary research.

The Jewish people consider family relations vital, and it is the woman and mother who passes on the faith through her "spiritual influence." Men and women are considered separate but equal and many Jewish scholars consider the role of women more important than that of men because they are deemed to be the keepers of the faith. Also, Jewish religiousness is based upon the Jewish home, not the synagogue or public life. Just as it is the woman who carries and passes on the spiritual influence, it is the woman who runs the home. Due to this, is there more pressure on girls to remain faithful as they grow older then boys? Young men are often pushed to "marry a nice Jewish girl" in order to make sure their children are raised Jewish, thus guaranteeing the continuity of the faith. However, as they have long been considered to have a lower spiritual influence than girls, do young men have a strong interest in following this creed?

This research, by studying Jewish social groups at universities in California and Colorado, investigates why Jewish youth do or do not continue following their faith. The Hillel House, a relatively liberal collegiate group for Jewish students in the USA, focuses on provoking a renaissance of Jewish life through a balance of Judaism and the pursuit of social justice. Chabad is a more conservative and global group that focuses on providing a Jewish education to all Jews and connecting Jews all around the world. Its Chabad House for collegiate students focuses on three vital questions: Why should I care about my Jewish identity? Why should it matter what kind of Jew I am? Why shouldn’t I date and marry whomever I want? This research looks into role Chabad plays on the lives of young Jewish men and women.

Ingrid Lilly


Ingrid Lilly is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Western Kentucky University where she teaches undergraduates and graduate students. Her first book called Two Books of Ezekiel (Brill, 2012) combines a philological approach to a new manuscript of Ezekiel with a literary study of its different features. This work drew Ingrid into the world of religious violence, as she dealt with issues of military invasion, corpses, and apocalyptic imagery. In addition to introductory courses on Hebrew Bible and Judaism, Ingrid has taught a course on Violence and Religion as well as one on Charisma and Social Movements. Ingrid earned my MAR in Hebrew Bible from Yale Divinity School (2004) and her PhD in Hebrew Bible from Emory University (2010).


“Let the Weakling say, ‘I am a Warrior’”: The Phantasmic Sword of Jerusalem’s Destruction in Hebrew Prophetic Literature

Between the years of 597-587 BCE, Jerusalem was invaded and destroyed by the Babylonians. Rhetoric about divine weaponry saturates the Hebrew prophetic literature set in this period. For example, during Jerusalem’s siege, the prophet Jeremiah ranted against his own city with speeches about Yahweh’s sword of total destruction. For this violent rhetoric, Jeremiah was jailed for high treason.

In the prophetic literature of Jeremiah and Ezekiel especially, the symbol of the sword takes on multiple, inter-dependent meanings. The image works on several levels: as the violent force of imperial invasion, as a symbol of unsteady urban authority, as a subversive articulation of male rage, and as the power of prophetic rhetoric to overwhelm an audience with the ‘productivity’ of weakness.

Perhaps most obviously, the sword serves as a metonym for the military invasion of the colonial power. At times, the metonym of the sword achieves a phantasmic force (Taussig) born out of the terror and trauma of military siege and invasion, for example, in Ezekiel’s sword song (ch. 21). As the sword is hypostatized from military terror and trauma, it all the more elegantly fits in the hand of Yhwh to emphasize his characteristics as a Canaanite deity of war. However, because of the political context whereby Judah is a disobedient vassal under colonial rule, the symbol of Yhwh’s sword equips him for a litigious critique of Judah’s disobedience, working against his role as a protective city deity.

Weilding this sword-rhetoric, the masculine prophet dresses down his male audience to reveal the inherent vulnerability of a colonized Judean man; measuring him up against the ideal of male military heroism even while positioning him as a female, a child, a boy, a man in mourning, or a city under siege. This paper will present the symbolics of the sword, and examine the rhetorical deployment of the sword as a feature of Judean masculinity. I am especially interested in dynamics of individual male prophets (especially Jeremiah and Ezekiel) within the social context of unsteady local authority and the intraspecific, local violence that characterized the years of the fall of Judah. How does the rhetoric of a phantasmic sword and a heroic deity function within the sword-wielding culture of a weakened colonial city on the evening of its invasion and destruction?

Mohamad Abdun Nasir


Mohamad Abdun Nasir is lecturer at Islamic Law School at the State Institute for Islamic Studies (IAIN) Mataram, Lombok, Indonesia. He completed his Master’s degree in Islamic studies at Leiden University, Netherlands in 2004. With the support from Fulbright Presidential Scholarship, he pursues a Doctoral degree in Religion at Emory University, Atlanta. He is now writing his dissertation on women’s judicial divorce at the religious courts in Lombok. His recent co-publication is ‘The Majelis Ulama’s Fatwā on Abortion in Contemporary Indonesia’. The Muslim World, January 2011 (101): 33-52.


Sharia, the State and Gender: Women’s Judicial Divorces at Indonesian Religious Courts

This study examines the integration of Islamic (Shari’a) family law into State laws in Indonesia and its impacts on gender. The dramatically increasing number of divorce petitioned by women to religious courts, reaching more than fifty per cent of the total cases in the last few years, disclose a direct impact of the integration and re-interpretation of Shari’a law into the state law and national judiciary systems. This suggests that despite its patriarchal elements, Islamic law can empower women’s status and agency and reconstitute their gendered legal subjectivity. Under the classical interpretation of Islamic law, women have a little say on household and family matters since men are considered as a head of household. Consequently women often faced legal constraints to terminate their unhappy marriage if they wished so because the religious law only grants men a unilateral privilege to repudiation (talak).

Based on the religious courts’ documents on divorce petitioned by women, the study seeks to explore the evolutionary dimensions of judicial divorce practice at Indonesian Islamic courts and demonstrate how the changes have benefited more to women than men, as the courts’ documents show. This fieldwork-based study, from November 2010 to October 2011, was carried out in Lombok, Indonesia and yet it also used wide court documents from other religious courts across the country to enhance comparative analysis of the patterns and experience of women claiming divorce at court. Using both textual and historical analysis to the substantive rules of religious courts and their transformations and reinterpretation, the study demonstrates that divorce has become a women’ domain, replacing men’s previous domination.

Early judicial divorce practices at religious court were tremendously influenced by classical-medieval Islamic legal discourses, such as khul’ (women paying compensation to their husband to release from the marital union), shiqaq (continuous spousal conflicts), fasakh (broken marriage) and ta’lik talak (conditional divorce). Some other Muslim women “converted” and turned to the court to have their marriage dissolved, because conversion automatically nullifies a Muslim marital union. The introduction of Marriage Law 1/1974, Religious Judicature Act 7/1989 and Compilation of Islamic Law 1/1991 has further transformed judicial divorce from the ones influenced by classical Islamic legal stipulations to the modern practice imbued by the spirit of gender equality. Judicial divorce and its procedure are now determined by the gender of divorce petitioners at court; the one filed by men is called cerai talak and the other one is cerai gugat petitioned by women. These new regulations put men and women at an equal position and authority regarding marital union.

Mahmoud Abdalla


Dr. Mahmoud Abdalla earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in applied linguistics from Essex University and the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom. He has taught and lectured extensively on linguistics, contemporary Middle East, Arab mass media, and teacher education at several academic institutions in the Arab World, Europe and the United States. He is Associate Professor and Coordinator of Arabic Studies Program at the Graduate School of Translation, Interpretation and Language Education at MIIS. He is also Director of Middlebury College Arabic Language School. His research interests include discourse analysis, second language pedagogy, heritage language learning and language, culture and identity. He served as a member of the executive board of the American Association of Teachers of Arabic (AATA) and Center for Arabic Study Abroad Governing Board. He was also a member of Arabic Flagship Overseas council and is currently a member of American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) leadership team to review the Arabic Proficiency guidelines. Dr. Abdalla is heavily involved in the establishment of study abroad programs and teacher professional development. He was recently interviewed by local radio stations on the current events in the Middle East.


The Impact of Arab Spring on National and Gender Identity

The public protest in Egypt and Tunisia lead to the removal of dictators and replacing them with democratically elected leaders. Libya and Yemen went through a similar experience but both countries are still struggling to find their way during the transition period. While this movement or what is referred to as “Arab spring” is welcomed by the international community, a number of concerns with regard to human rights, gender equality and national identity of minorities and ethnic and religious groups in the region exist. The fear stems from the rise of political Islam and the dominance of Islamists in the recent elections in North Africa. Although al-Nahda movement in Tunisia and Muslim Brothers in Egypt repeatedly send reassuring messages that they are keen to establish a civil state based on freedom and social justice, there is an increasing demand to restrict the power of religious authorities and allow for a participatory process that include all political parties and minorities.

There is no doubt that religion is deeply rooted in Arab society and certainly affects people’s daily life. But religious authorities in the region are generally seen as conservative, self-serving and bias against women and minorities. For these reasons, Arab civil society movements have called for reform that aims at building political systems which provide equal opportunity to all citizens regardless of ethnicity, religious affiliation or gender. The controversy over whether or not to reconsider and revise laws of personal status regarding marriage, divorce, and inheritance as well as freedom of faith causes a challenge to the new regimes.

This paper will discuss the status of ethnic and religious minorities in the newly established constitutions in Egypt and Tunisia focusing on gender equality and women’s rights. It will also discuss the future of minorities in the light of the new changes in the Middle East. Two questions will be addressed: to what extent will the new regimes allow ethnic groups and religious minorities (e.g. Copts, Baha’is) to fully engage and participate in the political process? And will the new wave of democracy create a better environment to revive and protect their culture and identity?