A Look Back
By Jane I. Smith
Jane I. Smith at her 2012 retirement celebration. HDS Photo/Steve Gilbert
Jane I. Smith recently retired from Harvard Divinity School, after four years as the associate dean for faculty and academic affairs. Smith had previously served on the HDS faculty for thirteen years—including six years as the associate director of the Center for the Study of World Religions. A farewell panel discussion was held in her honor in April 2012, where leading scholars discussed the impact of her research and teaching in the fields of Muslim-Christian relations, Muslim communities in the United States, and women in Islam. To show our appreciation for Jane Smith’s many contributions to the HDS community, we excerpt here from a Q&A with Smith that was published in the April 1977 issue of the Bulletin in which she reflects on her recently delivered Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality. Smith proposes a more nuanced approach when attempting to understand contemporary Muslim women’s roles and/or to engage in interfaith dialogue, suggestions that are as relevant today as they were thirty-five years ago.
As a matter of fact, a great many Muslims are concerned these days with attempting to explain the role of women in the Islamic view. . . . Rather than looking at such questions as “How have women been dealt with historically in Islam? What is the role of women in Qur’ān and traditions?” etc., I think it is important now to hear contemporary Muslim women talking about their own roles in society and to what extent those roles are defined and conditioned by their own religious tradition. In 1975 we had a conference at the Center on “The Role and Status of Women in Contemporary Muslim Societies.” . . . At that time Muslim and non-Muslim women talked exclusively about Muslim women. Yet even more important than that, I think, is to bring together Muslim and non-Muslim women to talk together about themselves and each other, about comparative roles and expectations of women, whether or not changes are desirable and/or possible, and what are seen as relative bases of authority, religious and otherwise.
. . . [T]he Center several years ago invited six or seven women from non-Christian faiths to talk about the ways in which women’s roles have been defined by their own religious traditions. Among other things, some of them felt free to say what they thought was problematic about the way some American women are dealing with issues of liberation. This clarified for me even more the necessity of understanding how questions need to be seen from within a particular context and also from the vantage point of an outside perspective. Some of these women stated plainly that the ways in which we as organizers of this session tried to frame the issues simply are often not applicable to their own circumstances, and they explained the questions that they are posing to themselves and the ways in which they are attempting to answer them.
I’m convinced that it is possible to lift dialogue out of the context of a pre-set style and pre-questions and to begin to formulate inquiries from the other perspective, which is a skill that we are increasingly recognizing as crucial for scholars who are studying other religions and other societies.