Laury Silvers, University of Toronto
Disappearing Women: Hafsa bint Sirin
and the Textual Seclusion of Early Pious and Sufi Women
Thursday, February 16, 4:30pm
CURA (10 Lenox St., Brookline, MA)
First Floor Conference Room
Within a few centuries of Muhammad’s death, women disappear almost entirely from Muslim biographical literature and mystical and ethical manuals. Rkia Cornell has called women’s history in early Islam “a veiled tradition,” not only because of women’s absence from texts but also because the tradition idealizes female piety as silence and isolation. Silvers explores and expands Cornell’s observation by reading against the grain of biographical reports from Islam’s first century on pious and Sufi women. She shows that transmitters have re-framed, de-emphasized, and even erased depictions of women’s socially embedded lives in order to construct an ideal woman whose submission to God serves the patriarchal ideal of seclusion. For instance, biographers depict a highly esteemed pious woman, Hafsa bt. Sirin of Basra (d. ca. 110/728), as a woman who did not simply retreat to her home–for homes are social spaces–but into a room within her home for some thirty years until her death. Yet Hafsa, a woman who enjoyed extraordinary intimacy with God, was also a daughter sensitive to issues of family social status, a learned woman who taught men in her home, a corpse-washer, and a devoted, grieving mother. Silvers will argue that despite a literary tradition that is directed to produce the opposite message, that for Hafsa there does not seem to have been a contradiction between a life of worship and a life lived in the company of other people.
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