This roundtable honors the scholarship and mentorship of Dr. Judith Tucker on the occasion of her retirement from Georgetown University. Dr. Tucker has been a pioneer and leading scholar of Middle East history since the 1980s, shaping the field in foundational ways. Her scholarship has made critical contributions in the areas of political economy, labor, Islamic law, and gender and empire. For nearly four decades, Dr. Tucker has been a dedicated mentor and teacher to hundreds of students, including scholars who have gone on to shape the field of Middle Eastern and North African History in innovative ways.
Each of the panel participants will reflect on her myriad contributions and the ways in which she has shaped their intellectual development and research practices. As the participants will note, Dr. Tucker’s scholarship and mentorship launched many of us onto our scholarly paths. Her work modeled ways to center gendered and classed experiences of colonial rule, to take female leadership in modern history seriously, and to read against the patriarchal grain to access these diverse experiences. She encouraged us to pay attention to rebellious actions and actors and people fighting for their rights through reading sources with care and concern for the social and political structures that have sought to silence or write the rebelliousness out of history. As a result of her encouragement and mentoring, we embarked on research that has unearthed new historical subjects: students and teachers challenging colonial strictures, pre-modern conceptions of disability rights, women in nationalist and feminist struggles, and peasants and workers caught in the grip of colonial capitalist regimes. This roundtable will speak to how Dr. Tucker’s guidance and inspiration enabled us in telling the stories of those left out of history for so long.
Judith Tucker is the kind of intellectually capacious scholar who can shape your scholarship even when her work seems completely unrelated to yours. Her pioneering work on peasant women in 19th century Egypt, on Islamic law, and in women and gender studies more broadly inspired my own on colonialism and education in the Levant by being a model of how to theorize-while-feminist; of how to think, pose, and – crucially! – tweak your research questions; and of how to be a bold researcher and scholar without bombast or ego: constantly pursue the sources, hone the methods, and sharpen the writing. Judith Tucker is also the kind of mentor whose value AS a mentor continues to unfurl over a lifetime. To her female graduate students in particular, she modeled how to stay empowered in patriarchal and sexist settings, and how to command respect and authority with integrity. She went to bat for us, silently but always effectively. Her unwavering dedication to justice in all its forms has continually informed her professional and personal relationships with her students, colleagues, and friends (all three often in one package). She remains my model of how to be generous and collegial even when critical, how to respect differences in scholarly interests, and above all, how to be warm, loving, and funny even in the most challenging of times. The number of people we can look up to tends to decrease as we get older; I am incredibly fortunate that Judith remains a model for me as scholar and teacher. Her scholarship and her mentorship have truly defined an era.
I could write many pages about what an exceptional mentor and role model Judith Tucker was for me (and for generations of historians of the Middle East), but I will focus here on the enormous impact her work had on helping me to find my scholarly passion, so to speak. The book that influenced my academic trajectory most powerfully is her In the House of the Law: Gender and Islamic Law in Ottoman Syria and Palestine (1998), which she completed while I was in the very early stages of my Ph.D. at Georgetown University. At the time, I was trying to discern a viable and exciting (to me, at least) dissertation topic. I knew that I wanted to work on gender in the Ottoman Empire, but little beyond that. In the House of the Law introduced me, among other things, to the world of fatwas. I was especially captivated by Tucker’s reading of the voluminous collection by the 17th-century Palestinian mufti Khayr al-Din al-Ramli. Tucker loaned me her copy for a paper I was writing for a class. As I pored over it, I came across fatwas about khunthas (“hermaphrodites”) that captivated me and compelled me to think in fresh ways about gender difference. That was the seed of my dissertation project, a project that later expanded to include embodied difference more broadly, and eventually grew into the first modern study of both physical and mental impairments in Middle Eastern history. It is no exaggeration to say without Judith Tucker’s work my scholarship on disability would not exist.
For my contribution to the roundtable, I will focus on Judith Tucker’s work on Islamic law and women and its influence on the field and my own work. She has authored two books, Women, Family, and Gender in Islamic Law (Cambridge, 2008) and In the House of the Law: Gender and Islamic Law in Ottoman Syria and Palestine (University of California Press, 1998) and several book chapter and articles that use innovative sources to elucidate gendered practices of the law. In doing so, she combines a nuanced reading of laws, court documents, and legal opinions with a deep understanding of how these conceptions impacted the lives of individuals and families.
There are two aspects of this work that I continue to find indispensable—even as I have pursued subjects that may seem far afield, such as education, language, and, more recently, historical memory. The first, is the questions that Tucker asks in her work: questions about the omnipresent role of gender in shaping our past and about the role of class and power in the constructions of our societal systems. And the second is her groundbreaking reading of sources that shows us that even the most staid and “official” sources can illuminate histories well beyond the most privileged few. I would not claim these are the only—or even the most influential—of her many contributions to our understanding of Middle East history. However, I have found them to be crucial to my formation as a historian, the questions I ask, and the way I try to narrate the past.
In 1988, I arrived at Georgetown to enter the MAAS program fresh from having spent the past two years living and working in Ramallah. I reluctantly left during the exhilarating early months of the first intifada. It is miraculous that I was accepted into this program. I was a complete neophyte. I had no academic background in anything related to the Middle East, I had been out of college for eleven years, and had spent the last two weeks of my senior year in college in jail for my participation in a demonstration, which undermined my undergraduate transcript. It was Judith who saw past these deficiencies. It was Judith who inspired me to become a scholar and intellectual. Oddly enough, it was her course in Arab historiography that captivated me, who had no idea what the word historiography even meant when I began the course, and who had hardly taken any history courses as an undergraduate. Judith made Arab history thrilling. I fell in love with it, transferred out of the MAAS program and entered the history PhD program the following fall.
In the 1980s, Middle East women's history was in its infancy. Historical narratives about Middle East women were scarce, and finding sources was deeply challenging. Women were almost completely missing and marginalized. Concrete data on women was practically nonexistent, and exploration of concepts of gender was also in its infancy. Judith was a shining light, influence and inspiration who opened doors that led to the development of one of the most innovative and exciting fields in Middle East Studies. Her deeply researched, rich and engaging first book on Egyptian women in the nineteenth century became a classic, and her innovative use of court records was part of a wave of new scholarship that led to empirically grounded and theoretically sophisticated interpretations of the lives of those left out of history. In this roundtable, I will reflect on my own scholarship, which examines the transformations in the lives of Middle Eastern middle class women and men brought about by the forces of nationalism, colonialism, feminism, and the key role women played in these transformations, and they ways in which Judith's ntellectual contributions have informed this work.
A recent graduate from Cairo university, I met Judith Tucker for the first time in Egypt in 1999. I was passionately interested in feminist theories, and I heard that a famous specialist from the U.S. was offering a course I could take at AUC. I did not know at the time that this single course would alter my life forever. I was a middle-class, brown girl from south Egypt who decided to do big things in her life. Tucker reached out with her hand, pulled my research gems out of Upper Egypt’s Nile mud, and opened up fantastic doors of opportunities for me. As I grabbed these opportunities, she gave me a new birth.
I came to the U.S. to study with the star matriarch of a field I had a burning desire to learn: women in Islamic law. I took every course she taught and read every book she wrote, especially my favorite In the House of Law. While she walked us through fatwas and court cases of women audaciously negotiating for marriage or divorce wins, I doubted to myself that Tucker was not actually born somewhere near Damascus around 1630, or in a town in Egypt’s Delta around 1880. After guiding my MA thesis on the theory of Islamic law, she immediately welcomed me to join the warm circles of her PhD advisees.
I came to Georgetown in 2001, amidst the September 11 crisis and witnessed the U.S. “empire” entering Baghdad. Her Arab students then needed emotional support, and she generously extended the personal care we needed to academically survive. Her critical thoughts on U.S. imperialism and older work on low-class women resenting colonial capitalism in Egyptian villages (Women in Nineteenth-century Egypt) inspired me to embark on a new subject for my PhD dissertation: empires and rebellious subalterns.
She supported me in getting a good job, yet in a small town in rural America. Seeing the misery in the eyes of the Cairo girl, she said: “when life gives you lemon, make lemonades.” I did make lots of lemonades since then, i.e., published many books with her eternal backing.
Judith Tucker’s prolific scholarship throughout her career aimed to empower subaltern women in the Middle East, and she delivered on her academic mission by giving one of those very women, a brown girl from Upper Egypt, a chance she believed I deserved to get.