She has bright, clear eyes and a firm handshake. A loose headscarf covers most of her hair. She has advanced degrees from a university in Cairo and Harvard University, and she plans to spend her remaining time in Utah hiking and skiing with her husband and son. Tahera Qutbuddin is the Muslim woman that no “Islamophobe” would ever want you to meet.
Tahera Qutbuddin, professor of Arabic literature at the University of Chicago, described “The Experience of Being a Muslim Woman” at a lecture March 20 at the Kennedy Center, where an audio recording is available.
The lecture did not shy away from controversial topics like women’s education, women’s rights, gender roles and veiling.
Qutbuddin explained the importance of modesty in dress and manner for men and women in Islam, but she added that Islam is practiced in many different ways, and there are at least three major styles of modesty for Muslim women. She has not seen any of them restrict determined women, though.
“I’ve seen full burqa-wearing women working the immigration desk,” Qutbuddin said, describing an airport in the Middle East.
Blythe Beecroft, an attendee at the lecture, grew up in Saudi Arabia and watched her mother experience wearing the full abaya in Saudi Arabia. “Sometimes you can’t really tell who’s your mom and who isn’t,” Beecroft said.
The international relations major is the TA for the Wednesday lecture series, and although Beecroft has seen all the lectures, Qutbuddin’s was one of her favorites because it addressed these controversial issues insightfully.
Qutbuddin is from India, but she discussed the recent ban on full-face veils, called the niqab, in France, Belgium and Italy. She described it scornfully as “a dramatic insistence on a French way of being a woman.”
Qutbuddin scoffed at the idea of her own modest clothes restricting her movement or hurting her health. To the Western argument that such clothes indicated oppression by Muslim men, she pointed to high heels, pornography and some forms of plastic surgery as proof that objectification could be harming Western women.
She added that in Muslim countries “education is the answer,” but the “legal shenanigans” sometimes used to restrict women in these countries have no basis in the Quran, the holy book of Islam.
“There are many women honored in the Holy Quran, chief among them Mary, or Maryam in Arabic, mother of Jesus,” Qutbuddin said.
Professor of Islamic studies and Middle Eastern Studies Department Chair James Toronto invited Qutbuddin to speak after seeing her at an Islamic panel at BYU while she was teaching at the University of Utah. Qutbuddin offered Toronto several possible topics for her lecture, and he selected women’s issues because of its general interest.
“She didn’t downplay issues in the Muslim world,” he said.
Toronto was impressed with Qutbuddin’s insistence that Muslims take responsibility for solving these problems.
“She wanted the audience to know that there are reasons that may not be apparent that women might veil,” Toronto said.
Acting as an ambassador for her often-misunderstood faith, Qutbuddin urged audience members to consider new ideas about Islam.
“I wear a head-cover and full-body garment, and I find these cotton garments supremely comfortable,” Qutbuddin said.