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The PhD Diaries: Identities in Transformation

The PhD Diaries is a series of pieces written by PhD candidates who work in areas associated with the Identities in Transformation research theme. Over the course of several weeks, they will examine their relationship with their research and how it has changed them. Sahar Ahmed is a PhD student in the School of Law, researching the right to freedom of religion within the international human rights legal system and Islamic jurisprudence.

Thesis: From the Divine to the Secular: A Re-Interpretive Study of the Evolution of the Right to Freedom of Religion under Islamic fiqh and International Human Rights Law

When I started my PhD, I made the naïve mistake to think I knew what I was doing. This is of course something all of us learn with time, some through the actual process of research and study, and some through harsh and nasty encounters with reality checks. We don’t know much at all. But I am a brown woman, from Pakistan, belonging to a minority Muslim community, having faced personal and collective religious based discrimination and persecution, and was embarking on a research degree to study the right to freedom of religion. I was diversity. I was difference. I was plurality of thought and knowledge. Surely, that was enough. I was enough. I was terribly wrong.

There is endless scholarship and research on how men in academia tend to dominate discourses and publishing. These men also tend to be white. I came to my PhD having done my masters in International Human Rights Law from SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), University of London, and the module that inspired me to want to do the PhD in the first place was taught by a Black Muslim man. Whether it was intentional or not (although I would like to believe it was the former), the professor in question chose to teach using work written mostly by scholars of colour. My reading lists were full of black and brown names (men, but black and brown nonetheless). I took this to heart and decided rather prematurely that this particular area of the law that I want to study is going to be about us- people of colour and their relationship to faith, being written about and being studied by scholars of colour. I did not realise how drastically uninformed I was. I did not realise how pervasive the white gaze is.

Armed with the names of eminent Islamic scholars like Abdullahi An’ Naim, Mashood Baderin, and Hashim Kamali, I began my research but my first two years were faced by constant setbacks. I was constantly dismayed by the absolute lack of nuance in any of the literature I was reading. I was even more furious by the literature being produced by white men and women about things that they have frankly no business talking about. I found myself being bounced back and forth between people arguing in favour of academic objectivity whilst at the same time being subjected to accusations of ‘mesearch’- an insidious concept used to disparage the work done by scholars of colour for lacking objectivity. In other words, you are obviously working on Islam and minority rights because you are a Muslim woman or that my lived experiences informing my research and my work will not be taken seriously because we, the black and brown bodies, are not considered epistemological authorities on our own lives. Damned if you do research about ‘yourself’ because you are perpetuating the stereotype that the ‘other’ can only research about being ‘othered’ and damned if you don’t because black and brown people are famously unobjective and look at everything through a lens of race….

It is not a coincidence that whilst I was growing uneasy with the direction my research was being forced in to by this white-washed literature I was consuming, I was also deeply unhappy in Ireland and found myself struggling with direct and indirect racism and Islamophobia, inside and outside the academe. My feminist practice and activism was widening and I found myself reaching out to feminist and Muslim womxn of colour beyond Ireland for peer support and validation. But oh! The things I learned! The voices I heard! The words I read! I was not prepared for the truly transformative ways in which my research was about to be shaped and how I was going to be impacted.

It is often said by queer people of colour who create content in online spaces that ‘the patriarchy is in the algorithms’ and the same can be said for academia. I have in the last two years of my PhD come across the frankly revolutionary work of scholars and professors like Amina Wadud, Asma Barlas, Kecia Ali, Shadaab Rahemtulla, and the list is endless. Scholars who are deeply embedded in and committed to Islamic Liberation Theology, by using feminist and queer theory to look at the law and religion and how they intersect, all whilst being continuously conscious and acknowledging of race and its dichotomous nature in how we choose to examine these narratives. I would never have come across their work if I had not been hand-held and specifically directed to them. I needed other scholars of colour to show me this work.

My PhD is still limited within confines of the requirements that a postgraduate research degree is meant to fulfil. But my worldview, my relationship to my research, and most importantly, my relationship to my faith and my identity and how they frame my research, have all transformed radically and I am so proud of myself for it.

Sahar Ahmed

Sahar Ahmed is a PhD student in the School of Law, researching the right to freedom of religion within the international human rights legal system and Islamic jurisprudence. Her research is supported by a Postgraduate Research Studentship. Sahar graduated from the University of London’s International Programme in 2010 with an LL.B (Hons) degree. She then went on to undertake the Bar Professional Training Course at The City Law School, London, being called to the Bar of England and Wales in 2011. She is a barrister member of the Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn. Sahar practiced as a commercial and corporate barrister in Lahore, appearing before the courts as an Advocate of the High Courts of Pakistan. She then studied at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, University of London), reading for the LLM with a concentration in International Human Rights Law, as an Annemarie Schimmel Scholar, and graduated with distinction in 2015. She was also awarded the School of Law Prize for Best Performing LLM Student.