Published June 28, 2022
Who is a Muslim woman? What is it really like for women who live in the Middle East? How are they using their voices for efforts of resistance and empowerment?
Naila Sahar is answering these questions while breaking down barriers and stereotypes through her research and a course she is teaching — “Women in the Middle East” — in the Department of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies.
Sahar first traveled to Buffalo from Pakistan with her family when she was selected as a Fulbright scholar. From 2013-18, she completed her PhD in English with faculty mentor Carine Mardorossian, professor in the departments of English and Global Gender and Sexuality Studies, who chaired her PhD committee. Sahar focused her research on overcoming barriers that deter Muslim women from voicing their concerns and challenging stereotypes, either in script or action.
While living in the U.S. during her studies, Sahar says she observed how Americans often had the perception that Muslim women need to be empowered. “Being a Muslim woman from Pakistan myself, I thought that there was a lot that needed rectification regarding these stereotypes,” she says.
In her final year at UB, she took second place in UB’s Three Minute Thesis competition for her presentation, “Who is a Muslim woman?” She also published her research project, “Reimagining Muslim women: Gendered Religious Life and Resistance in the Age of Islamophobia,” in various journals and edited books.
When she completed her doctoral studies, her family moved back to Pakistan so that she could fulfill the residency obligation for the Fulbright scholar program. Now, she has returned to UB for her second tour after obtaining yet another highly competitive and prestigious achievement in academia: an American Association of University Women (AAUW) Postdoctoral International Fellowship. This time, she chose Buffalo and UB of her own accord.
Her responsibilities with the AAUW fellowship include teaching and researching the social and religious activism of Muslim women migrants and refugees in the Middle East and South Asia. In her course, she encourages students to explore the roles of women in the Middle East. Students learn about women’s emancipation and resistance movements in these countries and their impact on Islamic tradition. Sahar begins the course with a lesson in geography to ensure students fully consider the locations and languages discussed as a framework to dive deeper into complex teachings.
“My concentration and area of expertise is Muslim women and their resistance strategies that lead to their empowerment and agency,” says Sahar. “So, one thing I explain to the students is that being a Middle Eastern woman does not specifically mean you are also Muslim – you may be Christian or Jewish as well.
“It’s important that during this course I help them to realize misconceptions about Muslim women and help break down the stereotypes step by step,” she continues.
From Sahar, students learn everything from how popular Middle Eastern music is intertwined with activism to complex theoretical frameworks. She uses many tools to connect with and story-tell to her students while heavily utilizing two-way discussion: both professor to student and student to professor.
“One of the best things about the course that makes me very excited to teach it is when students say that most of the things I’m teaching, they are hearing for the first time,” she says.
That excitement carries over to her research and publications. “I decided that when there are such urgent issues in need of discussion, that it has to be my research,” says Sahar, who is always diligently working, adding to and refining her research about the religious activism of Muslim women migrants and refugees.
And as for her being back in Buffalo? She is thrilled.
“I have two kids who are now 13 and 11, who were really small when they came with me for those five years during my PhD, so they have kind of grown up here,” she says. “It is through them that I also discovered Buffalo. They made friends here. They went to school here. A major part of them growing up happened here,” she adds.
“My journey in Buffalo is very exciting. It has become such a dynamic in my life and it made me believe in myself,” she says. “Buffalo is a happy place to me. Buffalo is home.”