William & Mary

Visit the hidden world of women, Islamic performance

  • Tack Faculty lecturer
    Tack Faculty lecturer  Anne Rasmussen, professor of music and ethnomusicology and the Bickers Professor of Middle Eastern studies, will present the fall Tack Faculty Lecture on “Women Out-Loud: The Gendered Landscape of Islamic Performance" on Sept. 12 at 7 p.m. at the Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium. A leading expert in the field, Rasmussen has also directed W&M’s Middle Eastern Music Ensemble since 1994.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Anne Rasmussen was living in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 1995 when she stumbled into an exciting new world she has never stopped exploring. 

She will share her vast experience in that world on Sept. 12 at 7 p.m. when she delivers the fall Tack Faculty Lecture at Sadler Center’s Commonwealth Auditorium. Titled “Women Out-Loud: The Gendered Landscape of Islamic Performance,” admission is free and open to the public. It is requested that people planning to attend RSVP.

Rasmussen was attending a festival at Indonesia’s national mosque when she happened upon a contest for the Muslim call to prayer. A panel of 16 judges wearing black robes was evaluating contestants, one after another, who were performing their calls in full voice and with an Arab melodic style.

She was astounded. Despite a background in Arab music, the ability to play and sing in Arabic, and some knowledge of religious performance, she had never heard anything like this.

{{youtube:medium:center|1RzGC1pgixo, Rasmussen performs}}

One of the judges told her that he taught the Arab melodies of Quran recitation at the Institute for the Study of the Quran, a college for women in South Jakarta. She accepted his invitation to sit in on his class but, when the day came, got cold feet. That night, the house phone rang. Amazingly, the professor had tracked her down to reiterate his invitation to class at the Institute. 

“It’s such a formative moment in anyone’s life when you have anybody — a friend, parent, sibling, stranger — open the door for you and push you over the threshold,” said Rasmussen, professor of music and ethnomusicology and the Bickers Professor of Middle Eastern studies at William & Mary. She has also directed W&M’s Middle Eastern Music Ensemble since 1994. “That person doesn’t just invite you to the party, rather they tell you they’re going to pick you up and bring you to it! That’s basically what he was saying: ‘Please join us! I’m giving you another chance.’

“That invitation opened a whole world for me of women, college-age students, and their professors, who pursue Quranic studies, including a very virtuosic and melodic style of recitation known throughout the Muslim world. And many of these fine reciters are also connected to a wide variety of musical styles called 'Islamic musical arts.'”

Rasmussen promises that her lecture will enlighten her audience about the creative and lively communities of Indonesians, particularly women, who work “in the business of religion” while debunking many misconceptions that continue to undermine our understanding of the so-called Muslim world.

For example, the largest Muslim population in the world resides in Indonesia, not Egypt or Syria or Saudi Arabia. As a result, Indonesia’s Muslim traditions are rich and varied, said Rasmussen. Today, hardline Islamic groups that distrust expressive culture — especially music, local traditions and the public participation of women — pose a threat to Indonesia’s long-standing practice of religious tolerance, diversity and women’s voices in the religious mix, she said. Rasmussen’s work is situated at the intersection of these currents.

The Quranic recitation festivals Rasmussen describes are part of a huge system of competitions, and women and girls make up 50 percent of the competitors. They hone their skills in local, grassroots competitions and move through regional, national and even international competition circuits.

In Indonesia, “Women’s bodies and voices are not problematic in the way they are elsewhere in the world,” she said. “There have not been layers of history where men say, ‘Whoa, if we listen to the voice of a woman, it’s going to make us think about things other than religion.’ There, women’s voices are ‘just regular.’ People have told me that it’s good for women to be working in the name of religion. If they have a good voice, it’s much better that they work as a reciter, for example, than to sing in a nightclub. The woman’s voice has not been  such a big deal in Indonesia and it has not been censored.”

The Indonesian institutions that promote this kind of development are Islamic boarding schools which, Rasmussen said, is another flashpoint for a largely ignorant Western world.

“The thought is, ‘Oh, all they do is teach fire and brimstone,’” Rasmussen said. “But religious boarding schools are a huge educator in Indonesia. They also teach reading, writing and arithmetic, social skills and community engagement. The Islamic education system is very interesting and unique to Indonesia.”The official poster (Poster by Melissa Payne)

Rasmussen is on a mission of sorts, one fueled by a trend in the West to dampen curiosity about the Muslim world with stereotypes.

“Sometimes referred to as Orientalism or more recently, Islamophobia, the tendency to stereotype was exacerbated following the September 11 terrorist attacks of 2001 and are further reinforced today by glib proposals of a ‘Muslim ban,’” she said. “And when it comes to music, or performance, or women in the Muslim world, there are just a lot of misconceptions swirling around.”

The so-called Muslim world, Rasmussen explained, is an extraordinarily complex part of our society because it covers a variety of continents, cultures and languages.

“Rather than try to understand it, however, it has been easier to paint Muslim peoples and cultures with a very broad brush,” she said.   

“Since this is a pervasive mindset that has been with us for decades, even centuries, it is important, I think to share my experience of the intersection of women’s voices and religious practice and to provide a glimpse into the very human realms where culture is created in performance. I look forward to sharing my research and a bit of this exciting world at my upcoming Tack Lecture.”

The Tack Faculty Lecture Series is made possible through a generous commitment by Martha ’78 and Carl Tack ’78. Initially launched in 2012, the Tack’s commitment has created an endowment for the series of speakers from the W&M faculty. Rasmussen’s lecture will be the 14th in this popular event. The fall 2018 lecture is part of the yearlong schedule of events commemorating the 100th anniversary of women being admitted to William & Mary.