The Politics of Citation

For the last couple of years, I’ve been working on a book about the gender politics of academic Islamic Studies. Islamic Studies is a contested and fluid field overlapping philology, area studies, religious studies, and theology. It’s also a microcosm of broader debates over professional formation, discrimination, and what constitutes legitimate scholarship.

photo credit:  Siora Photography , via  Unsplash

photo credit: Siora Photography, via Unsplash

Study after study demonstrates bias, racial and gendered, in the academy across disciplines. There’s bias in classroom evaluations, hiring, invitations to deliver papers, Wikipedia coverage, inclusion in edited volumes, and, especially relevant to professional status, citations. I am neither a sociologist nor a statistician, but one needn’t undertake a bibliometric analysis to prove what is, even on minimal good-faith reflection, obvious: gender bias operates in the mundane life of our field, including and perhaps especially in what Sara Ahmed describes as its politics of citation.

Citation is the currency of academia. Current measurements are, at best, imprecise indicators of impact, especially for the humanities. Citation indexes are particularly bad at measuring books, which are important in most Islamic Studies. Yet, while I do not want to encourage the culture of genuflection to the almighty metric, some basic quantification can show the scope of the problem.

After some trial and error, I’ve chosen a mixed approach to assessing how Islamic Studies books treat women as historical agents and scholarly authorities. I hand-count women named in indexes, in the main body of the book, and in citations and/or bibliographies. I also attempt to account qualitatively for how women’s work is discussed in comparison to how men’s work is discussed. No single indicator can account for all the ways in which women’s lives, stories, scholarship, and ideas are ignored, downplayed, or discredited, but these overlapping measures give a reasonable impression of common practices.

Simply not citing work by women and non-binary scholars is one common pitfall. This can mean writing about domestic violence in the Islamic tradition, consulting primary sources alone while ignoring the major monograph and a journal special issue on domestic violence in the Islamic tradition. Or it can mean citing men’s decades-old work on Islamic family law while avoiding the cutting edge work by women scholars that has superseded it.

Another is citing non-male scholars’ work in the notes while failing to name them in text, yet naming men when discussing their work. This is better than simply pretending we haven't written anything relevant, but it renders percentages of citations/works in bibliography misleading. It overstates how much attention is given to women’s scholarship and diminishes women’s scholarly authority. (Indexes, while by no means perfect as indicators of prominence in a book, reflect this bias when they include individuals named in the main text but not only in the notes.)

A few men have suggested that the real problem is not the failure to engage women’s writings but the failure to engage secondary scholarship in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and other Islamicate languages. That’s all well and good — and I’m among those guilty on this score — but it sets up a false opposition: women write in those languages as well. Their works are among the most neglected.

Citation, as Jenn Jackson and the members of the Cite Black Women Collective note, is essential to constructing our fields. Jackson advocates “structural inclusion” rather than mere supplementary citation. This matters because, as the organizers of a year-long citation challenge point out, “our practices of citation make and remake our fields, making some forms of knowledge peripheral” and, as always, centering others.

Even if I were to devote the bulk of my professional energies for the next several years to refining a methodology for large-scale assessment of citation, it’s still unlikely that I would convince everyone there is a citation gender gap. If I accounted for geographic location, language of publication, and status within the academy, and if I also considered the race, gender, degree program, religious affiliation, and traditional training of the authors, and if I then factored in colloquium and lecture invitations, participation in child-rearing or other caregiving duties, and department of current appointment, would I be able to convince everyone? Again, probably not. Haters gonna hate.

What, then, am I trying to do? I’m interested in convincing my skeptical but open-minded colleagues to pause, reflect, and think differently. I want them to look at their research bibliographies and note who is missing from the list and why. And because citation is only one element in a scholarly ecosystem, I want them to look at who they invite to present in speaker series and on panels and who they ask to contribute to journal special issues and edited volumes and festschrifts. I want to shift our field’s collective sense of what is a reasonable way to go about our business. I want us to read differently and write differently. I want us to be able to point out to others — and to bear having others point out to us — when we fail. And then I want us to do better.

Kecia Ali

Kecia Ali is Professor of Religion at Boston University. Her research ranges from Islam’s formative period to the present, and focuses on Islamic law, gender, and sexuality. She is the author of several books including The Lives of Muhammad and Sexual Ethics and Islam. You can read more about her work at