Female Ways of Knowing Islam in a West African Context: Gender and Embodied Knowledge in Muslim Benin


Anna Madeleine Ayeh

Research Area:


My PhD project "Female Ways of Knowing Islam" seeks to explore the links between gender and religious knowledge in the Beninese context. Focussing mainly on Muslim women, it analyses the multiple ways (religious) knowledge is generated, legitimized, validated, transmitted, questioned, contested, governed, and fructified.


While male Muslim relations with/authority over religious knowledge have been discussed at length within social sciences and African Studies, analyses of female religious knowing remain at the margins of academic interest. The reasons for this marginalization are manifold and lie only partially in an actual marginalization of women in the public sphere of Muslim societies, but to a large extend in a history of (academic) misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Islam, Muslim women, and Africa, conflated with colonial imagery. Those analyses actually highlighting female engagements with religious knowledge are mostly presenting cases of female (public) authority as illustrious exceptions.


In contrast, this project works a) with a focus on the everyday practices of knowing and b) with a broad definition of knowledge. From the theoretical vantage point of learning as the embodiment of knowledge, modes and forms of knowing studied encompass not only textual, but also practical, tacit, bodily, implicit, generational, and habitual learning. Such a perspective allows to transcend prior binary conceptualizations such as formal/informal, orthodox/heterodox, public/private, in-school/out-of-school, providing a broad analytical framework for a wide array of practices of knowing.


The project revolves around the following questions:

  • What is being acknowledged as religious knowledge by Beninese Muslim women? What are the epistemic groundings of this knowledge?
  • How, where, in which contexts, from whom do Beninese Muslim women acquire religious knowledge? What happens to the knowledge in this process?
  • How, where, in which contexts do Beninese Muslim women pass on religious knowledge? What happens to the knowledge in this process?
  • In which ways is religious knowledge embedded in/tied to individual biographies or certain stages of them?
  • What are the relations between religious knowledge and other life-structuring regimes such as politics, economy, or kinship?
  • Which kind of discourses does the wider community/society apply to govern female relations with religious knowledge? What is the women’s stance towards these discourses? What are their own discourses?


The project will be carried out multilocally, using classical qualitative methods of anthropology, namely participant observation and (biographic) interviews. A strong emphasis will lie on the reflection of my own cognitive processes of approaching, knowing, portraying, and writing up the topic. In doing so, this project seeks to contribute to academic debates on gender, (Islamic) knowledge, and reflexive anthropology as well as to transcend binary conceptualizations of Islamic practices, especially in the African context.