Dr. Judith Tucker at the 2022 MESA panel dedicated to her academic legacy
A Tribute to Professor Emerita Judith Tucker
At this year’s Middle East Studies Association (MESA) annual meeting, held in early December, CCAS Professors Fida Adely and Rochelle Davis organized a roundtable entitled “Gender, Capitalism, Law and Empire” in honor of Professor Dr. Judith Tucker who recently retired after nearly four decades at CCAS and Georgetown. Dr. Beth Baron, Professor of History at CUNY, and several of Judith’s former students were invited to present prepared comments, excerpts of which are included below. The room was packed with Judith admirers—former students, colleagues, and scholars familiar with her work. After the prepared remarks were shared, the floor was opened and the testimonials from the audience poured in. While we cannot capture all of their sentiments here, we’d like to mention a few. MAAS alum Dr. Benan Grams spoke about Judith’s encouragement in the early years of her graduate career. Dr. Jeff Reger, a former student and executive director of MESA also spoke about her mentorship and support. Dr. Bassam Haddad, a MAAS alum and a founding editor of the Arab Studies Journal, which he co-founded with a group of MAAS students in the early 1990s, described how instrumental Judith was to their project of starting a journal, actively supporting them in this endeavor. Dr. Suad Jospeh contributed that Judith’s work and career were significant not only for her students but also to those more senior than her. A former student who had been trained at Al Azhar, remarked that Judith taught him what feminism was and helped him to move beyond a view of it being about a “clash” or conflict. Another scholar from Lebanon rose and said that although she had never met Judith, Judith’s work changed her scholarly trajectory, as well as her own personal understanding of her faith, her position as a woman in her society and within her own family. One scholar elicited laughs when she said “Judith was not my advisor, but after hearing all of you, I wish she had been!” Many shared their sentiments and the gratitude and celebratory mood were palpable. The session ended with a warm response and comments from Judith, who extended her thanks to everyone for being there and for taking time to share such special tributes.
The panel was a fitting celebration not only of Professor Tucker’s tremendous contributions and lasting legacy as a scholar in the field of Middle East history, but also—as demonstrated by the many heartfelt tributes shared that day—of the incalculable impact she has made on the lives of others around the world as a teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend. The following tributes are shortened excerpts of the remarks shared by the panelists and others at the MESA panel.
Professor Emerita, Department of History, University of Dayton
It was Judith Tucker who inspired me to become a scholar and intellectual. In 1988, I entered the Masters in Arab Studies program fresh from having spent two years living and teaching in Ramallah. My motivation was to gain credentials for work in human rights or at an NGO to help further the Palestinian cause. But taking Judith’s course in early Arab historiography captivated me, who had hardly taken any history courses and had no idea what the word “historiography” even meant. She made Arab history thrilling, and it speaks to her strong teaching skills that I entered the history PhD program the following fall.
My intellectual and academic coming of age coincided with noteworthy changes in the field of Middle East Studies in which Judith played a major role. Scholars of the new left mounted challenges to dominant paradigms like modernization theory and had begun to produce social history on marginalized groups. At the time, women were almost completely missing from history writing about the Middle East. Finding sources on women was deeply challenging, concrete data was practically nonexistent, and exploration of concepts of gender was in its infancy. Judith—now considered a founding mother of Middle East women’s studies—was a shining light whose work influenced generations of scholars and opened doors that led to the development of one of the most innovative and exciting fields within the discipline. Her deeply researched, rich and engaging first book on Egyptian women in the nineteenth century became a classic, and her innovative use of court records was part of a wave of new scholarship that led to empirically grounded and theoretically sophisticated interpretations of the lives of those left out of history.
I entered graduate school in the midst of what seemed to be an exciting, hopeful and promising change in Palestinians’ image and status on the world stage brought about by the imaginative civil disobedience of the intifada. Thus, Judith’s suggestion that I write my dissertation on the Palestinian women’s movement during the British mandate constituted a truly inspired and perfect topic for me. Palestinian women, like most Middle Eastern women, had been almost completely absent from the historical narrative, but Judith knew there was a whole history to be mined. She introduced me to the novel—at the time—concept of gender as a social relationship. Our discussions of the complex, ambiguous and tense relationship between feminism and nationalism guided me toward the literature that deconstructed universal concepts of “woman.” This informed not only my work on Palestinian women but also my subsequent research on the power relations and mutual cultural influence between and among Middle Eastern women and American missionary women.
Judith’s mentoring also came in the form of promoting me and my work, and sending opportunities my way: inviting me, a lowly, unknown graduate student, to write a chapter in a book she was editing, promoting my book proposal to the editor of the University of California Press at an early point in my career, quietly facilitating invitations to serve on a prestigious committee or contribute to a publication. Judith put me on the map. One of my colleagues on this roundtable once exclaimed, “Judith is a goddess!” when we were discussing how she had helped us. Truer words were never spoken! When I thanked her at some point for her help, she said, “Ellen, graduate students are like children. They are with you for life.” Judith, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for being such an inspiration and exemplary role model for your integrity, scholarly reputation, hard work, modesty, foresight, and the enormous influence on and service you have provided for us.
Dr. Zeinab Abul-Magd
Professor of History and Director of the International Affairs Program, Oberlin College
I first discovered Judith Tucker’s book In the House of the Law as a young Muslim woman looking for answers and looking for any hints of empowerment in the religion I was following. Reading her book gave me this. It showed me how to understand and analyze even the most arcane legal texts that very few women of my generation could read. It was liberating! And then in 1999 I heard that Judith Tucker was coming to Egypt to teach a course at AUC, and it was as if somebody told me a goddess was coming down from heaven! I took it, and that was it. My life simply started with this course.
I came to Georgetown in 2001, and my serious training with her began. As the daughter of a lawyer, I knew a thing or two about legal stuff, but I vaguely knew what a fatwa was. With her, I was able to understand what they meant and how they were practiced in the oldest of books and had confidence to read and analyze them. From there I even had enough confidence to venture into the field of the theory of Islamic law for my master’s thesis, which Dr. Tucker ushered me through. At Georgetown, I discovered Dr. Tucker’s first book, Women in 19th Century Egypt, which triggered a passion for the 19th century that I haven’t recovered from yet and also introduced to me something historians are familiar with: the “archives.” She single-handedly pioneered research in the Egyptian archives and made them maneuverable for generations of scholars. You can easily hear those female peasants in the Delta, to whom Tucker gave voices in this book, going through the realities of colonial capitalism—much like the Upper Egyptian rebellious women of the 19th century, whom I wrote about in both my PhD dissertation, finished under Dr. Tucker’s kind and patient mentorship, and also in my first book, Imagined Empires.
After finishing my dissertation, I got a job in rural Ohio. I had a culture shock! Dr. Tucker, with her eternal positive attitude about academic life, told me: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” and suggested I treat it as an anthropological experience. I took her advice and treated my life in rural Ohio—surrounded by corn fields, churches, and future Trump voters—as an ethnographic experiment. I took notes and published a memoir in Egypt about my life in Ohio. The first pages of the book mention the story of Tucker’s lemonade and how I, a brown woman from Upper Egypt, set about conducting field observations of “white subjects” in rural America.
Dr. Tucker has spent her life writing about Muslim women and subaltern women in the Middle East, and—as a “feminist activist”—trying to give them voice. She delivered on her scholarly mission through me. I AM those women. I am here today—along with every book or article I’ve written, in English or Arabic—because of her.
Dr. Steve Tamari
Professor of History, Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville
Prof. Judith Tucker has been a mentor to me for a long time—over 30 years and the entirety of my career—and in different ways. I was part of a cohort that began at Georgetown in the fall 1988. She inoculated us against Orientalism, modernization theory, and other academic maladies of the time. She fortified me with a brand of feminism which teaches that history with women is not simply more inclusive but is fundamentally revisionist. A history of the early modern Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire that doesn’t consider women and their waqf misses the entirety of the social, legal, and economic landscape of the time. Completing the dissertation was an emotional and mental ordeal that I may not have made it through without Judith’s support (and that of my pottery teacher Jill Hinkley). Judith, you have been my mentor of mentors as teacher, as colleague, and as family. I can’t thank you enough and I wish you the best in retirement.
Dr. Hoda Yousef
Associate Professor, Department of History, Denison University
Like others, I was profoundly impacted by Tucker’s work on Islamic law and women and how it has influenced the field, not so much in the specifics, but in the lenses she uses as a historian. In her work, the past is subject to rigorous analysis, yes. But it also encompasses the most intimate of human experiences: marriage and divorce, economic despair and triumphs, and violence and redemptions. There are two approaches she uses in her work that I continue to find indispensable—even as I have pursued subjects that may seem far afield, such as education, language, and, more recently, historical memory.
The first approach is the questions that Tucker asks in her work: questions about the omnipresent role of gender in shaping our past and about the role of class and power in the construction of our societal systems. This relentless quest that appears in nearly all her work, is one that, I am happy to say, is now mostly taken for granted. It has allowed researchers like me to look at topics that were conventionally approached with a default masculine frame—like Arabic language reform and literacy—and see the connections to gender that are nearly everywhere.
The second approach is her groundbreaking reading of sources that shows us that even the most staid and “official” sources can illuminate histories well beyond the lives of the privileged few. I always recall the readings she gives of fataawa in her book In the House of Law and marvel at the care she took in exploring how the legalese of these texts would functionally impact a woman who found herself a widow or a divorcee or in need of financial support.
These two lenses: what we may call “gender everywhere” and a panache for innovative sources have had a direct bearing on my work. In my dissertation and eventual book, Composing Egypt: Reading, Writing, and the Emergency of a Modern Nation, I came to see the entire project of literacy during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as one undergirded by gendered notions of what it meant to be a reader and/or writer of Arabic. In the process, inspired by Tucker, I also sought out sources that could be read beyond its “elite” discourse. In my book these would include: petitions written (or commissioned) by women and men of all classes, the use of scribal letter writing by those without access to traditional literacy, the increases in postal usage, textbooks, and the like.
But Judith’s influence is more than what she writes as a scholar. It lives on in her dedication and care as a teacher and mentor. Like all great mentors, she did not simply create a slew of mini-Judith Tuckers. She let me pursue my own interests, in some ways so different from her own. But she was always there to ask the probing question, push arguments further, and give advice. In that, her contribution is not just academic or institutional. It is in the generous spirit, sharp intellect, and unfailing kindness that she brings to her interactions with those around her.
Dr. Sherene Seikaly
Associate Professor of History, and Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara
I met Judith Tucker in my 20s. She taught me how to read: closely, critically, capaciously. She taught me what feminism is, in thought and practice. She taught me how to craft excellence by embracing humility. Twenty years later, she taught me how to lead, how to stand my ground in the face of intimidation. We love you Judith, you are a model, a light, and a pillar.
Visiting Faculty, Department of History, Georgetown University in Qatar
Judith Tucker can cut up a rug. I begin with this fact because, having known Judith since my first day of the MA Arab Studies at Georgetown, her boogying abilities were legendary among MAAS students. And of course, many of us have seen her on the MESA dancefloor…
But I also mention this because there is a lesson here for all of us: that in a career spanning four decades in which she published prolifically, shaped generations of students, directed centers, programs and edited journals—Judith Tucker has always remembered to have fun.
Not only is this a lesson we need in this moment more than ever, but having this modeled to a student has an indelible impact on the decisions we make about our work/life balance.
In so many ways, Judith spoiled her graduate students, of whom I was incredibly lucky to be one. As a teacher, she is patient and kind. As a mentor, she is wise and candid. As a dissertation advisor, she was both hands off – trusting us to do what we needed to—and hands on, in that she unfailingly had our back – often, behind our back. And what I mean by that is that so many of the ways she champions her students are completely invisible to us—about which we only learned much later, usually through other people. And she has offered that intellectual care, not just to her students, but to other junior scholars, her peers and colleagues of decades, so many of whom are here today and so many who wished to make it in person to honor Judith. . . .
I’ll end with two brief stories that I hope illustrate what makes Judith such a good advisor and friend: It was from her sharing her own experience and challenges as a doctoral student in the Egyptian archives that I first understood in practice that research is what it means to listen to the sources. That when things in the archive aren’t coming up the way you expect, that maybe it’s your questions that need rethinking. All of these are invaluable lessons I have passed on to my own students countless times and which have helped them as much they did me. I sometimes accompany those lessons with the “origin story”—of my own advisor’s encounter with non-compliant sources in the archive!
And in the spirit of her being candid about her own experiences: I remember encountering her in the department hallway one day and having her say that she had spent the weekend reading fiction and felt so guilty that she hadn’t read what she was supposed to for her research. I looked at her bleakly and said – so this feeling of guilt and being behind doesn’t go away even after finishing a PhD? She just laughed and didn’t answer. And I’m so glad she didn’t because if I’d known the truth…
Judith, I confess I cannot believe that the day of your retirement is actually here. It feels like the impossible end of an era. Our lives both intellectual and personal are all the richer for counting you as teacher, mentor, organizer, role model, friend, and ally. May you always have fruitful and fertile soil for your future research and writing plans.
And, may you always have a dancefloor.