Joseph Hill

Session 5, Saturday 14th, 9:00-10:30 am
Session 8, Saturday 14th, 3:20-4:50 pm
Location: University of Alberta, Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science, Room 1-140

Women’s Voices in Sacred Space: Accommodating Women Sufi Singers in Senegal


Joseph at Al-Azhar Park_225

Until only a few years ago, it was unthinkable that a woman in the Fayḍah Tijāniyyah Sufi movement in Senegal would publicly perform the distinctive dhikr and religious songs that have long marked spaces throughout the Fayḍah’s sacred geography. During the 1930s, several male companions of the movement’s founder, Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse, composed a body of songs in Wolof and Arabic, and their successors have mastered this standard repertoire while contributing new songs. Over the past 10 years, women singers have become widespread and very well known in the movement. This development has resulted from a confluence of factors, and this paper focuses on several ways in which spaces of everyday life and ritual practice have had to be reconfigured such that pious women’s voices can be broadcast in public while avoiding the impression of impious behaviors such as gender mixing. For example, some women singers reorganize the ritual space of dhikr meetings, placing chant leaders between men’s and women’s sections such that women can lead chants without leaving the women’s section. Another change is the use of new media technologies, such as YouTube channels and ring tones, which allow women’s voices not only to circulate widely but to do so without physical proximity with men. In addition to media technologies, mystical discourses mediate women’s public presence. Asserting the negation of gender distinctions and the actor’s fusion with God, these discourses provide an alibi for behaviors that some might perceive as contravening legal rulings and ideals of modesty. Although such mystical discourses have a long history, mystical transcendence is increasingly invoked to justify men and women sitting in close quarters to learn or perform, and a woman’s inexorable mystical state increasingly serves to explain a woman’s learning to sing and her public performance as something other than an expression of her personal agency. This paper argues that changes in the gendered division of religious activities are not merely a matter of changing attitudes but depend on practitioners’ ability to reconfigure gendered physical and sacred space in ways that convincingly accommodate new roles and authoritative traditions.



Joseph Hill teaches anthropology at the University of Alberta and previously taught at the American University in Cairo and University of Rochester. His research, based primarily on ethnographic work among West African Muslims, asks how people productively accommodate the apparently contradictory points of view and demands they face every day. Hill’s current research examines paradoxes of gender and religious authority in a West African Sufi group, the FaydahTijāniyyah. His book in progress on women formally appointed to act as spiritual guides in the movement asks how these women leaders make productive use of conventions of feminine piety, new leadership roles, and mystical discourses. Previous publications have similarly highlighted paradox and simultaneity. For example, one shows how a Mauritanian Islamic village accommodates contrasting notions of community and cosmopolitanism, while others show how Islamic oratory and personal narratives employ contrasting languages and registers to position speakers in relation to multiple kinds of knowledge, authority, and temporality.

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