University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies

Department of Geography

University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies

The Diane Middlebrook and Carl Djerassi Visiting Professor at the University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies

Lent 2013

Professor Sara Ahmed

Professor Sara Ahmed, Professor of Race and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London, is the Diane Middlebrook and Carl Djerassi Visiting Professor at the University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies for Lent 2013.


Professor Ahmed gave the Diane Middlebrook and Carl Djerassi Visiting Professorship Lecture at 1700-1830 on Thursday 31 January 2013 in the Upper Hall at Jesus College, Cambridge on the topic of: Willful Women: Feminism and the History of Will. A recording of this Lecture is available to members of the University of Cambridge here.


Professor Ahmed's current research is entitled: Will and Willfulness and is described below:

"Background of the Project

What does it mean to attribute someone as willful? What are we doing if we are being willful? I became interested in the question of willfulness when writing my recent book The Promise of Happiness (2010). One of the figures I explore in this book is that of the feminist killjoy. She appears as the one who is always "getting in the way" of the happiness of others. I began to notice a connection between this figure of the feminist killjoy and the charge of willfulness. I wrote in a footnote: "Writing this book on happiness has sparked my interest in theorizing the sociality of will, and the ways in which people are described as willful insofar as they will 'too much,' or too little, or in 'the wrong way'"(p.245). My interest in willfulness also derived from my reading of nineteenth century women's writing: novels such as George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss and Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre show how female characters become aware of injustice in part by becoming aware of the injustice of being attributed as willful. The acquisition of an independent female will often leads in narrative terms to the charge of willfulness. This research project in investigating willfulness thus also reflects on the role of will in feminist consciousness as well as the gendering of the will.

The initial starting point for this research was to consider how the attribution of willfulness makes some subjects into "problems." I assumed, given this, that I would find a strict and moral differentiation between the will and willfulness. However, reading the history of the will as an idea has taught me that the problem of willfulness relates directly to the problem of will. The history of will could even be thought of as a willful history, a history of the wayward, of the wandering, and of the deviant. Associated by Lucretius with swerving atoms, by Augustine with sin, by Descartes with error, the will is often assumed to be already willful in advance of becoming will. Willfulness comes up as that which must be eliminated from the will. If the story of will and willfulness is one of differentiation then the story is also one of proximity. In the project I thus ask what willfulness is doing by reflecting on the distinction between will and willfulness, however unstable, as well as the related distinctions between the good will and bad will (or ill will), and the general and particular will.

Methodology of the Study

In this project I investigate willfulness both as an attribution and an experience of an attribution. My research method involves "following willfulness around" tracking where and how the willful subject appears in a range of texts (see below for further description). My method is not simply to ask "what is willfulness doing?" but also to ask "where is willfulness?" and "when is willfulness?" We learn from the timing and location of the appearance of the willful subject. One definition of willfulness is: "asserting or disposed to assert one's own will against, persuasion, construction or command; governed by will without regard to reason; determined to take one's own way; obstinately self-willed or perverse" (OED). The willful character insists on willing their own way, without reference to reason or command. Willfulness could be described as a character perversion: to be willful is to deviate; to will one's own way is to will the wrong way. I explore what willfulness is doing as a moral diagnosis. In particular, this book explores the relationship between dissent, disobedience and the attribution of willfulness.

My method is to offer close readings of will and wilfulness within an interdisciplinary archive, including the following three bodies of material:

Education and the Will:

This research focuses on the emergence of an "education of the will." The materials I bring together are largely drawn from educational treatises and educational philosophy (including texts by John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and James Mill); children's literature and folklore (for example the Grimm fable, "The Willful Child"); as well as self-help literatures (in the twentieth century the moral faculty of the will is transformed into "willpower"). I explore the emergence of the categories of "will pathology" and "weakness of the will." I also consider how virtues become defined as "habits of the will." Not only does it become a habit to will (to exercise, as it were, the muscle of the voluntary), but through habit, it is assumed the will can be directed in the right way, towards the right ends.

Literature and the Will:

Debates about moral education and the will had considerable influence on nineteenth century literature. I analyze how the language of will is exercised in the development of fictional character with particular reference to the work of George Eliot. Eliot could be described as a novelist of the will and creates a moral landscape in which strength and weakness of will are key features. She also offers us a way of thinking about the gendering of the will, emotion and the will, and the relationship between will and social conformity.

Theology and the Will:

It is has been argued that the idea of the will as an independent power comes into existence with Augustine and the Christian ethics of interiority. The research considers how "the will" becomes a moral problem in Christian theology, with specific reference to the work of Augustine, Kempis, Pascal and Kant. One of my key concerns is with the distinction between the particular and the general will, and how this distinction is transformed from a theological to a secular idea. The particular/general distinction provides the basis for a social distinction. The willful part is the part that does not submit its will to the will of the whole.

Aim of the Study:

My broader aim in this research is to offer a feminist theory of the will through attending to willful subjects. We might note that recent feminist theoretical work has not involved a sustained or systematic engagement with the topic of "the will," perhaps because "the will" is associated with a rational autonomous human subject that has itself been the subject of feminist critique. This research asks: what happens to the will if it is no longer assumed to belong to this subject? A particular aim of the study will be to investigate the relationship between will and force as well as to attend to the sociality of the will and what I call "conditional will," when we make our will conditional on the will of others. By approaching the will in this way the project revisits some key feminist writing on the relationship between subjection and freedom such as the work of Lauren Berlant and Judith Butler. The project also considers how willfulness has been "practically claimed" in queer, anti-racist and feminist activism without assuming that such claims offer a stable or unifying political ground."

Professor Sara Ahmed

Michaelmas 2012

Professor Akbar Ahmed

Professor Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington DC is the Diane Middlebrook and Carl Djerassi Visiting Professor at the University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies for Michaelmas 2012.


Professor Ahmed gave the Diane Middlebrook and Carl Djerassi Visiting Professorship Lecture, entitled Gender, Security and Inter-generational Conflict in Muslim Societies Post 9/11 at 1700-1830 on Thursday 11 October 2012 in the William Mong Hall at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. A recording of the event is available here.


In the Washington Post, Professor Akbar Ahmed describes a recent visit to Lambeth Palace on 8 October 2012 in a piece entitled Hope at Lambeth Palace, where he participated in what is likely to be the last major public event hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams.


Ahmed, A. (2012) The Thistle and the Drone: How America's War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, Washington: Brookings Press


"Of the many important questions that people in the West ask me about Muslims, the one relating to the status and treatment of women remains the most frequent and controversial. It is invariably the first question I am asked on my lecture tours addressing different audiences. Muslim women remain a mystery to most non-Muslims, and one that requires clarification and enlightenment.

I have been fascinated by a mystery within this mystery, the white female convert to Islam. Why should a British or American woman, living in perhaps the freest societies in the world, give up her personal and social freedoms for a clearly restricted life? Why do so many of them adopt the most orthodox form of dressing, for example the hijab? What does their conversion tell us about the cultural norms about the society they are coming from? What are the attitudes of both Muslims and non-Muslims to their conversion?

In my extensive travels studying the Muslims of America for the book Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam (Brookings Institution Press, 2010), I conducted preliminary fieldwork among white female converts and discovered that this is a neglected area of research. I was surprised to discover that the ratio of female to male converts is four to one. The female converts that my team were able to interview confirmed my impression that their conversions, although small in number, were directly related to developments in their own society. Many of them complained of the excessive freedom which meant they had no boundaries of behavior ordering their lives. Many of these women were dissatisfied at the materialism and lack of spirituality they saw around them. Some converted for matrimonial reasons because they married Muslim men. With Islam, they were able to order their lives in a structured and defined manner, which they felt gave them balance and calm.

Their conversion also created waves of controversy in their societies. Many people saw them as a metaphor for a larger confrontation between the West and Islam. The non-Muslim community saw the converts as betraying their culture to Islam, a religion that is not particularly liked. The Muslim community saw them as vindication of the superiority of Islam. We saw similar responses several decades ago to the very public conversion of Cat Stevens to Islam when he became Yusuf Islam. Many non-Muslims, and not only lovers of music, were dismayed when he gave up his guitar as a symbol of rejecting his identity. Muslims treated him as a superstar and instant champion of Islam.

I would like to explore the conversion of white British females to Islam and examine the proposition whether the same causes that are driving Americans to Islam are the same in the case of the UK. We know of high profile white converts such as Yvonne Ridley, who was captured by the Taliban, and, more recently, Lauren Booth, Cherie Blair's sister. My research will involve some fieldwork as I will throw as wide a net as possible.

I am interested to find out who the role models are in Islam for British female converts. Is it Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet of Islam, who was an independent-minded, successful business woman? Or is the younger and dynamic Aisha, who became the champion of his legacy by collecting and preserving his sayings? Who inspires them today? How do they want to contribute to the dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims in their society?

In the short time that I will have, I intend to produce a scholarly paper, which, I hope, will stimulate research in this neglected but important field. Besides providing original ethnography, the study will allow us to draw broad conclusions about contemporary British society and its attitudes to Islam. My public lecture, which I am required to deliver under the terms of the Visiting Professorship, will be based on this subject."

Professor Akbar Ahmed