WALLA WALLA, Wash.-- When assistant professor Elyse Semerdjian teaches the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict to her students at Whitman, she uses the details of her own life to illustrate the diversity of the Middle East. Semerdjian, a native of Flint, Michigan, is a Syrian American woman, an Armenian Orthodox Christian, and a gender historian who studies, among other topics, Islamic law in the Ottoman Empire.

Semerdjian says she knows first-hand how easy it is to lump all people from the Middle East into the same category, so she strives to make people aware of the many exceptions to stereotypes. One example she uses is that contrary to popular opinion the majority of Arabs in America are Christian (recent estimates are at 70 percent), as she is. This reality, however, doesn’t keep her from defending Muslims from common stereotypes. “I want to challenge the images we get in the popular media, such as all Muslim men are wife-beaters and especially that women in the Middle East are victims. It’s much more complicated than that. There are Muslim women fighting for their rights, and by assuming they are all victims, you take away from their struggle.”

As an historian specializing in the Middle East, Semerdjian had studied in depth Islamic law in the Ottoman Empire. The topic of her doctoral dissertation at Georgetown University was “`Off the Straight Path’: Gender, Public Morality and Legal Administration in Ottoman Aleppo, Syria.” She says her research shows that the Muslim leaders who call for the stoning of women in the Middle East today have historical amnesia. “They weren’t stoning women 300 years ago. If a woman was deemed immoral, she was simply removed from the community. Why is it happening now?”

Semerdjian is a “new historian” who is striving to find the path from academia to political activism. “We need to historically educate politicians who have a collective amnesia about the Middle East.” In this vein she participated in a Harvard panel in May 2002 composed of women scholars, some of whom were scholar activists from Egypt who lobby for legal change. These scholars helped to bring about a change in Egyptian law that now makes it possible for women (not just men) to initiate the divorce process. “Laws are being reformed slowly,” says Semerdjian. We have to take it one step at a time.”

Semerdjian is quick to note that Middle Eastern policy makers are not the only ones that need to be educated. “U.S. foreign policy is full of double standards,” she says. “We haven’t had a good track record of supporting democracies. It’s easier to control dictators than hand over the reigns to the people, who just might form a Muslim government that wouldn’t be favorable to the United States.”

The United States, Semerdjian says, hasn’t put its best foot forward and shown that democracy is about freedom and opportunity. Too many times, “we fall back on ‘might makes right.’ People remember when you decide to bomb indiscriminately. It’s too bad, because I don’t believe these actions reflect the values of the majority of the American people.”

Semerdjian was raised in Flint, Michigan, in its close-knit Arab-American community and attended Michigan’s Albion College. A year of study abroad in Jerusalem when she was a junior convinced her that teaching history was the career of her future. “All great political battles take place in the field of history,” she says.

This semester at Whitman Semerdjian’s class load includes a survey class on Islamic Civilization. The 1,500-year subject will continue into a second class next semester, when she will add a course on the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Next year she will teach a seminar on the harem. She expects all the classes to be well-attended. “Student interest has been overwhelming.”


Lenel Parish, Whitman College News Service, (509) 527-5156
Email: parishlj@whitman.edu