Consent: Medieval Legacies from Europe and the Islamic Worlds in Comparative Perspective (Spring 2023)

Prof. Anna Ayse Akasoy (History, Liberal Studies / The Graduate Center)
Prof. Sara McDougall (History / John Jay College)

Spring 2023
Course Number: MALS 70500

With the #MeToo movement and the introduction of new Title IX regulations at US institutions of higher education, the definition of consent in sexual encounters has become the subject of public controversy. Activists, legal scholars, university administrators and other participants in these debates discuss the conditions of voluntary affirmation and its expression, personal autonomy and responsibility, and the multiple ways in which imbalances of power shape relationships. At the center of many of these debates are the conventions of binary gender roles which assign a passive position to women and which validate pursuit and persuasion on the part of men. Just how much ideals of sexual encounters and gender relations prevalent in the medieval west have shaped these conventions, whether empirically or in the public imagination, is obvious in modern representations such as Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel (2021). At the same time, a comparison of responses to the #MeToo movement across the globe, even within the west, reveals very different attitudes to concepts and principles of consent. Muslim feminists, scholars and activists have engaged Islamic legal and ethical traditions in order to promote their values and principles of sexual autonomy.

In the proposed course, we will explore case studies from both western Europe and the Middle East during the premodern period in which consent in sexual encounters plays a significant role. We will be discussing these examples in two sets of comparative perspectives. On the one hand, we will discuss how historical authors thought of consent and the implications of a lack of consent in sexual encounters in comparison with the way that these issues are approached in present-day debates. On the other hand, by considering material from western Europe and the Islamic world, we will be identifying some of the cultural, social and legal variables which defined and reflected historical realities and maintain an impact on present-day discussions. Our sources will be documentary and literary, legal, religious, historical and poetic. We will be discussing the larger philosophical, legal, cultural and social categories which shaped representations of consent and disagreements surrounding it. Aspects for consideration include the importance of domestic slavery in the Islamic world as well as economic rights of women in both cultural spheres. Apart from familiarizing themselves with a variety of sources from diverse areas of premodern Europe, the Middle East and Asia, students will be encouraged to reflect on the significance of these sources for modern debates. We expect to consider a balance of western and Middle Eastern material. This course does not require any prior knowledge of medieval history or Middle Eastern studies.


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