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Australian government attack on government-funded social science and humanities research

10 September, 2013

Last week, during the final throes of election campaigning, Tony Abbott and the Coalition attacked four Australian Research Council (ARC)-funded research projects as “futile” and “wasteful,” and promised that such research would not be funded under a Coalition government.  My project on sexuality in Islamic interpretations of reproductive health technologies in Egypt was singled out for particular ridicule.

In so doing, the Coalition inadvertently highlighted the absurdity of having politicians judge the merits of academic research.

My ARC-funded research project that the Coalition has criticised looks at how medical authorities and religious authorities in Egypt interact to influence Muslims’ opinions about reproductive health technologies.  I’m looking at 3 technologies, specifically: emergency contraception (a.k.a. the morning after pill), erectile dysfunction drugs (e.g. Viagra), and hymenoplasty (hymen reconstruction surgery, usually undertaken to make a woman appear to be a virgin when she marries).  These are somewhat controversial topics in Egypt because they’re connected with sexuality.

Now, new reproductive health technologies tend to elicit debate in society because they trigger existential questions: about when life begins, about what right humans have to meddle in natural human processes, about women’s sexuality and gender roles, and about the relationship between religion and medicine.  IVF and cloning are good examples of this.  

The more a technology is connected with (a) the beginning of life or (b) sexuality, the more controversial it is.  And the more controversial it is, the more public debate crystallises around it.  That makes these 3 technologies good case studies for understanding a society’s beliefs about not only sexuality but also women’s rights and religion.

These case studies boil down to a fundamental question: to what extent do religious leaders affect what the average lay Muslim does and thinks about sexuality and reproductive health?  If, for example, a religious authority says that hymenoplasty is permissible or not permissible, do people listen?  Do they care?  

My preliminary research suggests that no, they don’t — at least, not when it comes to hymenoplasty.  Most lay Muslims I have spoke with either don’t know or don’t care what their religious authorities say about hymenoplasty.  

In Egypt, three leading Muslim clerics have issued controversial fatwas on hymenoplasty.  Thomas Eich describes these in his article “A tiny membrane defending ‘us’ against ‘them’.”  The first was former Dean of the Women’s Islamic Law (shari`a) Faculty at al-Azhar University, Su`ad Salih, who ruled in February 2007 that hymenoplasty should be allowed not only for survivors of rape (which religious authorities had already approved), but also for women who had had sexual intercourse consensually and then ‘repented their mistake.’ Controversy ensued, along with attacks on Salih’s authority and ability to interpret Islamic law.  

A week later, the Grand Mufti — Egypt’s leading authority in interpreting Islamic law — backed up Salih’s ruling, and said that hymenoplasty could be used as a tool for a woman to save her marriage. Mufti Ali Goma`a reasoned was that a woman who married without a hymen would be judged by her future husband, and that it was not the husband’s place to pass judgment on his wife. Only God could know if she had fully repented after violating Islamic law (i.e. by having premarital sex), and a husband did not have the right to interfere in that private relationship between a woman and God. 
When Sheikh Khaled El Gindy, a member of the Higher Council of Islamic Studies, was interviewed by the Egyptian newspaper The Daily Star in the wake of the controversial ruling by the Grand Mufti, he argued that hymenoplasty levelled the playing field for men and women, rectifying an inequality conferred by nature—namely, the fact that men had no hymeneal equivalent that society could use to judge their sexual purity. El Gindy told the Daily Star that ‘Islam never differentiates between men and women, so it is not rational for us to think that God has placed a sign to indicate the virginity of women without having a similar sign to indicate the virginity of men… Any man who is concerned about his prospective wife’s hymen should first provide a proof that he himself is virgin.’

In short, we have three leading Egyptian clerics saying that hymenoplasty is permissible under Islamic law.  And yet when I conducted on-the-ground research in Egypt in 2012-2013, almost every single lay Muslim that I interviewed claimed that hymenoplasty was both religiously forbidden and a sin!

In other words, Egyptian Muslims tend to only follow fatwas that accord with what they already believe about religion.  

Now, it’s not hard to see the relevance of this research project to Australia, because it’s a case study that boils down to a very fundamental and interesting question: how much do religious authorities influence what Muslims think and do?    Considering that Australia has 350,000 Muslims, I would think even the Liberal Party would like to know the answer to that question.
Of course, my research focuses on Egypt, but there are analogies for understanding how lay Muslims in Australia might interact with their local religious leaders.  
What’s more, Egypt is an influential centre of Islamic learning in the Muslim world.  It has the world’s oldest Islamic university, Al-Azhar University, and Al-Azhar has an affiliated institution, Dar al-Ifta, which produces all official fatwas (i.e. non-binding interpretations of Islamic law) issued in the country.  Dar al-Ifta has an online, multilingual, searchable database of these fatwas that is accessed by Muslims from all over the world, including Australia.  
So this research project can help us understand a very populous country that’s in turmoil right now (and one of the things being debated by the Muslim Brotherhood and their opponents is gender roles), and it can also help Australians to understand part of our own multicultural society.  
Thanks to the ARC, and also thanks to funding that I received from Macquarie University prior to winning the ARC grant, I’m one of the few Australian social scientists to have regularly been visiting Egypt before, during, and after the revolution (I have made on average two trips a year to Egypt over the past four years; my last trip was in April 2013).  It’s an extraordinary opportunity to document what impact the revolution there is having on women’s rights and reproductive health.  I would think that the Coalition would appreciate the value of having a social scientist on the ground, increasing Australian (and global) knowledge of what is happening in the Middle East during a period of considerable upheaval in the region.
But even if I were doing a project that had no obvious application to Australian domestic or foreign policy, it still would have benefit to Australia, because tertiary education is a major income generator for Australia.  Australia imports university students from all over the world.  At Macquarie University, for example, about a third of our students are international students.  They pay considerably higher fees than domestic students.  They contribute to the strength of the Australian economy.
These international students come to Macquarie — and to Australia — because of our international reputation.  That will only continue to happen as long as Australia has a reputation for world-class research — in whatever field, whether it’s diabetes or 18th century German existentialism.  Because, let’s face it, not every student studies medicine or engineering; some students want to study arts and philosophy — and you’d think that Tony Abbott, a former Rhodes scholar who got a master’s degree in arts, would understand that.
And as the ill-informed Coalition attacks on my research project demonstrate, politicians are not the right people to be evaluating what constitutes worthwhile and world-class academic research.
9 Comments leave one →
  1. Kathy Inglis permalink
    13 September, 2013 2:06 pm

    Thank you Dr. Wynn
    a reasoned and rational clarification of what your work is about and its relevance, that was easily missed and or dismissed by your critics!

  2. Jovan Maud permalink*
    13 September, 2013 8:19 pm

    Hi Lisa. I just returned to Germany a couple of days ago. One of the first things I saw when I got home to our apartment was a recent issue of Die Zeit, a popular national broadsheet. On the front cover was the promo for a story they were running on how prominent representatives of the arts, humanities and social sciences were planning to vote in the upcoming election. The story contained short statements by about thirty of these folk about their voting choice (or lack thereof) and their reasons why. Among the commentators were authors, theatre directors, essayists, and academics from a range of fields, including social theorists Jürgen Habermas and Ulrich Beck and the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk (Habermas is voting SPD, in case you were wondering). I couldn’t help but being struck by the massively different regard in which intellectuals in the supposedly “unproductive” fields are held here compared to Australia. It provided a particularly stark contrast to the anti-intellectualism exhibited in the run up to the election, including the attacks on your own research. It was cheap political point scoring, obviously. A judgement probably based on nothing more than the fact that your title included the word “sexuality”. But then, in Australia “intellectual” is a dirty word and being identified as one renders you automatically suspect; an easy, ready made target, up there with welfare queens, single mums and other unworthies.

    At the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, I suppose it’s worth bearing in mind that the Germans learnt the hard way where rabid anti-intellectualism can lead. From my office window here at the University of Göttingen I can see a plaque across the road reminding passers by that it was the site of a Nazi book burning. With all the economism that permeates discussions of the value of intellectual labour I think it’s also important to remember the role the robust exploration of ideas plays in maintaining a thriving democracy. It’s no coincidence that authoritarian governments always attack intellectuals whom they consider to be doing the “wrong” kind of research and usually cynically characterise them as parasites on the social body.

    I know you laughed off Abbot’s ridiculous attack. I was more inclined to be appalled by its implications — i.e. that the Libs believed (probably rightly) that his approach would play well in the electorate at large.

  3. 17 September, 2013 6:05 am

    So, Lisa, since you have a very clear explanation of why this research is in fact relevant — precisely for the sort of issues that the incoming government will presumably like to talk about — why did The Australian’s journalist fail to pick up on it? Do you think in retrospect that you were too defensive/jocular/flippant when you talked to him, or did he choose to ignore what you said because he/the paper shares the gov’ts anti-intellectual agenda? I am asking because this seems a case where the media should be talking about why anthro *IS* relevant.

  4. 17 September, 2013 2:27 pm

    Thanks, Kathy!

    You’re right, Jovan: I can laugh off this attack as not damaging my research personally and as highlighting politicians’ incompetence when it comes to evaluating the merit of research projects, but there’s nothing laughable about the implications for future research funding and the broader culture of anti-intellectualism that it reveals in Australia.

    Ali Adolf Wu, I think The Australian *did* pick up on the relevance of this research. See

    I do worry, however, that I spent too much time in that article justifying the national policy relevance of my research project. Research should not solely serve the purposes of informing policy. Students come to university to read and learn about dozens of things that interest them, many of which have no obvious policy relevance. I worry that by defending my research project, I tacitly lend support to the argument that the only research funded by government should be research that serves the interests of that government. What about students who want to study, say, medieval literature, or ethnomusicology? These probably don’t have much relevance to national policy, but it’s still research that academics find valuable and students want to learn about.

  5. Jovan Maud permalink*
    19 September, 2013 12:53 am

    You might be interested in the response of one of the other academics targeted by Abbot. Philosopher Paul Redding has an article in the Guardian outlining why his research is not “ridiculous”. It’s interesting that he doesn’t attempt to claim national relevance in any narrow sense but rather defends philosophy because it helps us in “finding and attempting to fix problems in our collective thinking”. I would say that he consciously rejects the Liberal Party’s framing of the issue and refuses to talk in purely economic cost/benefit terms. I think this is important because it pushes back against the attempt to narrow the terms in which research can be considered worthwhile.

  6. 16 January, 2014 3:19 am

    Thanks for giving your insight and perspective! I didn’t realise Australian was (had been?) conducting research on this topic.

    You write, “And as the ill-informed Coalition attacks on my research project demonstrate, politicians are not the right people to be evaluating what constitutes worthwhile and world-class academic research.” What do you suggest is a better evaluation method or framework than our current one for gauging the relative merits of particular research?

  7. 16 January, 2014 3:23 am

    You commented, “I worry that by defending my research project, I tacitly lend support to the argument that the only research funded by government should be research that serves the interests of that government. What about students who want to study, say, medieval literature, or ethnomusicology? These probably don’t have much relevance to national policy, but it’s still research that academics find valuable and students want to learn about.”

    I heartily agree. Sometimes the relevance of research isn’t a political one. Learning can be a good and wonderful thing in itself!


  2. US politicians helpfully suggest keywords you can use when looking for research projects to attack | Culture Matters

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