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Secor Named First Sheikh Islamic Studies Professor

By Gail Hairston

(April 8, 2015)Anna Secor, professor of geography, social theory, and gender and women’s studies at the University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences, has been named the university’s first Hajja Razia Sharif Sheikh Islamic Studies Professor.

The endowed professorship was created by Dr. Hamid Hussain Sheikh Sr. (a Lexington obstetrics and gynecology specialist) and his wife Amy Lee Sheikh, in memory of his mother Hajja Razia Sharif Sheikh. A native of Lahore, Pakistan, Hajja Sheikh was active in her community and a leader in her faith. Although she did not receive a formal education, she held a strong belief in education and encouraged all eight of her children to pursue a college education.

“One of my main goals is to counter anti-Islam sentiments through educational means by Muslims and non-Muslim university scholars,” said Sheikh. “Against the prevalent concept of the world, honoring all women, especially one’s mother, is a key principle of Islam. I am thankful to UK, (College of Arts and Sciences) Dean Kornbluh, Laura Sutton (of the college’s development office) and all involved in honoring my mother, bestowing her with the title of professorship.

“My late mother was a kind, pious, generous, education-loving lady,” said Sheikh. “And I know she would be greatly pleased that the University of Kentucky chose to give her the rare honor of a professorship named after her, and she would be just as pleased that another woman, Dr. Anna Secor, is the inaugural professor.” 

The new professorship will be devoted to the enhancement of Islamic studies education through the examination of existing research coupled with the generation of new ideas, concepts and research findings in the areas of Islamic culture, history or civilization.

“I am honored to be named the first Hajja Razia Sharif Sheikh Islamic Studies Professor,” said Secor. “This position provides a wonderful opportunity for me to deepen a research agenda that reflects my commitment to enhancing understanding of the Muslim world.  

“Turkey is such an interesting place for Islamic Studies because it is a secular, democratic state with a majority Muslim population. I am especially interested in how Islamic values and lifestyles are actively transforming ideas about secularism, politics, economics, and daily life in Turkey.”

Secor’s background and research interests complement perfectly the goals of the Hajja Razia Sharif Sheikh professorship. She earned her undergraduate degree at Oberlin College and her master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Colorado. Today, her research interests are political geography, gender, social theory and the Middle East. Her research centers on a political-geographic question: How do spatial processes – such as those that demarcate territories and bodies, inclusions and exclusions – produce political subjects?

Recently, Secor was awarded a $191,000 National Science Foundation grant for her research proposal titled “The Role of Religion in Public Life in Turkey.” She will collaborate with Pervin Gokariksel of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to examine how religion interacts with the secular and political world. Specifically, they will conduct an empirical investigation of the varying practices and attitudes concerning the public role of Islam in Turkish society, with added focus on the devout Sunni Muslims. 

Secor has published other research based on her ongoing fieldwork in Turkey. For example, in a recent National Science Foundation research project “The Veil, the Gaze and Ethics” Secor and Banu Gökariksel of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill analyzed Turkey’s successful veiling-fashion industry, which in recent years has melded fashion trends with Muslim mores, and how it reflects and impacts changing social, religious and political conditions of the region.

In her online biography, Secor explains, “The strands of my work – on the state, on the veil, on Islam, on the psyche – are the fields of my own struggle to understand how interiorities and exteriorities of various kinds (territorial, corporeal, psychic) are made and unmade, their very distinction nothing more than an effect of the impossibility of ever fixing the boundary between them.”

Thanks to the Sheikh family, now Secor has more latitude to further explore the intriguing juxtapositions of society and individuals.