Shemeem Burney Abbas is an associate professor at the State University of New York at Purchase and scholar of applied linguistics, law and gender, and literature, with a research focus on women’s rituals in Islamic societies. She began her academic career as professor of English language and applied linguistics at the Open University in Islamabad, Pakistan, where she soon became department chair. Professor Abbas’ first monograph, The Female Voice in Sufi Ritual: Devotional Practices of Pakistan and India (2002), was published to widespread acclaim and is now used as a standard text in many American, Canadian and South Asian universities. Not only has Professor Abbas made significant contributions to academic publishing, but she also has an esteemed publication record in creative writing. In 1993, UNICEF published Abbas’ Qissa Khwan (The Storyteller), a collection of short stories for girls, and she is currently working on a novel, The Wedding Guest: A Fiction of Kashmir. Her talent for creative writing is evident from the honors awarded her, including the James E. Michener Fellowship in Creative Writing, University of Texas at Austin, 2002. One of her poems was also read at the annual Edinburgh Book Festival in August, 2005.
Professor Abbas faced significant threats to her wellbeing and her career in Pakistan in 1998, when Islamic clerics at the university brought charges against her. Blasphemy, an offence for which bail cannot be posted and a conviction carries the death sentence, was the most severe of these. Although top-level government intervention eventually forced the charges to be dropped, Professor Abbas, a successful Western-educated single woman whose work – especially on Sufism—threatened the clerical establishment, feared retaliation and vigilante attacks by militant extremists in Pakistan. She faced a hostile environment in her department, and pervading threats and fears hampered her work. In 1999, she embarked on a Fulbright Travel Grant at the University of Texas, Austin, hoping that upon her return to Pakistan in 2000 circumstances might have changed. However, she was forced to leave her homeland again and, with the help of SRF and its host partners, has been able to carry out her work in safety at universities in Texas and New York ever since.
In 2004 Professor Abbas applied to SRF in order to carry on teaching courses at the University of Texas, Austin and to continue her research on the blasphemy laws in Pakistan to which she had been subjected. In 2005, her SRF fellowship was renewed for a second year and she joined the faculty of Political Science at Purchase College, which has since retained her as a member of the tenured faculty. The research she carried out while on fellowship resulted in, among numerous presentations and other academic activities, her contribution of a chapter entitled "Sakineh: the narrator of Kerbala," to The Women of Kerbala, which was edited by Kamran Scot Aghaie and published by the University of Texas Press in 2005.
Now an established professor at Purchase, she continues to teach a variety of courses that reach across disciplinary boundaries, including political science, women studies, literature and creative writing. Her courses, including one entitled “States, Citizens, Human Rights and Literature,” have received enthusiastically positive reviews from her students. Professor Abbas retains her devotion to the study of language, and launched the largest graduate teacher-training program in English as a Foreign Language for South Asia, through the Allama Iqbal Open University in Islamabad. In January 2011, she received a Purchase College Faculty Support Award, which supports faculty research and travel. She was additionally granted the Juanita and Joseph Leff Distinguished Professor title for two years. This support from Purchase College has resulted in the completion of her book, Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws: From Islamic Empires to the Taliban (University of Texas Press, 2013).
Professor Abbas has been a loyal friend to SRF since first making contact in 2004. She has attended many SRF events over the years and, best of all, has simply kept in touch.