An internationally renowned academic in the field of Islamic and Gender Studies, Dr Samar Habib, says pressure from management at the University of Western Sydney caused her to resign from her staff teaching position.
Habib said she felt under intense pressure from the university while setting the course material for her compulsory first-year subject, Texts and Traditions.
“There were constraints placed on me in terms of what texts I was able to include and who to teach with, and it became very difficult to exercise academic or creative control over my unit”, she said.
After her popular unit Women in Arabic and Islamic literature was dropped without explanation by the university, Habib was dismayed to no longer be teaching in her area of research.
“It started to become a stifling environment in terms of expressing my expertise and teaching in an area in which I was widely published”, Habib said.
Habib submitted her letter of resignation on February 28 after her doctor advised her to take a month off work.
She had requested sick leave but this was not approved until a month later. Habib believes she made a poor decision in a moment of unguarded weakness and asked to withdraw her resignation.
The university refused a request to allow her to withdraw her resignation and, until now, has not responded to her two letters of complaint asking who made this decision and why.
Habib said: “I wanted to withdraw my letter of resignation, take some time after work, look after my health and get back to work. Unfortunately that’s not what transpired.
“I’d like to think this was an ordinary blunder of some sort. I hope that in future should a similar situation arise with another academic that they do the right thing by them and not pounce on the opportunity to out them.”
Immediately after Habib requested to withdraw her letter of resignation, two primary texts were removed from the course material.
These were Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness, about the 1982 Israeli invasion and siege of Beirut, and Joe Sacco’s Palestine, a graphic novel set in 1990s Gaza.
A spokesperson from University of Western Sydney said in a written statement that the university has no objections to the texts taught by Habib and did not pressure her to resign.
“Of the many texts taught by Dr Habib, only two specialised novels were not taught in 2010 because no suitably qualified member of staff was available to teach them”, the June 11 statement said.
Habib disputes this claim.
“When I inquired why these particular texts were removed, the answer was that they were trying to lighten the reading load. What interests me is that one of those texts was a graphic novel,” she said.
“What’s also curious is that the co-lecturer had expressly wanted to teach Memory for Forgetfulness prior to this whole issue, so it does beg the question of managing anxieties about what is mainstream and what isn’t.
“Palestinian suffering is a taboo because it necessarily implies who is doing the suffering, and the whole idea of being critical of the Israeli state is a big taboo, which we need to counter.”
Habib said there was a general anxiety across Australian academia about certain issues that are controversial, such as gender and sexuality.
“I think there is a lot of anxiety about trying to keep intellectualism mainstream. This sometimes might conflict with the very spirit of groundbreaking work, with creating new knowledge, with effecting social change.”
“But what I want to stress is that academics and intellectuals have a right to be treated with respect and they have a right to be informed of processes and procedures”, Habib said.
[This article was first published in the Sydney City Hub.]