Meet Harvard’s Professor-Activist Power Couple
On Sept. 5, 2017, Donald Trump announced that he was ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era program that protects undocumented individuals who had been brought to the United States as children from deportation.
Professor Kirsten Weld had received word of the rescission a few days earlier, and was already in the midst of planning a response. In the hopes of making a clear public statement, she decided on an act of nonviolent civil disobedience by professors.
As soon as he received word of the protest, Professor Ahmed Ragab wanted to participate.
There was just one problem: he wasn’t yet a United States citizen, and being arrested could jeopardize his impending naturalization.
The night before the protest, however, Ragab realized that he and his wife, Professor Soha Bayoumi, who are both Egyptian immigrants, had been scheduled to be naturalized the next morning.
He emailed Weld to tell her that he wanted to participate in the protest immediately after.
“I got a bit tearful, actually, when I read his email because it was so powerful to me that that was the first thing he wanted to be able to do with his new privilege of United States citizenship,” Weld said.
For Ragab, there was a special significance to the fact that his naturalization coincided with the protest.
“The naturalization itself, and in a way the arrest afterward, was part of how I was thinking about what it means to belong in this country,” Ragab said.
“This protest was kind of an affirmation of a moment of self-discovery, of subscribing to a particular version of American-ness,” he explained. For Ragab, that version is related to the “culture of protest and of change and of dissent” that is present throughout America’s history.
Bayoumi felt similarly, emphasizing the contradiction of gaining citizenship as others lose their right to be in this country.
“There’s a really huge paradox in a way, us getting naturalized and supposedly getting all those rights that come with being a U.S. citizen while some of our students are actually being stripped or feel that they’re being stripped of those rights,” she said.
On Sept. 7, Bayoumi and Ragab made their way to Faneuil Hall, where they were naturalized, and immediately returned to Harvard Square to join the protest in the Yard — only stopping to change into more comfortable shoes.
Soon after, Ragab and 30 other professors from Harvard and other Boston-area universities blocked Massachusetts Avenue. They were arrested by Cambridge Police, who had been notified beforehand about the demonstration.
Bayoumi attended the protest but could not be arrested alongside Ragab because she had to pick up their daughter, Carmen, from school.
“People pay attention to the people who get arrested, the people who are on the street, but they don’t necessarily pay attention to the activists’ partners who are actually taking care of things at home so that the activists can do their role in social justice,” she said.
Recalling his arrest, Ragab emphasized that the treatment he and other professors received from the police — which he characterized as respectful and relatively noninvasive — served as evidence of the privilege they hold as academics. The district attorney ultimately decided to drop all charges.
“This is not the experience of immigrants in this country, definitely not the experience of black and brown people around the country, where an arrest means a lot more than just spending a couple of hours at the police station and being arraigned a week later,” Ragab said.
In return for the privilege they receive as academics, Ragab and Bayoumi said they have sought to challenge the longstanding ideal of objectivity in the academy — deliberately bringing politics into their scholarship and into their classrooms to advocate for marginalized groups.
“It was a way of using some of that privilege to lend their voice, or use their megaphone to lend their voice, to the cause of our students and many many others in this country who do not have that privilege, whose voices are usually silenced,” Bayoumi said of the DACA protest.
Activism on Harvard’s campus has proliferated in the Trump era, and Ragab and Bayoumi represent models of the new politically engaged professor.
Ragab and Bayoumi grew up in Cairo, Egypt and met as high schoolers through theater and poetry competitions.
After high school, they entered different degree programs — Ragab to medical school, Bayoumi to study the social sciences — but continued to cross paths through their political, intellectual, academic, and extracurricular activities.
“I fell in love with her very early. And it took her quite some time to fall in love with me,” Ragab said. “There’s this brilliant, powerful fantastic woman, and I was this little shy boring kid in the medical school, and I was trying to find a way or a moment to just see, can I even take her out on a date? She was way out of my league.”
“There was a first attempt on my part, and she was in a relationship so that didn’t work, and so about a year later I tried again, and that time it worked,” Ragab added.
They dated for a couple years in Cairo until Bayoumi entered a political philosophy Ph.D. program in Paris. They maintained a long-distance relationship while Ragab finished medical school.
“I think it sort of showed us that if we can survive a couple of years of long-distance relationship, we can survive a lot of other things,” Ragab said.
Eventually, Ragab began a Ph.D. program in the history of medicine in Paris, briefly practicing psychiatry at the same time. Bayoumi first came to Harvard as an exchange Ph.D. student. After finishing his degree, Ragab joined her and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Harvard’s History of Science Department.
“And she stayed with me, so one thing led to another,” he said.
Now, despite their different intellectual backgrounds, both Ragab and Bayoumi teach interdisciplinary Harvard courses that relate to the history of science.
“I started from studying the social sciences and then orienting my social science studies towards thinking about medicine and health. And he went the other way, and we met somewhere in between,” Bayoumi said.
Currently, Bayoumi serves as the resident dean of Kirkland House and a History of Science lecturer at the College. Ragab is a professor of science and religion at the Divinity School, as well as an associate professor in the History of Science.
Both have brought politics into their work.
Bayoumi’s work spans multiple disciplines, though it primarily focuses on contemporary intersections of science, medicine, technology, politics, and gender and sexuality, with a focus on the Middle East.
A growing interest of hers is the cultural prestige of doctors in post-colonial Egypt, particularly how they acquire social capital and deploy medical expertise in situations of political turmoil and violence.
Ragab’s work is similarly interdisciplinary, focused on science and medicine in the Middle East and the broader Islamic world, including some Muslim communities in the United States. He said he strives to focus his work on individuals, rather than broad concepts.
“The more common and traditional way of studying science and religion is to think very theoretically about whether Science — capital S — and Religion — capital R — can coexist together,” he said. “The way that I’m interested in studying them is to think about science — small s — and religion — small r — and how they manifest in the lives of people.”
While Bayoumi’s work focuses on contemporary issues and Ragab’s on the medieval, Bayoumi noted that their relationship encourages a “cross-pollination” of ideas, as they help each other understand the modern and historical contexts of their own research.
Ragab also works to connect medieval history to modern questions, many of which are related to identity and social justice.
Some of these questions have emerged from national political developments that touch Harvard’s campus. After the Trump administration reportedly considered changing the definition of gender in Title IX — a federal anti-sex discrimination law — to exclude transgender individuals, Ragab pointed out the history of gender fluidity.
“They rely on the assumption that [gender] has been around forever and that being trans is a new thing, but that’s a lie,” Ragab said. “People lived and existed in various sexes and genders throughout history, and they moved in between sexes and genders throughout history.”
After Ragab spoke to his students about the issue, they invited him to speak at a walkout for trans rights at the Divinity School. He spoke about the importance of standing up to the Trump administration and protecting trans students.
Bayoumi also brings a consciousness of social justice into her classroom. Though she used to see herself as an activist, she said she now prefers the term “engaged scholar.”
“It does not necessarily erase the tension between being an activist and being an academic. But it highlights the importance of being cognizant of those tensions while also channeling our scholarly efforts, not in propagandistic ways,” she explained.
Debunking the “myth” in academia that scholars and researchers ought to be neutral or objective, Bayoumi said everyone, including academics, holds implicit biases that inform the work they do and how they approach it.
“I try to acknowledge my biases as much as possible,” she said. “One thing that I believe in, which I think is important as well, is to think about who we are accountable to as academics. And that’s something that I grapple with all the time.”
Ragab agrees, acknowledging that being “completely free from what is outside” the classroom is a privilege that many students and faculty members do not have. He and Bayoumi certainly don’t.
“For me, personally, as faculty of color, and a Muslim person in an increasingly securitized discourse, and in an administration that was and continues to impose the ban on Muslims and continues to float the idea of creating a registry for Muslims, my life comes into the classroom,” Ragab said.
For some, activist professors are sometimes precisely what students are looking for. Students who have worked with Bayoumi and Ragab voiced their appreciation for the couple’s cognizance of and work on social issues.
“I think they are both just very authentic, empathetic, humble, interested, and interesting people. They have a fire in them,” Sara S. Surani ’18, a former Kirkland House resident and student of Bayoumi’s, said. “Ahmed was willing to get arrested while advocating for DACA students and I've seen Soha relentlessly advocate for many of my friends through personal and academic challenges.”
“They are both restlessly dedicated to improving the lives of people close and far from them -- whether in Kirkland House or in the Middle East,” Surani said. “They also have an analytical, creative, and multidisciplinary view of the world, which is incredibly refreshing and challenges people around them to think differently.”
For Eli Nelson, a former student of Ragab’s, the professor’s desire to bring lived experiences into the classroom proved life-altering.
Nelson began his Ph.D. work on the history of physics, but found it “miserable.” A remark from Ragab permanently altered his academic trajectory.
Nelson recalled Ragab telling him, “You know you could study what you find politically and personally important in the academy, right? You don’t have to work on physics because you think it’s more intellectually rigorous or important.”
At that point, Nelson, who is Mohawk, began working on Native Science, postcolonial theory, and queer theory. He also became Ragab’s first dissertation advisee.
“There’s no one else who does this in the history of science,” Nelson explained. “I’m incredibly grateful that he, being a medieval Islamist, taught himself Native studies so he could work with me.”
Nelson, now an assistant professor of American Studies at Williams College, attributes his ability to graduate a year early to Ragab, “because he was that good at training me.”
As a professor, Nelson said he seeks to emulate Ragab, even occasionally quoting him while teaching.
“He’s still by far the smartest and best scholar I’ve ever met,” Nelson explained.
In addition to his work inside the classroom, Nelson admires how Ragab “cultivates a community among his students, which is really rare.”
“He has a really good understanding of what it takes to get through the academy, especially for people who weren’t necessarily meant to be here in the first place,” Nelson said.
Students who had Bayoumi as their thesis adviser found her equally impactful.
“Professor Bayoumi was an exceedingly patient and thoughtful advisor,” Lindiwe P. Makgalemele ’18 said, calling their meetings “some of the best parts of my senior year and undergraduate career in general.”
Surani, also one of Bayoumi’s advisees, said her meetings with Bayoumi “were what kept [her] grounded” and helped her grow as a person and advocate around social issues.
“Soha taught me how to be more comfortable with uncertainty and to fight for what I care about more fiercely,” Surani said. “Soha challenged me to think more about what I can do for people and the world around me and to fight for those opportunities, even if they are unconventional.”
When they’re not teaching or advising, Bayoumi and Ragab live in Kirkland House with their five-year-old daughter, Carmen, and six-year-old cat, Jesse. They said they enjoy seeing movies together at least once or twice a month, attending plays and concerts, and exploring local restaurants, like Waypoint and Alden & Harlow.
Still, they said their work permeates their daily lives.
“We’re always talking about work,” Bayoumi said. “It’s not a 9-to-5 job.”
“Being an academic is a very difficult line of work because the job doesn’t end,” Ragab agreed. “You’re always about this, you’re always thinking about the next project, and this project and things that you’re reading.”
Both noted that academia can be “isolating” and “lonely,” which, they said heightens their appreciation for each other and the Kirkland community.
“Having a partner in Soha who is so smart and with a fantastic focus and a very critical mind continues to challenge and help me in thinking about a lot of my work,” Ragab said. “Whatever I do, the ideas that I have, a good part of it is coming from the conversations and discussions that we have.”
Bayoumi said she and Ragab really have become a part of the “fiber” of Kirkland: “We feel like we’re really embedded in every aspect of our own lives in the Harvard community and Harvard cultural, intellectual, and social life.”
Even their cat, Jesse, has become an integral part of house life. A social cat, he frequents the dining hall, participates in skits, and maintains a busy schedule full of playdates with Kirkland residents.
Surani, the former Kirkland resident, said she has “many fond memories of having lunch or dinner with them and their incredible daughter Carmen in Kirkland.”
“They genuinely care about the interests, lives, strengths, and challenges of each student whose path they cross,” she said.
Ragab appreciates the opportunity living in Kirkland has afforded him to experience Harvard in a different way.
“One is able to see different aspects of what it means to belong into this community. That makes me more and more cognizant of the importance of the community standing up together,” Ragab said. “It is really an important thing for the community to speak for each other and to protect each other.”
Correction: Dec. 13, 2018
A previous version of this article misquoted Ahmed Ragab. It has been updated.
—Staff Writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.
—Staff Writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.