Asma Shakeel (SFS’24), a senior who researches missionary history in South Asia, has won the 2024 Rhodes Scholarship — the third Hoya to win the oldest and most competitive international scholarship this year. This is the first time in nearly 30 years that three scholars have been selected from Georgetown in the same year.
Shakeel, a student at Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q), is one of five recipients of the Rhodes Scholarship in India. She joins Charlie Wang (SFS’22), a University of Cambridge graduate student, and Thomas Batterman (C’22), a war crimes investigator at the Department of Justice, as Georgetown’s 2024 Rhodes recipients.
They join the ranks of more than 30 Georgetown students and alumni who have received the scholarship, including 2021 recipient and fellow GU-Q student, Khansa Maria (SFS’21), and former President Bill Clinton (SFS’68). The scholarship selects promising young people from around the world who demonstrate integrity, leadership, character, intellect and a commitment to service to study at the University of Oxford.
“This is a wonderful recognition of Asma and her academic contributions. On behalf of our community, I offer my most sincere congratulations on this terrific achievement,” says Georgetown President John J. DeGioia. “Asma has shown a deep dedication to the study of history and how it informs our present. She has illuminated new perspectives on the past and ways to make it more accessible. We look forward to the impact she will have on our global community.”
Shakeel will pursue her master’s in global and imperial history and a Ph.D. in history at the University of Oxford. While there, she hopes to use archives from British missionaries in South Asia to better understand the history of Kashmir, a Himalayan region in the Indian subcontinent where she grew up. Ultimately, Shakeel hopes to create a digital archive that chronicles Kashmir’s history, so that generations of Kashmiris can access, contribute to, and understand their history.
Asking the Right Questions
Shakeel first became interested in missionary history in the GU-Q course, America and the Muslim World. As she studied American missionaries in the Middle East, she wondered about Kashmir. Why were Kashmir’s first formal schools established by missionaries? What was its educational history? She didn’t know the answers; exposure to Kashmiri history was limited growing up, she said.
“Every Kashmiri knows there is very rare representation of local voices or lived experiences in official histories,” she said. “You are only told about the treaties, how Kashmir got to the place it is, what Pakistan or India did. In these official narratives, people’s own experiences are sort of subsided.”
GU-Q’s history professors encouraged her to ask questions, and in doing so, she found that missionaries, who wrote about the people they were evangelizing, could help her understand how people lived. Shakeel was selected to write an honors thesis on how British missionaries impacted Kashmiris through their educational and medical programs. She was also awarded the Provost’s Distinguished Undergraduate Research Fellowship from Georgetown’s Center for Research and Fellowships (CRF) to conduct summer research on the subject.
“Asma has demonstrated the values that we celebrate at Georgetown: empathy, integrity, academic excellence and rigorous scholarship, and an unrelenting dedication to the common good,” said Lauren Tuckley, director of the CRF. “We were pleased to support her research and will continue to follow all the ways she applies her scholarship as a force for good in the world.”
In June of 2023, she spent nearly a month in a basement library of the University of Birmingham, poring over decades of archives from Britain’s Church Missionary Society, which was active in Kashmir in the early twentieth century. She found the archives illuminated the region’s caste dynamics and social stratification from that time period — a topic she hadn’t found any scholarly work on. She also found that sitting in the silence of the archives spoke volumes about who has access to this history and who doesn’t.
“The general assumption is that a historian is doing something about the past. But very few people understand that history is a conversation between past and present,” she said. “When we look at archives, we are not just looking at the past, but how the past is being used in the present to make certain narratives. When I was in the archives, I didn’t feel happy that so much of the stuff about the past was in the UK and so far away from people’s access.”
Shakeel wants to create an alternative archive – one in which Kashmiris contribute their family’s oral histories, photographs, obituaries and lived experiences to give voice to and better understand their past, informing their present.
At Oxford, Shakeel plans to deepen her international history studies and work toward creating the digital archive. At Georgetown, she’s spending her senior year writing her honors thesis.
Shakeel has previously conducted research on the impact of lockdown on migrant workers in India as a Lisa J. Raines Fellow at Georgetown and served as a research and policy intern for the Middle East Council on Global Affairs. She’s currently a publications assistant for Georgetown’s Center for International and Regional Studies, where she’s assisting with the forthcoming book, Global Histories of Islamophobia. In her free time, she heads the GU-Q club Brain Food and draws political cartoons. She previously served as the president of Georgetown’s South Asian Society and was a debater for Qatar’s Debating Union.
“On behalf of the GU-Q community, I want to express tremendous pride and delight at Asma Shakeel’s monumental achievement,” said Safwan Masri, dean of GU-Q and Distinguished Professor of the Practice in the Walsh School of Foreign Service. “Winning the 2024 Rhodes Scholarship is a testimony to her sharp intellect and dedication, while also reflecting positively on the faculty whose wise and sustained mentorship guided Asma in her groundbreaking research on Kashmir’s history. “An emerging scholar, Asma sets an extraordinary example for all Georgetown students to follow their intellectual passions, curiosity and thirst for knowledge.”
Shakeel said she’s been particularly inspired by her history professors, who encouraged her to apply for scholarships and to believe in herself. “None of this would have been possible without the generous grants I received from the Center for Research and Fellowships and without the help of people both from Main Campus and Georgetown in Qatar,” she said. “My professors have also helped me believe in myself. The way they teach history and encourage you to ask questions to come up with weird answers that lead to more confusing questions, it makes you believe that your voice matters and your thoughts matter,” she said.
“I think that’s what we need right now: for students and for young people to believe that their questions matter and their curiosity is the way forward.”