Interview: Rachel Al Rubai


University of Toronto

Areas of Interest/Research:

Late antique asceticism, archaeology, and early Christian women

What is it about your field that you love researching?

I love approaching questions that are interdisciplinary in nature. I think that the history of gender, religion, and sexuality is one that utilizes theories from many different fields. As such, I am very fascinated by ideas of religious formation, conversion, and group identities – especially in terms of cognitive archaeology. I have also always loved working with different languages and primary sources – it is intriguing to imagine how ancient women navigated the world and how their womanhood was formed. 

What is one “big idea” in your scholarship?

One of the biggest ideas in my scholarship is the combination of textual sources and archaeological evidence to recover female voices and lifestyles. Because there are few female authored sources, we need to adopt a more holistic methodology that will allow us to identify both the idealised Christian woman as well as a realistic reconstruction of womanhood, gender, sexuality, and asceticism. As such, I believe that we can better understand the lived experience of these women through an interdisciplinary approach. 

What is your current research about?

My current project investigates early female Christian communities, who have devoted themselves to an ascetic life of worship, and their development in late antiquity through the intersection of textual and archaeological evidence. I am examining how early female communities and ascetic groups in the late antiquity created and developed a group identity and how that identity shaped their relationship with their physical spaces and material cultures. I am particularly curious about the types of asceticism that were particularly appealing to women and why. 

Who is one of your academic heroes and why do you admire them?

Honestly, there are many amazing female scholars that I look up to in my field, including my colleagues and the students in my cohort. One of my biggest heroes is Dr. Elizabeth Clark, who retired from Duke University. She is an amazing pioneer in the field of late antique asceticism and feminist theory, and she is such a role model for me. She broke through numerous barriers in the 1970s, pushing for inclusion and diversity in the field. I was also fortunate enough to have an amazing mentor in my undergraduate, Dr. Alison More, who introduced me to new ideas and was always a kind soul. As a first-generation university student, I am always so inspired by women who fought to earn their place in scholarship and I strongly believe that their legacy continues to impact us today. 

What books have been formative for you in your study? Why were they so important? How did they shape you?

Definitely Elizabeth Clark’s Reading Renunciation: Asceticism and Scripture in Early Christianity. Clark’s use of contemporary literary theory to approach early Christian asceticism introduced my love of interdisciplinary approaches. I also loved Gillian Cloke’s This Female Man of God: Women and Spiritual Power in the Patristic Age, AD 350-450. Both of these books really changed the way I approached conceptualizations of sexuality and womanhood in my research. 

Do you have any publications we can showcase?

Being a first year PhD student, I do not have any published work at the moment; however, I am currently working on a project that I am really excited about and hoping to get published. I do participate in conferences often and would love to continue to meet and chat with other amazing scholars, especially over a cup of tea. 

Where can we follow you online?

I am on Twitter as @rachelalrubai, I am also on LinkedIn and Academia as Rachel Al Rubai. If anyone would like to connect, you can always send me an email at as well. 

If we ran into you at a conference and you didn’t want to talk about your field what would you want to talk about?

Either video games, my pet hedgehog, or embroidery. I am very interested in video games that attempt to recreate historical worlds and the research that goes into digital world building. It is such an interesting mix of art and history. I also absolutely love cross stitch – I find it so relaxing and comforting. I have always wanted to learn how to make bobbin lace as well. 

What research/writing project are you working on right now that you’re excited about?

I am currently working on a project focusing on the mobility and connectivity of Christian women in the late antique Mediterranean. I want to examine how ideas are transmitted through social networks and how we can begin to uncover the information pathways that linked these women together. 

>> Thank you so much, Rachel, for taking the time to share a bit about yourself and your work.

Are you a PhD student or Early Career Researcher working in Religion or Biblical Studies? If so, we’d like to hear from you. This website is dedicated solely to interviewing PhD students and ECRs on who they are, what they love about their work, and what has inspired them. If you’d like to be interviewed, head over to the Contact page and fill out the form. There’s no catch. Don’t be shy. Self-promotion is a virtue.

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