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Dr Elisabeth Kendall

College position(s)

The Mistress

Specialising in

Arabic and Islamic Studies


On 3 October 2022, I was welcomed as the 20th Mistress of Girton College at the official ceremony of ‘The Installation of the Mistress’, by the College Visitor, Rt Hon the Baroness Hale of Richmond. ‘Mistress’ is Girton’s unique title for the role referred to by other Colleges as Master, President, Provost, Warden or Principal. I succeed Professor Susan J Smith, whose dedicated leadership over 13 years steered the College from strength to strength.

Research themes

My current passion is exploring how militant jihad groups use 'soft' culture (poetry, literature, song) and harness local grievances, not only to recruit, but – equally crucially – to win toleration in the broader community. My research is mainly focused on Arabic-language materials. I have spent significant time in the field, particularly in war-torn Yemen, where I have struck up strong relationships with various tribes and follow the evolution of the ongoing war closely.

However, my research did not always revolve around why terrorists write poetry! I spent many years devoted to more theoretical questions of literary and linguistic development in Arabic cultures more broadly.

It was only during the decade after the 9/11 attacks on New York's Twin Towers that I switched my focus to militant jihad. I became Director of a new UK government-sponsored Centre to create advanced Arabic language expertise and research centred around jihad and martyrdom. The Centre was an exciting collaboration between the Universities of Edinburgh, Durham and Manchester, which I directed out of Edinburgh.

As the 'Arab spring' broke in 2010, I was itching to get back into the field. There were so many questions to explore: Would the uprisings empower extremists or sink them? Were western notions of democracy genuinely popular, or even appropriate? After a couple of years focused on Egypt's political transition, I shifted to Yemen, where the uprising has turned into a protracted civil war with complex international dimensions.

Along the way, I've helped organisations outside academia achieve practical goals. I've spent time working with the Office of the UN Envoy to Yemen, advising parts of NATO, the British, US and other militaries, assisting a hedge fund with investments in tricky parts of the world, and I chair a grassroots NGO in east Yemen.

It's incredibly important to me that my research makes a difference beyond the confines of academia. Over the past five years, I've appeared in over 200 international television and radio broadcasts and delivered over 200 guest speeches and lectures at state institutions worldwide, reaching a range of intelligence, policy-making and military audiences. My research has also been written about in dozens of international newspapers, magazines and global online news sites.


I don't think of work as work. It's what I like to do. But when I'm not 'working', I enjoy climbing mountains, playing the piano, exploring new landscapes on foot, trying out new sports and having fun with friends.

Degrees, Awards and Prizes

BA Hons (Oxon), DPhil (Oxon).


English, Arabic, Turkish, German, French, intermediate Portuguese

Extra links