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Journal of Women's History 18.1 (2006) 203-211
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Middle Eastern Modernities:
Women, Gender, and Nation in Lebanon and Palestine
In 1884, Da'ad Fatuh, a midwife in the Lebanese village of Al-Munsif, left her husband and two children for an uncertain, temporary future as a peddler in New Orleans. In 1918, Sarah Azaryahu, a Jewish schoolteacher and mother of three living in Palestine, organized three thousand Sephardic Jewish women to vote in municipal elections in Haifa, an effort that returned a female candidate to the city council. In 1939, Sadhij Nassar, an ardent nationalist, became the first Palestinian Arab woman to be arrested and detained by British authorities. However diverse in terms of religious, cultural, and geographical heritage, these women shared a common experience as active, if not necessarily witting, participants in the complicated enterprise of nation-building. Their stories and others are recounted in three recent books that explore the complex interplay between gender, nation, and modernity in the Middle East.
Such themes have preoccupied students of Middle Eastern women's history for the past decade or so, resulting in a rich and varied scholarship that underscores the centrality of women—as agents and as symbols—to the quest for modernity, a condition implicitly premised on national sovereignty and embodied in a new ethos of bourgeois domesticity that radiated outward from nineteenth-century Europe to many parts of the colonized world. In the late 1800s, ideals that had accompanied the reorganization of economic and social life in the industrializing societies of the West (such as companionate marriage, the nuclear family, the division of domestic and [End Page 203] public space, and education for women) began to appear in the Middle East, where they were touted by many reformers as hallmarks of "civilization" and "progress" but denounced by conservatives as symptoms of "Western" corruption. The debate over the so-called woman question intensified as it became embedded in the larger project of nation-building. If women's changing roles produced anxiety in the independent, self-assured nations of the "West," the issue was even more fraught in the colonized, quasi-colonized, or simply less powerful countries of the East, where the encounter with Europe spurred efforts to become "modern" without compromising the essential elements of cultural identity. We have learned much about how Egyptian, Iranian, and Turkish women both figured and fared in state-building and modernizing projects; the three books under review add much-needed breadth to this historiography by focusing on the comparatively understudied countries of Lebanon and Palestine.
In the twenty-five year period between 1890 and 1915, almost a third of the peasant population of Mount Lebanon—predominantly Maronite Christians—left their homes for the greener pastures of the Americas. Of those who made their way to the United States, Argentina, or Brazil, a substantial (and influential) number eventually returned to begin life anew in their native villages. Their disorienting experiences, both in the mahjar (land of emigration) and upon resettlement back home, are the subject of Akram Khater's provocative study, Inventing Home: Emigration, Gender and the Middle Class in Lebanon, 1870–1920. By focusing on the phenomenon of return emigration and its role in the making of modern Lebanon, Khater seeks to expand the boundaries of both national history and "modernization" scholarship. Students of immigration history will appreciate his questioning of "nationalist claims to unique histories formed in culturally pristine spaces" (9); those interested in the...