- Women’s Activism and the Public Sphere:Introduction and Overview
The articles in this special issue were among those presented at a workshop we organized for the Sixth Mediterranean Social and Political Research Meeting, which took place from 16—20 March 2005, in Montecatini, Italy. The purpose of the workshop was to examine the proposition that the public sphere in a number of MENA countries is changing and civil society becoming "feminized" due to women's greater social participation, the proliferation of women's organizations, their involvement in or initiation of public debates and national dialogues, and their access to various forms of media. Twelve papers were submitted and presented at the workshop, leading to a very lively discussion, but only a few could be included in this special issue. The papers lay out the complexity of various versions of women's activism, their intricate relations with public space, and how that plays out in contemporary political and legal debates.In what remains, we provide a brief introduction to the guiding ideas and an overview of the papers' arguments and findings.
In Habermas' conceptualization, the "public sphere" is a modern institution and a set of values that brings private persons together in public to engage in a context of reasoned debates (Habermas 1989). Civil society—the non-state realm of associational life, civility in public discourse, and state-society relations—constitutes an important part of the [End Page 1] public sphere of media and other forums of public opinion. As feminist scholars have pointed out (Fraser 1996; Lister 1997), civil society and the public sphere historically were cast as male, although women's suffrage and the women's movement expanded, democratized, and feminized these spheres in the course of the twentieth century.
The public sphere has been conceptualized largely in connection with the single society and the nation-state, but processes of globalization suggest the emergence of a "global space" within which reasoned debates, associational activities, and collective action take place. This is the impetus for the new literature on "global civil society" (Florini 2000), the "transnational public sphere" (Guidry, Kennedy, and Zald 1999), "transnational social movements" (Smith, Chatfield, and Pagnucco 1997), "transnational advocacy networks" (Keck and Sikkink 1998), and "transnational feminist networks" (Moghadam 2005).
A burgeoning literature on civil society, citizenship, and democratization has emerged in the context of Middle East Studies, in tandem with a body of work by feminist scholars (Brynen, Korany, and Noble 1995, 1998; El-Sayyid 1994; Norton 1995; Arat 1994; Brand 1998; Botman 1999; Joseph 2000; Moghadam 2003; Sadiqi 2003). As an earlier generation of feminist scholars noted for the West, the public sphere of politics in MENA has been cast as male and distinguished from the private sphere of women-and-the-family. Moreover, the state and the market have been long regarded as masculine domains. Rights of the citizen—limited for all in the authoritarian and neopatriarchal states of MENA—have been differentiated by gender (and religion). It is this state of affairs that is being contested by an emerging social and political constituency—women—who are motivated by aspirations for equality and enhanced rights and who also draw on international standards, conventions, and networks in support of their claims. As a social movement, women's activism in the public sphere uses strategies that do not reproduce Western frameworks but that feed into global synergy with their guiding cultural worldviews. It is only through understandings of intercultural worldviews and various meanings of "pragmatism" that MENA women's rights tactics can be appreciated globally (Sadiqi forthcoming).
The papers in this special issue explore the changing nature of the public sphere in MENA and women's contributions to it, as well as women's involvement in the transnational public sphere, through an [End Page 2] examination of countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Jordan, where these changes have been observed.
An examination of political developments over the past decade in MENA countries leads to the formulation of the following propositions.
Proposition 1. The public sphere in a number of MENA countries is being engendered and feminized because of the emergence of women as political actors...