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Reviewed by:
  • Women in the Middle East, Past and Present
  • John O. Voll
Women in the Middle East, Past and Present. By Nikki R. Keddie (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.xvi plus 389 pp.).

The study of Middle Eastern women, both past and present, has emerged as a major field of scholarship in recent decades. In the middle of the twentieth century, so-called "mainstream" area studies scholarship largely ignored Middle Eastern women's studies, in ways reflecting the relatively marginal status of women's studies in general in the world of academic scholarship. However, as scholars began to recognize the broader importance of social history, greater attention was given to "women's history." In Middle Eastern area studies, this trend is reflected in the growing attention given to gender dimensions of societal and historical research.

Nikki Keddie is one of the major scholars involved in this development, both as a contributing participant and as a critical observer. This volume is a collection of her essays, some of them significantly updated. Keddie as the analyst and critic of scholarship on Middle Eastern women is the primary voice in this selection of essays.

This volume is actually two books, along with a short autobiographical section at the end and an album of photographs by Keddie. The first book is an extended two hundred p[age narrative account which uses the library of new studies "to synthesize an analytic history of the subject ["Women in the Middle East"] from pre-Islamic times to the present" (p. 2). The endnotes and bibliography provide a comprehensive listing of studies and sources, while the text represents an extended critical annotation.

The narrative in Book One illustrates an important aspect of Keddie's approach to women's studies. At times, scholars in women's studies present portraits that seem separated from the rest of the historical narrative, but Keddie works to present an integrated narrative. In this integration, Keddie utilizes the standard periodizations of political history and then expands the coverage to include women. In this conceptualization, social history runs chronologically parallel to the main outlines of political history. As integration develops further, the main themes of social history may reshape the basic political periodizations used in structuring the narratives.

Book Two presents five papers dealing with aspects of the study of Middle [End Page 199] Eastern women. These essays are related to the narrative history in Book One. Keddie explains that they "provide some of the background, context, and scholarly basis for Book One ... and also present in greater detail the theoretical and historiographical ideas and controversies that underlie it" (p. 2).

The first essay in Book Two was originally the introduction to a pioneering volume, outlining the major lines of reconceptualizations of gender in historic and contemporary Muslim societies. The second essay confronts the issues raised by debates involving relativist and universalist positions. Keddie defines the problem clearly: "Too often neither side in the debate between multiculturalist or Third Worldist feminists and universalist feminists grants significant truth or weight to the other side" (pp. 242–3). She argues for a middle position: "Perhaps there can be some rapprochement, however incomplete, between those scholars who do not want to attack phenomena that are perceived as Islamic and those who take a more universalist view of reform that does not stress the special features of any region" (p. 242). This middle path is possible through a nuanced, contextualized approach to social history.

Essays Three and Four are interestingly contrasting portraits of the field. Essay Four was a critical analysis of the state of the field in 1979 and Keddie decided to publish it unchanged as a way of emphasizing "to what a surprising extent the problems it discusses remain problems" (p. 3). The paper was written just after the publication of Edward Said's controversial and influential book, Orientalism. Keddie's essay articulates concerns similar to those of Said regarding the biases of Western scholarship dealing with Islam. She notes that there were few historical studies of Middle Eastern women, and those few were "characterized either by the empiricism that dominated nineteenth-century Western historiography ... and/or by various national and cultural biases" p. 285). Keddie...


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