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NWSA Journal 15.1 (2003) 160-164

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Women and Power in the Middle East edited by Suad Joseph and Susan Slyomovics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001, 237 pp., $42.50 hardcover, $19.95 paper.
Secularism, Gender and the State in the Middle East: The Egyptian Women's Movement by Nadje Al-Ali. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 264 pp., $64.95 hardcover, $22.95 paper.
Unveiling Traditions: Postcolonial Islam in a Polycentric World by Anouar Majid. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001, 225 pp., $54.95 hardcover, $18.95 paper.

The images of veiled Muslim women are everywhere. On the New York Times website one could peruse "Beyond the Veil," photographer Ruth Fremson's visual and verbal account of Afghan and Pakistani women (2001). Back in the United States, Lieutenant Colonel Martha McSally, highest-ranking female combat pilot in the U.S. Air Force, was challenging the legality of Central Command regulations that force service women (but not service men) to "adopt Islamic dress and adhere to Islamic customs" when they leave their base in Saudi Arabia (Philpott 2001). According to Thomas Neuberger, her co-counsel, "What's happening in Afghanistan, with women and burqas, helps point out the contradiction, of our freeing Afghan women from wearing these but, at the same time, making our own service women wear them" (Philpott 2001). In this current rush to see Muslim veiled women as women who are oppressed and passive victims who must be rescued by the white Western knight riding in on his tank, it was a welcome relief to read each of these books which so ably challenge this Orientalist construction of Middle Eastern women. Further, these books remind readers that constructs such as secularism, democracy, citizenship, and individual rights—all of which supposedly make Western women's lives better than those of their Middle Eastern counterparts—are in fact the cultural products of a particular Western historical experience. In the process, one is forced to question why these particular cultural concepts merit elevation to the status of universal standards to which all other peoples should aspire.

The essays that comprise Women and Power in the Middle East initially appeared over a ten-year period from 1986-1996 in the magazine Middle East Report. The collection covers twelve countries in the region (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Palestine, Lebanon, Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Iran) and features the work of major scholars in this area. The individual articles are accessible to undergraduates while the entire collection would provide graduate students with an [End Page 160] excellent summary of the best recent innovative scholarship on gender in the Middle East. This collection would work well for courses in anthropology, political science, Women's Studies, Middle East studies, or cultural studies.

The introduction by Suad Joseph and Susan Slyomovics establishes a framework for situating the specific case studies in the volume while preserving all the complexity and ambiguity attached to looking at gender relations and power in a region as varied as the Middle East. Their focus on the family as the core unit of society in this context allows them to work through the implications this has for women's lives. Patriarchy here resides in both the privilege granted to males and the respect accorded elders in the family. Families provide economic security in countries where no welfare apparatus exists at the national level. Family as idiom comes to resonate not just in intimate spheres but in the economic and political domain as well. In some countries, family carries more weight than citizenship, especially in contexts where the family acts to preserve the individual in the face of state oppression. To understand women's lives in the Middle East, therefore, one must be aware of these many layers, which work themselves out differently according to the woman's class position, religion, and ethnic/national origin.

The four chapters that follow provide useful overviews of the...


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