- New Directions in Middle East Women’s and Gender History
Look in on a scene from the contemporary history of women and gender in the Arab Middle East: in 1999, a major conference on gender history in Arab societies over the past one hundred years took place in Cairo. Playing on the title of a famously controversial 1899 treatise on the woman question—lawyer Qasim Amin’s The Liberation of Woman—the convenors chose to call the event “One Hundred Years of the Emancipation of the Arab Woman.” Organized by the Government of Egypt’s Supreme Council for Culture under the sponsorship of Suzanne Mubarak, spouse of the Egyptian President and keynote speaker, the conference was a major public as well as academic event, widely covered in the local press. Much of the coverage focused on a few heated but generally productive confrontations that occurred within panel discussions. Yet it was not the content of debates so much as the personalities and dress of participants that drew a voyeuristic media gaze (as did our end-of-conference dinner on a boat that cruised the Nile). Outrage was expressed at the inclusion of a roundtable discussion on sexuality; certain newspapers speculated that there must have been undue western feminist influence at work. Specifically, there was anger that state funding had gone into this event, and the issue was used by Islamist spokespeople to criticize the Egyptian government’s Western leanings. In the local media, especially the organs of the official opposition political parties, the study of gender history itself was turned into a sexualized body, attacked for its pernicious influence, and dismissed. To hold such a conference was criticized as an affront to Egypt’s national honor, and at least one newspaper writer seemed scandalized by the fact that four or five non-Arabs, including myself, were among the 300 or so participants, and therefore witness to this breach of national honor.
I offer this anecdote as a window on major challenges—as well as signal accomplishments—shaping the writing and teaching of gender history on and in Muslim-majority societies of the Middle East (in which I include the Muslim-majority societies of west Asia and North Africa that define themselves as Arab, as well as Turkey and Iran). First, to make a point that is perhaps obvious yet still requires repeating, the fortunes of gender history as an academic enterprise cannot be disentangled from contemporary politics, global and local, an entanglement that seems especially clear in Middle East gender history right now. Second, while much of the energy over the past decade and a half of scholarship has been centered in North America and England, the gender-sensitive study of history for the region started in the region, with the first historical analyses of women’s status published just before the turn of the twentieth century in Lebanon, Egypt, and Turkey, as interventions in shaping a nationalist narrative. It is crucial not only to engage with and to honor early and ongoing work in the region, but to recognize the historiographical significance of how academies are differentially placed in the global—too often an easy substitute for “Western”—production of knowledges.
Now, the center of gravity is shifting to the region once again, through publications and the energies of academic programs and research centers.1 But, third, in an increasingly conservative social and political atmosphere characterized by growing popular discontent about the perceived failure of the postcolonial state to perform its duty toward citizens, as well as widening income gaps, mounting unemployment, and consistent state repression of any real organized opposition, women are (yet again) bearing a double symbolic and social-political burden. Claimed by various political actors simultaneously as embodying all that is wrong with society and as the all-important repository of everything the society cherishes most, women may find their every articulation resonating far beyond the academy. Such circumstances have repercussions on academic work, implications for how research is framed and received, how a scholarly community polices itself—and how it is policed from outside its own relatively comfortable boundaries. And in such an atmosphere, the 1999 conference in Cairo could not but have...