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Journal of Women's History 15.1 (2003) 52-69

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Public and Private in Middle Eastern Women's History

Elizabeth Thompson

It is remarkable that the conceptual framework of public and private spheres has never dominated Middle Eastern women's history. Given the media's sensationalist fascination with Muslim women's veils, one might have expected a vigorous scholarly critique of its simplistic dichotomies of public and private. While much has certainly been written about the current revival of veiling in Middle East, little has been written on the historical contexts that have defined the meaning of those veils. There has thus been virtually no debate about the usefulness of the terms "private" and "public" in defining those contexts. Why this suprising lacuna? It may simply reflect the thin ranks of historians who specialize in the Middle East. It also likely reflects postcolonial scholars' general distrust of terms that carry the baggage of Western imperial hegemony. As Europeanists have also acknowledged, Habermasian public and private spheres are historically contingent categories that do not travel well through European history, much less the histories of other regions. So the lacuna may be a healthy sign that scholars of the Middle East have avoided normative European categories that might distort local experience. But avoidance may also incur steep costs to historical understanding. First, by not interrogating the terms public and private directly, scholars are unable to check their misuse—for the terms are widely used by non-specialists in contemporary debates about modernity, democracy, women's status, and Islamic morality in the region. Second, rejection of universal categories in favor of localist terminology may encourage the cultural exceptionalism and essentialism that revisionist and feminist historians have sought to combat. A purely local focus denies the reality of transnational historical experience.

This essay therefore argues, in likely contrast to others in this retrospective, for more extensive experimentation with public and private as lenses of historical analysis. It is only through the direct interrogation of the concepts in local historical contexts, and through direct scholarly debate about their merits, that we may succeed in redefining them in truly universal terms or in identifying new conceptual frameworks that foster comparative and transnational historical understanding. As a step toward that goal, this essay examines the tentative and often unexamined uses of the terms "public" and "private" in historical studies of gender boundaries in the Middle East. It aims to tease out areas of consensus and debate [End Page 52] that are often only implicit in the most influential revisionist and feminist scholarship found in English. In brief, dichotomous models of public and private have not served medieval and early modern women's history well. Preliminary efforts to reconceptualize the topography of women's lived experience in graded terms of seclusion and mobility seem more promising. Despite the seeming durability of legal texts prescribing women's proper sphere of action, historians have shown that the location and function of gender boundaries have shifted over time, especially in response to state-building and class formation. They generally agree that the colonial encounter with Europe in the late nineteenth century caused a profound and explosive shift in the discourses and practices that set gender boundaries. The precise nature of the colonial and postcolonial shifts in gender boundaries, however, remains unclear partly because of our poor understanding of precolonial boundaries. Dichotomous conceptions of public and private that emerged out of the colonial encounter have combined with older repertoires to create a volatile and complex reality for Middle Eastern women today.

The Elusiveness of Public and Private in Medieval Law and Practice

Research on gender boundaries in the seventh through eighteenth centuries has made important first steps in deconstructing ahistorical ideal models based solely on legal texts. Obstacles to a fuller understanding include not only a rarity of sources, but also the limits of polemical intent. The dominant inspiration for such research has been reaction to the polarized and dichotomous discourses of Westernization and Islamization that confront Middle Eastern women today. This has resulted in a tendency toward undertheorized usage...


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