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  • Changing (?) Gender Roles Within Conservative Communities:An Analysis of Group Interview Narratives of Bedouin Women
  • Ayelet Harel-Shalev (bio), Rebecca Kook (bio), and Feniar Elkrenawe (bio)

This article focuses on the creative and innovative modes of negotiation that women in severely patriarchal societies often exhibit in their attempts to actively pursue their own goals in the face of risk. Based on group interviews with Bedouin women in southern Israel about their everyday lives, the research explores both the risks and the ways in which the women deal with them. The research expands on discussions about the nature of women's agency in the context of the power relations prevalent in specific communities, paying attention to the multiple modes of subordination experienced by the women of such communities.


We see it during the elections. Women have a lot of power [voting rights] but I don't see one female representative. This is because the status of women is still very low. … If a woman goes out to work, she gives her salary to her husband. … There is this invisible string and we always come back. Right now, I was downstairs, and I saw a dog and my friend said to me—see, its leash is long. We are not dogs, but we are tied.

Interviewee #6, Rahat [End Page 486]

Over the past few decades, with the spread of liberal values of equality, on the one hand, and the emergence of neoliberal global markets, on the other, traditional views of gender relations are being strongly contested at the global level. Accordingly, the abilities of women to gain a more equitable access to employment, education, and representation are becoming both defining parameters of gender equality and an overall normative measure of a "good society." Concomitantly, there is a growing realization that these abilities, most notably the ability of women to work, to pursue higher education, and to become actively involved in community leadership, are necessary conditions for sustainable economic development (OECD 2014, 2018; The World Bank 2019).

The emerging neoliberalism has prompted policy makers, researchers, and feminist activists to invoke the concept of women's agency both as an instrument of social change and as a measure of "development." This turn to agency is based largely on the assumption that development goals are better achieved when women are not merely passively mobilized to support them, but rather to actively pursue them and, hence, to assume a degree of responsibility for their success (Madhok and Rai 2012). Hence, studies aimed at exploring women's agency with an emphasis on the ability of women to overcome barriers of exclusion have flourished over the past few decades (Aburabia 2017; Charrad 2010; Tønnessen 2019).

Mirroring the focus of international organizations on women living in developing countries, much of the research focus has been on the study of the agency of women subjected to multiple marginalities and extreme oppression (Madhok 2013). It is, however, specifically in these cultural and political contexts that women confront—on a daily basis—the resilience of patriarchal norms of gender inequality, which are often manifested in hierarchal and violent power relations. Hence, within such contexts the process of pursuing goals such as wage employment, higher education, and community involvement will often involve high risks, heightened oppression, and the intensification of modes of control.

Following Madhok and Rai (2012), we suggest that discussions and investigations into the nature of women's agency should be informed by a closer examination of the power relations prevalent in specific communities, with close attention to the multiple modes of subordination experienced by the women of these communities—be they class, caste, clan, or religion. This approach alerts us both to the risks involved in exercising agency within communities where patriarchal modes of suppression are integrated within layers of power relations and to the creative and innovative modes of negotiation that women in these communities often exhibit in their attempts to actively pursue their needs in the face of these risks. We further follow Saba Mahmood's research (2011) which urges us to locate agency in different contexts of piety and, hence, not to limit agency to instances of active resistance.

We argue in this article...


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pp. 486-509
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