Gender in the Middle East

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Gender In The Middle East

The term gender has no exact correlate in Middle Eastern sources, but instead is identified by scholars as a major analytical tool in the definition of differences between men and women. Many researchers in every discipline argue that gender has always been embedded in all societies, past and present. Scholars who study gender seek to question dominant, normative definitions of every society's assigned male and female roles. The gendered implications of religious and legal definitions, scripted as timeless injunctions, may be interrogated to reveal previously ignored multiple symbolic meanings. Thus, the interactive cultural categories of male and female, masculine and feminine, analyzed through the lens of gender, may be read as human interpretations and constructions rather than divine and eternal definitions. The study of the Middle East contextualizes the accepted readings assigned to both genders in all disciplines and documents them not as a process of consistent conformity, but rather as an outcome of internal contests over power and constructed meaning. The results of this research aims to historicize accepted truths and undermine those who seek to define them as forever divided into simple oppositional, binomial categories of male and female, right and wrong, sacred and profane.


Feminist and women's studies in the 1960s and 1970s paved the foundation for the emergence of gender analysis in the 1980s. Women's studies and gender studies arose to combat the absence of documentation about women in all Western disciplines. Yet the focus on gender emphasizes the inextricable interaction between both sexes, while women's studies' singular focus does not. Documenting the experience of women led to the realization that it was necessary to deepen the exploration of the multiple meanings of male and female on symbolic and practical levels. Female scholars dominate this methodology, but men now contribute to the field. Gender studies draws theoretical inspiration from Western interdisciplinary sources but continues to refine such precedents, proving at once the importance of universal conceptual frameworks and the centrality of Middle Eastern context in their refinement. Proponents of gender studies support both academic intent and often an activist agenda for social change. Therefore, many intellectuals and religious leaders in Middle Eastern societies reject gender as an intrusive European and American construct.

Evidence of Islamic feminism in the Middle East does exist as the historical foundation for gender studies, but few scholars there connect this movement to the precedent of earlier challenges to male authority. In 1923, Huda Sha'rawi (d. 1947) founded the Egyptian Women's Union and called for equal rights for both women and men. She also publicly removed her veil as a denial of traditional strictures that she perceived as part of a corrupt, oppressive social hierarchy. Support for her reformist platform received public approbation from select secularist men and many upper-class Christian and Muslim women. Sha'rawi's example did not incite a mass movement in support of either feminism or, by extension, new definitions of male and female identity in the Middle East. Stiff opposition to such movements remains the norm.

In the late 1970s, Elizabeth Warnock Fernea and Basima Bezirgan edited a groundbreaking collection of documents designed to more accurately represent the complex history and multiple roles of Muslim women. These translated selections filled the need for English-speaking audiences to understand the women in this area in their own terms. The precedent-setting lives of early female historical figures were set alongside contemporary women's stories, poems, and recollections of resistance to colonial occupation. These selections drew in part upon previous works in the 1930s and 1940s by scholars such as Margaret Smith, who illuminated the importance of the early ascetic mystic, Rabi'a of Basra (c. 714801 c.e.).

In the 1980s, women scholars in the Middle East took up the challenge raised by female coreligionists in the early twentieth century to oppose the assumed right of male authorities to define and control every aspect of their lives. They explicitly identified with Western feminist agendas and, as a result, their publications were condemned in their native lands. Fatima Mernissi's classic work, The Veil and the Male Elite (1987), argued that accepted male readings of the medieval Islamic past were deeply flawed and sexist when applied to the present. Although this work predated the emergence of gender studies, it, together with similar works, helped spur its birth. Ironically, Mernissi found the most receptive audience for her work outside the Middle East where feminists identified shared concerns. Support for her critique of male dominance from scholars abroad fueled accusations in the Middle East that Mernissi had been co-opted by the enemies of Islam.

Since the 1990s, the struggle to apply gender inquiry to Middle Eastern societies has also been forcefully challenged by Muslim women in the United States. Many questioned the right of non-Muslims to speak on behalf of Middle Eastern men and women. In the wake of these protests, Western scholars of the Middle East display greater self-awareness as well as greater sensitivity to cultural differences. Muslim women seeking to better understand their place in Islamic society now increasingly invigorate public discussions of the gendered definitions of both sexes. In this process, Muslim women challenge long-standing precedents about cultural hierarchies and praxis. They claim the right to an active intellectual presence, which disrupts the assumption that Middle Eastern women are either silent or passive in their own societies.

Anthropology, Literature, and History

Anthropological studies of gender contributed pioneering fieldwork that recorded definitions of masculine and feminine honor, sexuality, and self-representation through poetic expression in rural areas from Morocco to Iran. The documentation of unequal, gendered hierarchies of power demonstrated that women negotiated these structures in distinctly inventive ways. Erika Friedl's revealing observations of women in a rural Iranian village allowed the voices of these women to be heard without seeming intrusion. The gendered implications of their rich, lived experience in marriage, childbirth, and complex daily life emphasized their resilience. The support they lent one another often negated the poverty and isolation of their lives. Friedl's self-awareness of her role as observer, participant, and confidant questioned the boundaries between Middle Eastern women and their representation by outsiders.

Scholars of Middle Eastern literature differentiated between premodern works written by men about women and the emergence of women's writing about men, society, and themselves in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Medieval male writers devoted extensive amounts of energy to their definition of the feminine as the exact opposite of the masculine. These assertions received no recorded response by women in this period. In contrast, the emergence of women's writing in all genres of poetry, history, and social commentary emerged in full bloom in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries throughout the Middle East. These sources sought redefinition of women in tandem with new female definitions of men. Literary critics and historians, the latter informed by postmodern theoretical models and interests in the formation of modernity, examined magazines founded, edited, and written by women for upper-and middle-class women. Marilyn Booth's study of gender definitions replete in biographical collections authored by women captured the emergence of a new hierarchy of female exemplars, ranging from the Prophet's daughter, Fatima, to Joan of Arc. Booth's study deftly reconfigured gender at the intersection of Egyptian reaction to the British occupation and the emergence of nationalism.

Numerous studies now document gender in all periods of Middle Eastern history. Male articulations of the role of the Prophet's most controversial wife, Aisha bint Abi Bakr (614678 c.e.), were dissected to yield new insights into the medieval construction of gender in politics, sexuality, and the sectarian division between Sunni and Shii Muslims. The importance of education, as taught to women by men and one another in the medieval period, also proved critical to a reexamination of literacy and intellectual achievement. Scholars of gender contradicted through archival research the traditional theory that Ottoman imperial decline was precipitated by meddlesome, royal women in the harem. In spheres of daily life presumed to have been exclusively masculine, the contributions of women's labor to the marketplace, silk production, and agriculture redefined the agency of nonelite women.

Gender Politics: The Veil and the Koran

The issue of the veil, or modest Muslim attire for women, has, since the early twentieth century, been a vexed issue. This symbol also provoked debates about the gendered roles of women in a male-dominated society. Issues of power and female agency masked long-standing assumptions about the distinctions between men and women, which this clothing revealed. Human rationales for the veil were presumed to be supported by either divine Koranic injunction or oppressive male interpretation. Men and women in the Middle East often agreed upon the necessity for either doffing or donning the veil. The contentious, seemingly endless battle over the meaning of the veil has also been influenced by negative, misinformed reaction articulated in Western societies. Leila Ahmed's inquiry into the position of gender at the roots of these changes emphasized multiple discourses and agendas focused on the veil as articulated by secularists, nationalists, and Islamists.

Early feminist movements in the twentieth century based their platforms of equality in reinterpretations of the Koran. Opponents also focused on this source and the precedent of the prophet Muhammad's words about women. The struggle for exclusive interpretations of the truth served the purposes of those who defined both the subordination and liberation of women, respectively. Contests over power in society were scripted by adherents in each camp in terms of gender hierarchy. Historical transformations in the interpretation of the Koran in the Middle East were deftly documented by Barbara Freyer Stowasser. Many contemporary Muslim women in the Middle East and the United States now reject previous exclusive male commentaries and submit their own interpretations as equally valid. This position is demonstrated in the work of Amina Wadud, who powerfully argued, from within her faith, for the right of all Muslim women to engage the Koran directly and overwrite centuries of patriarchal domination. New readings by Muslim women implicitly recognize questions of gender in their desire to find revealed sources of more positive self-definition and religious participation. These directions have not met with a warm reception in the Middle East, where they remain a minority position.

Gender and the Law

The study of Islamic law has always possessed a revered status in the Middle East. The law retained an exclusively masculine mystique because its educational and juristic institutions traditionally denied women access. Male legal interpretations of gender difference confined women to separate spheres because they were defined as intellectually deficient and dangerous to all men. Studies of gender as a factor in actual courtroom cases refuted the notion of female passivity when faced with male lawyers and judges. Judith Tucker's investigation of the preserved transcripts of women plaintiffs contradicted the assumption of a complete absence of female agency. She established the complicated relationship between gender and Islamic law in Ottoman Syria and Palestine. Women advanced their interests through their knowledge about the differences between Sunni law schools in family and inheritance law.

Women remain the objects of Islamic male legal decisions, which no longer offer recourse for question or dissent in much of the Middle East. Khaled Abou El Fadl documented the emergence of authoritarian control over women in this area. He asserted that those men who claim to speak for God in their decrees abuse the moral and religious bases of Islamic law. His book, Speaking in God's Name: Islamic Law, Authority, and Women (2001), focused, in part, on the example of the Saudi Arabianbased institute for legal opinions. These rulings continue to be spread not just in the Middle East, but worldwide through well-funded publications and Web sites. The highest level of Shii clerics in Iran also staunchly defend their singular capacity to interpret Islamic law for all adherents of the faith. They consistently embrace the ideal of a gender hierarchy in which women remain eternally subordinate. Gender differences based on male superiority are also articulated as divinely inspired.

The Mainstream and the Margins

New centers founded by women in the Middle East incorporate gender in their research publications. In Egypt, scholars of the Women and Memory Forum publish a range of works dedicated to women and the recovery of their place in Islamic society. Every spectrum of ideological affiliation, from feminist to Islamist and positions in between, enriches the scholarship of this collective enterprise. Contributors to annual publications engage heated contemporary and historical problems from varied disciplinary perspectives. Familiarity with the concept of gender, whether applied or rejected, unites disparate ideological and scholarly affiliations.

In the early twenty-first century academic sites on the Internet link and inform scholars of gender and the Middle East around the world. H-Gender-MidEast, a source of announcements for specialists and nonspecialists, features information about conferences, research opportunities, and sources of both general and specialized information. Reviews of books in Western and Middle Eastern languages reach large, enthusiastic audiences. The web site, a collaborative effort based at the American University of Cairo and supported by the Humanities Network at Michigan State University, attempts to eradicate obvious geographical and cultural divisions. These collaborative initiatives equalize and embrace audiences from Western and Middle Eastern societies. H-Gender-MidEast promotes a forum for exchange and debate, which has helped refute the notion that the study of gender is an exclusively Western enterprise.

Senior female scholars now have the editorial power to incorporate gender within major, authoritative reference works on the Middle East. They select their authorities from the expertise of researchers found throughout the world. The definitive English-language Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an (2001), edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe, includes a separate entry on gender's linguistic, legal, and thematic implications for the sacred text and its interpretation. Many other entries featured in this work are informed by gender, challenging the assumptions of older reference collections. The Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures (2003) locates both women's studies and gender studies at their point of Western inception, but underscores the importance of this methodology. This encyclopedia carefully maps the history of scholarly debate over conflicting responses to gender in an effort to avoid the appearance of Western bias and thus avoid the contentious identity politics of the 1990s. The goal of both these magisterial collections emphasizes inclusive rather than exclusive authorship and readership.

Female scholars of the Middle East founded the field of gender studies. They continue to predominate in this area of research. Their work has been acknowledged by male colleagues, who cite their pioneering studies but often appropriate the fruits of their research without mention of gender as a methodological category. This is true of scholars in the Middle East as well, who raise questions present in gender studies without acknowledging the discipline. Popular, accessible works of Middle Eastern studies now include obligatory chapters on women, but they frequently fail to differentiate between the materials they offer and the gendered interpretations that have led to their documentation. Students and the general public thus remain unaware that their understanding of male and female roles in Islamic societies is the product of a form of inquiry that often troubles and provokes male authorities in both Middle Eastern and Western societies. The reason for this marginalization of gender reveals that even scholarship mirrors contests over power and representation. Gender remains a charged category of analysis in process and practice everywhere.

See also Feminism: Islamic Feminism ; Islam ; Women's Studies .


Abou El Fadl, Khaled. Speaking in God's Name: Women, Authority, and Law. Oxford: Oneworld Press, 2001.

Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.

Badran, Margot. "Gender." In Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an, edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe. Vol. 2, 288292. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2001.

. "Women Studies/Gender Studies." In Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures, edited by Suad Joseph. Vol. 1. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2003.

Booth, Marilyn. May Her Likes Be Multiplied: Biography and Gender Politics in Egypt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock, and Basima Qattan Bezirgan, eds. Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977.

Friedl, Erika. Women of Deh Koh: Lives in an Iranian Village. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

Mernissi, Fatima. The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam. Translated by Mary Jo Lakeland. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Books, 1987.

Smith, Margaret. Muslim Women Mystics: The Life and Work of Rābi'a and Other Women Mystics in Islam. Reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Spellberg, D. A. Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of 'A'isha bint Abi Bakr. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Stowasser, Barbara Freyer. Women in the Qur'an, Traditions, and Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Tucker, Judith. In the House of the Law: Gender and Islamic Law in Ottoman Syria and Palestine. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Wadud, Amina. The Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Women's Perspective. Reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

D. A. Spellberg

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Gender in the Middle East

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