Gender: Study of

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A theoretical approach to Middle Eastern issues that considers assumptions made about sex roles and the impact of those assumptions.

Contemporary scholars see gender as the social, cultural, politico-legal, and ideological construction of male and female roles, relations, and rights on the basis of perceived gender differences. Scholars also view gender as a system of social relations and ideologies that influences other social relations, institutions, and processes. The common, overarching frameworks within which gender has been studied, interpreted, and taught in the context of the modern Middle East are Islam, patriarchy, and the construction of the nation-state. Scholars often divide the evolution of women's struggles for social, economic, and political rights in the Middle East and North Africa into three historical periods: the period of anticolonial struggles from the mid-nineteenth century through the early twentieth century; the era of nationalist movements of the mid-twentieth century; and the era of globalization from the 1980s into the twenty-first century. Academic approaches to the study of gender shifted from the study of texts, interpretations, and structures to the analysis of social practices, identity construction, and the language and rules concerning gender in various fields. In the process, the binary divisions that defined gender studies in the earlier periods (male/female, public/private, state/civil society, global/local, East/West) became problematic. The understanding of gender turned away from such categories and descriptions and focused instead on the dynamics of the construction, change, and transformation of social roles. Gender studies became institutionalized through the creation of women's studies departments, institutes, and transnational organizations and Web sites. Simultaneously, international conferences and international conventions concerning women's civil and human rights made women's status a global issue. In these contexts, Western discourses concerning identity formation, citizenship, and human rights began to be challenged.

Development of Gender Studies

Although the global nature of ideas is now generally accepted, systematic attempts to analyze areas of dialogue and confrontation between approaches from distinct socio-historical settings have been rare until recently. Scholarship on gender in the Middle East did not escape interpretations that tended to trap women between the grand narratives of the West and local narratives of resistance, be they modernist-nationalist or fundamentalist, in which real women are replaced by woman-as-symbol. In the West, feminists have often enough looked through the lens of a universalized Western concept in which citizen-subjects were seen as autonomous individuals who owned themselves and entered into social contracts with other autonomous individuals. Feminists grounded in this perspective strove to illuminate the ways in which these social contracts were not gender blind; they argued for equality based on gender-neutral categories. In the Middle East, the viewpoints generally envisioned subject-citizens as deeply embedded in communities, families, ethnic, racial, or other social groupings. Their members were seen as relational selves whose identities were developed interdependently rather than independently from one another. Men's and women's roles and identities were seen as complementary. As in the West, patriarchy has been universal, but the particular ways that gender is altered and affected by inequalities of power is site specific. In the Middle East and North Africa, both liberal modernist-nationalists and conservative fundamentalists put the defense of Islamic/Arab culture in the foreground, rendering women's rights secondary to women's symbolic value as the embodiment of the nation or the image of the moral community. Contemporary women's studies challenges this tendency to reduce the richness and complexities of women's actual lives to one-dimensional symbols or stereotypes.

Contemporary Debates

At least three common paradigms have obstructed more complex understandings of women's lives in the Middle East and North Africa. One is the religious paradigm, in which the existence of gender inequality is attributed to Islam's influence upon the lives of women and men in North Africa and the Middle East. The unstated assumption here is that religion is at once the cause of and the solution to gender inequality: If the religion is done away with, equality between men and women will ensue. The second is what Cooke calls the rescue paradigmor, "white men saving brown women from brown men." This gendered logic of empire not only provides a pretext for global superpower interventions but may at times reveal the neocolonial underpinnings of international sisterhood. The third is the passivity paradigm, in which women are seen as objects rather than agents, living apolitically, in the private sphere. Recent scholarship has revealed how porous the boundary is between the public and private spheres in societies where kinship, family, and community have primacy over individuals. To understand women's roles in society, it helps to examine what counts as political in a given place and time, how individuals are encouraged to become agents (to act rather than merely be acted upon), and what forums and institutions give access to power. These questions are crucial to current academic and policy debates concerning civil society, political reform, and economic development.

Institutionalization of the Study of Gender

In recent decades, women's and gender studies have become institutionalized on a number of levels. Meetings such as the UN-sponsored International Women's Conferences, held periodically since 1975, and the signing of international conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women have brought women's status into the international arena, putting pressure on nation-states to safeguard women's human rights. On a national level, the spread of nongovernmental organizations focusing on women's status in countries across the Middle East and North Africa is linked to the fact that development projects which include grass-roots gender perspectives are more likely to succeed. On a local level, the spread of women's and gender studies centers, programs in academic institutions such as Birzeit University or the American University in Cairo, and women's social service centers in areas plagued by violence and war have made visible the gendered nature of social decision-making. On a virtual level, the creation of Web sites such as the Machreq/Maghreb Gender Linking and Information Project, sponsored by Oxfam GB and the European Union; the International Women's Tribune Center, associated with the UN-sponsored conferences; the Web site of the Women's Environment and Development Organization; and the newer H-Gender-Mideast have provided forums for ongoing international discussion of the centrality of gender to all areas of social life.

The discipline of gender studies is not merely an addition to the other disciplines that make up Middle Eastern area studies. Gender studies has reconstituted the field itself. Its perspective from the margin has revealed the ways in which powergender privilege among males and Western constructions of the Middle East (orientalism)shaped the approach to the object of study. Putting women in the center, valorizing their experiences and contributions as half the population in any society, meant reexamining areas of social practice that had previously been rendered secondary, misrepresented, or silenced. These include oral literature, domesticity, complex communication patterns based on indirection, informal work, the intersection of public and private worlds. As Lila AbuLughod has pointed out, the most important contribution of this theorizing has been the way it has revealed that analytical categories often conceal Western cultural notions. The study of gender in the Middle East, framed as it has been by the violence of colonization and of postcolonial wars, the struggle for women's rights as human rights, and the responsibility to address global injustice and inequality, has challenged scholarly inquiry to move beyond ethnocentric, binary categories that have reduced, objectified, and stereotyped the subjects in question.

See also Orientalism.


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

Badran, Margot, and Cooke, Miriam, eds. Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Cooke, Miriam. "Islamic Feminism before and after September 11." Journal of Gender Law & Policy 9 (2000): 227235.

Hatem, Mervat. "Toward the Development of Post-Islamist and Post-Nationalist Feminist Discourses in the Middle East." In Arab Women: Old Boundaries, New Frontiers, edited by Judith E. Tucker. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Joseph, Suad, and Slyomovics, Susan, eds. Women and Power in the Middle East. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Kandiyoti, Deniz, ed. Gendering the Middle East: Emerging Perspectives. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996.

Keddie, Nikki R. "Women in the Limelight: Some Recent Books on Middle Eastern Women's History." International Journal of Middle East Studies 34 (2002): 553573.

Lazreg, Marnia. "Feminism and Difference: The Perils of Writing as a Woman on Women in Algeria." Feminist Studies 14, no. 1 (spring 1988): 81107.

Meriwether, Margaret L., and Tucker, Judith E., eds. Social History of Women and Gender in the Modern Middle East. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.

Moghadam, Valentine M. "Gender, National Identity, and Citizenship: Reflections on the Middle East and North Africa." Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East 19, no. 1 (1999): 137157.

Tucker, Judith E., ed. Arab Women: Old Boundaries, New Frontiers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Laura Rice