World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies

Barcelona, July 19th - 24th 2010


RECONCEPTUALISING GENDER IN THE MIDDLE EAST - 2/3: Gendered Responses to Structural Transformations in the Middle East (142) - NOT_DEFINED activity_field_Panel

· NOT_DEFINED date: TUE, 20 / 5-7 pm

· NOT_DEFINED institution: PAIS, University of Warwick (UK)

· NOT_DEFINED organizer: Nicola Pratt

· NOT_DEFINED sponsor: the Association for Middle East Women’s Studies (AMEWS)

· NOT_DEFINED language: English

· NOT_DEFINED description: The issue of gender identities in the Middle East is once again being instrumentalized as part of global and Middle Eastern geo-political struggles. From US rhetoric claiming to support Middle East women’s ‘empowerment’ to the rise of Islamist movements and their particular emphasis on gender propriety, imagery of women and definitions of gender relations are demarcating the battle lines in the so-called war against terror. Against this backdrop, it becomes urgent for academics to challenge this polarization in the conceptualisation of gender identities and gender relations within the Middle East and to draw attention to the multiplicity and historicity of gender in the region.

This multi-disciplinary symposium will outline transformations in gender identities and relations within a diversity of spheres—from political discourses to popular culture—and in a variety of Middle Eastern geographic locations, including diasporic spaces, over different historical periods. The emphasis will be on examining the concrete political, economic and social processes that give rise to changing conceptualisations of gender in the Middle East, understanding gender not only in terms of women/femininities but also in terms of men/masculinities and in recognising the intersectionality of gender identities.

This symposium will bring together a wide range of disciplines in order to fully appreciate the many dimensions of this theme. It will contribute to increased understandings of the historically-constructed nature of gender within the Middle East and, in this way, to challenging mainstream views (in the West and the Middle East) about the exceptionalism of gender relations in this region in global comparison.

Some of the questions addressed by this symposium include:
•In which contexts do we see transformations of gender identities/roles/relations?
•In which contexts do we see the reproduction of particular gender identities/roles/relations?
•How and why do gender identities/roles/relations change?
•Do gender identities/roles necessarily change with gender relations?
•What is the effect of changing gender identities/roles/relations?
•What is the role of women and/or men, including those acting collectively, in changing gender identities/roles/relations?
•What is the role of the state in constructing new gender identities and structuring new gender relations?
•What is the role of ideology or religion in shaping gender identities/roles/relations?
•What is the role of socio-economic transformations in shaping gender identities/roles/relations?
•What is the role of war, occupation and/or migration in shaping gender identities/roles/relations?

This panel examines gendered responses to structural transformations, as a result of socio-economic processes, war and occupation in the Middle East. It considers how these processes impact upon gender identities, roles and relations in different historical periods and spaces and with what effect for particular groups of individuals, for society and for the subsequent unfolding of those structural processes.

Chair: Nicola Pratt, PAIS, University of Warwick

Discussant: Islah Jad, Birzeit University

Paper Presenter:Toufoul Abou-Hodeib, University of Chicago. “Fashion and Middle Class Virtue in Fin de Siècle Beirut”
In 1905-1906, a debate on women and fashion drew various participants unto the pages of al-Mahabbah, a weekly published in Beirut. The disagreement concerned the ornamentation of women, their appearance in public spaces, and the extent to which the two interfered with their familial duties. The debate's implicit agreement on the primacy of women's domestic duties and their responsibility as guardians of morals in the face of a wave of "Europeanization" (tafarnuj) seems to lend evidence to a well-rehearsed argument about the recoil of Islam into tradition in the face of growing Western influence. The reference of one author in al-Mahabbah to ornamentation as a throwback to the days of "jahiliyyah" (a derogatory reference to the time before the advent of Islam) seems only to reconfirm these conclusions. What upsets this picture, however, is that al-Mahabbah was a Greek Orthodox publication and that the debate on its pages included both male and female participants.
This calls for a different angle on the debate. By placing it in the general context of economic and social transformations in the Middle East, and in Beirut more particularly, this paper attempts to understand the construction of women as repositories of tradition not merely as a religious reaction, but as part of a wider cultural transformation. It does this by first locating the debate in the larger framework of the emergence of the middle class and a concomitant Victorian cult of domesticity centering on the woman. It then highlights how in the context of Beirut a growing consumer culture elicited a middle class anxiety about the constant pursuit of fashion and its effects on a precarious social status. Finally, the paper sets forth intellectual attempts at resolving these tensions through limiting women's consumption and constraining their role to the home, where they could cultivate "real virtue" in a rapidly changing city. By placing the debate in both its socioeconomic and discursive contexts, I argue that rather than being a throwback to the past, the "women as tradition" phenomenon can only be fully understood in relation to an emerging middle class and its ambivalent relationship to modernity.

Paper Presenter: Hanan Hammad, Texas Christian University. “Poor Women Making Egyptian Modernity: Work, Property and Gender Dynamics in al-Mahalla 1927-1958”
The battle between a rising Egyptian bourgeoisie and European domination spawned the Misr Company for Spinning and Weaving in al-Mahalla al-Kubra in 1927. It unleashed unsettling transformations in the town's social and economic life. Chief among these changes was the immigration into the town of thousands of peasants hired to work in the mill. The unprecedented population growth created new demands and opened new opportunities. The people of al-Mahalla, particularly lower class women, took advantage of the immigrants’ demand for housing, clothing, food, and modest types of entertainments and hangouts. By managing workers’ lodges and managing small businesses geared towards workers’ needs, those women were able to socio-economically empower themselves. This paper focuses on three groups of lower class women whose economic activities were associated with and contributed to the exceptional experience of al-Mahalla in rapid urbanization and industrialization. These groups are landladies who invested in workers’ lodgings, female industrial workers, and vendors in marketplaces and street peddlers. Despite their lower status and limited financial resources, these women, through active responses to needs of the fast growing community, sought and created jobs and a source of income for themselves. They challenged the power of the state and the cultural norms of their community, managed masculine domains and very often undermined the traditional superior status of males in their households and set up themselves as an important player in the newcomers’ urban experience. Meanwhile, they pursued their family life as daughters, mothers, and, sometimes, wives. Many of them, female workers and vendors particularly, came from the countryside and lived by themselves in the city away from their families, at least until they got married. They were seeking neither the self-fulfilment nor the gender emancipation called for by the educated elite upper and middle class women of the day. However, by becoming economically independent, the women were liberated from the repressive patriarchal standards of community and kin. They pursued a new hybrid gender role and actively participated in rapid social transition. The paper uses mainly Sharia, criminal and civil court documents in addition to the Abdin Royal Court petition files, Corporation Department files, memoirs and oral history.

Paper Presenter: Sanaz Fotouhi, University of New South Wales. “Iranian masculinities in Iranian diaspora literature”
The mass exodus of Iranians from Iran after the 1979 revolution produced a diaspora burdened with a particular form of ambivalence, and particular socio-politically geared gender-based assumptions that affected the Iranian sense of subjectivity in the West. While the majority of Iranian diasporic women were viewed through the repeated assumption of them as veiled victims of patriarchal discourses, the majority of Iranian men were demonized and identified as the dominant patriarchs with terrorist inclinations. Over the years, diasporic Iranian women, along with other women of Middle East background, have engaged with and responded to those gender assumptions through literary work. However, while their work, particularly their memoirs, has formulated serious discussions within the larger sphere of socio-political debates prevalent about Middle Eastern women’s scholarship, particularly post-9/11, little attention has been paid to the equally challenging literary works of diasporic Iranian men and the consequences of female-oriented debates that reiterate, or at times challenge, the negative stereotypical image of Iranian men. This paper will focus on the Iranian men in diasporic Iranian literature, both on their presence in the women’s writings and debates, and their presence as narrators of the male Iranian experience. On one level, it will highlight the intersectionality of gender construction as it examines the significance of women’s literary narration and the debates that surround it on the reiterations or challenges of the stereotypical character of the Iranian man. On another level, it analyses the literary works of some diasporic Iranian men and considers how these works are transforming the stereotypical images of the Iranian man. It considers how by introducing alternative masculine perspectives and narratives of manhood, these literary works are demarking the concept of Iranian man and how this demarcation contributes to the transformation of the larger concept of gender relations within the broader popular socio-political and literary discourses about the Middle East in the West.

Paper Presenter: Laura Mitchell, FAFO, Norway. “Palestinians' gendered responses to closure”
Based on empirical, household-level fieldwork in 2008 and 2009, this paper will examine more closely the interrelated, gendered changes in the social roles, participation and norms governing men and women in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (WBGS) over the past two decades. The gradual tightening of Israel’s closure policy has had different gendered effects, and Palestinian men and women have developed and used different resistance strategies. Access to the Israeli labour market for men in the WBGS has been tightening and diminishing for several years, while the Palestinian economy remains heavily restrained and its growth curtailed. The Palestinian economy has not been able to absorb or create sufficient new livelihood opportunities for the men formerly-employed in Israel or for the young men who are entering the labour market. Faced with low wages and grim economic prospects, men have been sometimes depicted as ‘retreating’ from public life (World Bank Economic Monitoring Report, 2009). Young men in particular express despair as they face the challenges of meeting the social expectations of them as bread-winners. In light of the dire economic circumstances and closure policies, finding regular, decently-remunerated work which provides a stable income and allows young men to pursue higher education and eventually save a ‘nest egg’ for starting their own households represents a tremendous burden.
At the same time, university enrolment rates have grown significantly over the past twenty years, ranging from doubling and tripling in Bir Zeit and Bethlehem Universities to five- and six-fold increases in Hebron and Najah. Palestinian women have also been pursuing higher education as a resistance strategy, and their university enrolment rates reflect a high degree of gender parity. Women pursue higher education for many different reasons, and the pursuit of education is in and of itself a goal for many women and their families. Many women hope to eventually secure public sector employment after graduation (since the only public sector jobs available to women require a university degree) and preferably in their local communities.
While social norms and marriage preferences have changed in favour of Palestinian women pursuing higher education and public sector work, the degree to which the social norms governing men’s roles as breadwinners have eased is less clear. This paper will discuss the changes in gender roles and the intersectionalities in these changes informed by this empirical work.