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Contesting Narratives, Locating Power (Lund Conference)

Producing Knowledge for Justice? Gender and Sexuality Studies and the Consumption of Arabs and Muslims

[image from unknown archive] [image from unknown archive]

Mohammed BouAzizi set himself on fire to protest the indignity he suffered at the hands of a Tunisian police officer who turned over his cart, slapped him in the face, and proceeded to fine and detain him. It is well-known now that it was a female officer, Fadia Hamdy, who insulted BouAzizi, seen as the spark the lit the flames of the Tunisian revolution.

I was so happy to see the face of Asma Mahfouz on Facebook talking to Egyptians and the world and not that of some bearded angry Arab man!

An Arab Scholar at a recent SF Bay Area conference

For an extended period of time, they raped me with their hand… What really struck me was how merciless they were. They really enjoyed my pain and suffering. It incited them to more violence…. When women are harassed and subjected to this in society, they are denied an equal place in that society. Public space does not belong to them. Men control it. It reaffirms the oppressive role of men in the society… I am speaking out… on behalf of millions of voiceless women who are subjected to attacks like this and worse.1 

                    CBS News correspondent Lara Logan
                       New York Times, April 29, 2011

Individually each narrative raises its own set of conceptual problematics:

  • In the first narrative, we ask whether BouAzizi would have set himself on fire had the police officer in question been a man not a woman and whether Hamdy’s actions belonged to the pre-revolution, business-as-usual and everyday police behavior irrespective of the gender of the particular police officer. In other words, to what extent have gender dynamics shaped Hamdy-BouAzizi confrontation? And are gender dynamics activated only in the case of male-female interaction?

  • In the second narrative, the question concerns the particular message the Bay Area scholar intended to convey and whether the scholar’s intent was to criticize the images that the dominant media highlight and re-produce. The focus here is on interpreting the intent of the scholar and the process by which we explain it in our classrooms.

  • Finally, what are we to make of the public statements of CBS News Correspondent, Lara Logan, regarding her sexual assault in Tahrir Square in Cairo the night Hosni Mubarak stepped down? Was it about the sexual assault, vicious Egyptian, and kind American men, or essentialist notions of Arab manhood? Does the advent of Arab revolutions affect how we analyze and teach Arab societies, Arab experiences and Arab thought? How do different audiences interpret Lara Logan’s narrative and what do they make of it?

Drawing on pedagogical lessons learned during other intense political moments (2nd Intifada at AUC and NYU; the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006 AT UM-D; and during the Israeli war on Gaza in 2008-2009, and the subsequent attack on the Mavi Marmara at SFSU) while teaching a diverse body of students with a wide-range of majors (Women’s and Gender Studies, Ethnic Studies, Journalism, Sociology, Political Science, International Relations and Middle East Studies), this paper will discuss how U.S. college students receive, consume, and reproduce THE MIDDLE EAST (and the various reincarnations of the “Middle East”) in different contexts and historical moments. The paper will further speak to several issues at the heart of intellectual and pedagogical praxis:

  • Does the acquisition of knowledge lead to a heightened awareness of the humanity of all people and their right to justice, as conventional wisdom would have us believe? Or does knowing the subject at times reinforce dogmas and/or normalize hegemonic discourses that become “ordinary parts” of everyday life? If so, what are the necessary conditions to favor the knowledge-leads-to-justice equation instead of the second alternative?

  • Do critical issues facing Tunisian, Egyptian, Yemeni, Bahraini, Jordanian, Libyan, Palestinian, and Syrian people retain their criticalness as they travel across the seas and land in U.S. classrooms? If so, when and for which students? If not, how do we at the very least explain the sense of urgency people in Arab lands feel?

 

  • How do we negotiate the nurturing of student critical thinking, on one level, honor victims of sexual (and gender, racial, ethnic, or religious) violence on a second, and highlight their agency, on a third without inadvertently fueling the expected dose of conclusions that usually accompany discussions of gender and sexuality dynamics in Arab and Muslim communities?

  • Is it possible this time around to expect a defeat of the doctrine of exceptionality of Arab and Muslim communities, their inferiority and backwardness; and the many deficiencies from which people populating these lands are supposed to suffer2?

 


1 This was Logan’s first public interview in which she discussed her sexual assaulted by said to be 200-300 men in Cairo on February 11, 2011, the night Hosni Mubarak stepped down.

2 In his April 21st letter to the Editor of the New York Times, published on the editorial page on April 27, 2011, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee wrote about “the endemic problems at the region’s core and at the heart of the United Nations Arab Human Development Report – Freedom, gender and knowledge deficits.”

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