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How Not to Study Gender in the Middle East

[Changes in traditional Sudanese dress. Image by Khaled Albaih] [Changes in traditional Sudanese dress. Image by Khaled Albaih]

One: Gender is not the study of what is evident, it is an analysis of how what is evident came to be.

Two: Before resolving to write about gender, sexuality, or any other practice or aspect of subjectivity in the Middle East, one must first define what exactly the object of study is. Be specific. What country, region, and time period forms the background picture of your study? Furthermore, the terms “Middle East,” “the Islamic World” and the “Arab world” do not refer to the same place, peoples, or histories, but the linkages between them are crucial. Moreover, the “state” is a relatively new phenomenon in the Middle East. In order to study gendered political economy in Syria, for example, one must be aware of the Ottoman and regional history that has produced this gendered political economy in the area that we now call “Syria.”

Three: A study of gender must take into account sexuality. Likewise studies of sexuality cannot be disarticulated from gender analysis. To do so would be akin to studying the politics and history of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) without reference to the role of idealogy or the socio-economic policies of the Iraqi state.

Four: Gender is one aspect of individual and group subjectivity. It is also just one technology of governmentality—the production and regulation of ties between the individual body, populations, and structures of power and quantification. Moreover, studies of politics, history, and law must take into account gender and sex, just as such studies must be attentive to class, race, political economy and-crucially- how all of these factors interact.

Five: The ungendered body does not exist, just as the unclassed body does not exist. Such disarticulation reproduces the false tropes of the ungendered body and of ungendered politics and the unclassed body and unclassed politics. These in turn reaffirm the positioning of normative male political practices as somehow “unmarked” and universal. Such an equation hides that gender is not something one can be outside of. It is not an analytic lens that can be withheld and deployed according to genitalia and/or sexual practices of the people being studied. When an attention to gender  is limited to female and/or LGBTQ people in the Middle East, it reproduces the study of gender as the study of how (other) men treat “their” women and gays.

Six: Avoid tokenism and broad generalizations. Sometimes a hijab is just a hijab, and sometimes it is not.

Seven: Do not assume that gender politics or feminist concerns come in neat and familiar packages. Instead, allow your research to expand your view of what a “feminist politics” may be. It could be, for example, that protests against neoliberal market restructuring in Egypt are understood within a broad political framework that includes notions of gender justice. As Saba Mahmood and Lila Abu Lughod have taught us, liberal feminism's assumptions as to what constitute “feminist politics” or “feminist causes” are at best flawed. At worst they are exercises in epistemological hegemony and the violent remaking of the world according to secular and neoliberal rights frameworks. Furthermore, do not assume that what we call the “feminist canon” is exhaustive or that it is not constituted through a series of exclusions, hierarchies, and imperial histories. After all Simone de Beauvoir, who taught us all that a woman is not born but made, also wrote in terms we now recognize as “Islamophobic” about women “under” Islam in Algeria at the time when Algeria was a French settler colony. This does not mean we should dismiss de Beauvoir, just as it would be too easy to condemn Hegel or Marx for their “views” on Africa. Rather, it is crucial to critically inhabit and navigate the reality that the western canon was, and is constituted through producing a series of “selves” and “others.”

Eight: I know this is hard to believe, but Islam may not be the most important factor, or even a particularly important factor, when studying gender in Muslim majority countries or communities. For example, I have studied the Lebanese legal system, focusing on personal status, criminal and civil law, for years now. Despite the intricate ways that these interconnected bodies of law produce citizenship in Lebanon, whenever I discuss my work my interlocutors invariably want to know more about shar‘ia and its assumed “oppression” of women. These questions always come after I have carefully explained that in Lebanon certain Christian and Jewish personal status laws are much more stringent in their production and regulation of normative gender roles than codified Islamic personal status laws (which are not the same as shar‘ia, historically speaking). In addition, civil laws have more wide reaching “gender effects” than any religious personal status law. More broadly, Islam is not the only religion in the region, although it often seems to be in mainstream media coverage. When an action such as the hitting of women by men for not conforming to “proper” gender roles in ultra orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem or in conservative neighborhoods of Riyadh is scripted in radically different terms the reader should pause. At these moments you are not reading about Islam, you are reading within a discourse about Islam.

Nine: Questions of gender rights and gender justice are not new to the Middle East, and neither are struggles that we now read under the sign of “feminism.” In fact, a large portion of the laws that are often regarded as oppressive to women and LGBTQ Arabs and/or Muslims are relatively new. They were introduced to the region via the Napoleonic code and the codification and the severe hollowing out of the shar‘ia in modern history. For example abortion, long considered a question of women's rights in the Western world due its twinned history with Catholicism and Christianity more broadly, was not illegal across the Arab world until the rise of the nation state. Some traditions of fiqh continue take a position on abortion that American feminists might wish could be extended to the United States today. In addition, jurists have and do struggle to understand and promote “progressive” notions of male and female relations and to make room for nonconforming gender persons in the region. In fact, scholars such as Paula Sanders have shown us that several centuries ago Islamic jurists were developing a system of accommodation for hermaphrodites and nonbinary gendered peoples in Islamic communities.

Ten: Do not assume that you know the actors and factors affecting gender in the Middle East, or the productive role your scholarship might play in this dynamic. Institutions such as the IMF and Human Rights Watch have long been engaged in the production of normative heterosexuality and heterosexual families, for example. The Israeli settlement of historical Palestine also intervenes into the gendered and sexual fabric of indigenous Palestinians, as pinkwatcing activists have recently reminded us. Similarly, the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan function in part through the construction of interventionist platforms in the name of women's and LGBTQ rights. Other factors affecting the practice of gender and sexuality in the Middle East include technological innovations such as in vitiro fertilization, viagra, and reconstructive hymen surgery in addition to pop culture, the rapid tranformation of the global economy, and the international circulation of people, discourses and goods.

20 comments for "How Not to Study Gender in the Middle East"

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Brilliant.

Roba Al-Assi wrote on March 22, 2012 at 04:28 AM
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I especially like your first point.

Faisal Hamadah wrote on March 22, 2012 at 05:59 AM
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Very good, except for the 'occidentalism' on display in your comments on the West and Christianity (which you bunch together surprisingly). Attitudes towards the legal status of hermaphrodites in canon law and the early modern attempts to make abortion illegal in 'the West' (usually in the mid- to late-1800s) are far more complex than your comments thereon characterize them.

Sean wrote on March 23, 2012 at 10:43 PM
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Why is it that most of what you write about the Middle East and Arab issues is in English rather than Arabic? In a lot of what you say, you sound like yet another "sophisticated"/Western-educated Arab intellectual who's bent over self-affirmation as an "Arab" in front of your English-speaking audiences. You, like others on Jadaliyya, seem more concerned with denouncing and impressing your English-speaking liberal and "radical" colleagues and audiences, using their own concepts and methods of critical analysis, than you are with addressing Arab audiences in Arabic about their issues. Perhaps this is mainly because most of what you say would not even make sense to the average Arab who certainly wouldn't be able to relate to it.

Arab Leftist wrote on March 24, 2012 at 01:15 AM
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Maya, I really appreciate this piece and I find your points clear, apt and super helpful for how to talk to others about these problems. I am confused about #5 however and I wanted to ask you about it. All of us are indeed shaped by gender as a system of power, but to me, saying that non-gendered people do not exist denies the reality that there are many people who do not identify with a gender and certainly not with the gender binary of male and female-regardless of how they are seen and treated in the world. This reads to me as if you ate saying

Charlotte Karem Albrecht wrote on March 24, 2012 at 02:39 PM
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Sorry, my post got cut off.

This reads to me add if tout ate saying that everyone must identify add some gender, but that also feels contrary to the spirit of this writing. Can you clarify? Thanks in advance.

Charlotte Karem Albrecht wrote on March 24, 2012 at 02:42 PM
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@Arab Leftist. I'm not really sure how to respond to your point, other than to say that the way that the middle east and the arab world are studied abroad are of great significance and import to arabs and middle easterners more broadly. @charlotte, I think that even those that do not "identify" as any one particular gender are still gendered--for two reasons. first off, gender is not something that one person is autonomously in control of---instead it is a regulatory system that is built on different modes of recognition. Secondly, even if a person considers themselves gender queer or not adhering to the male-female binary they are still gendered---because gender is not about "being" a man or a woman, it is a positionality in regards to those two fixed (imagined) points.

Maya wrote on March 25, 2012 at 01:02 PM
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What will ultimately matter in the Middle East for both the region and the future of global power balance is the Arab and Middle Eastern peoples themselves. We need not present an "alternative" to "Western" hegemonic discourse that is nothing but a reversed version of it. An "alternative" that still puts the dominant "West" at its center of attention and is formed accordingly. Because in fact such an "alternative" always reproduces the same binaries and homogenizing concepts of what it is supposed to criticize. And too often, it does that at the expense of those whom it claims to defend.

Arab Leftist wrote on March 26, 2012 at 01:49 AM
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What will ultimately matter in the Middle East for both the region and the future of global power balance is the Arab and Middle Eastern peoples themselves. We need not present an "alternative" to "Western" hegemonic discourse that is nothing but a reversed version of it. An "alternative" that still puts the dominant "West" at its center of attention and is formed accordingly. Because in fact such an "alternative" always reproduces the same binaries and homogenizing concepts of what it is supposed to criticize. And too often, it does that at the expense of those whom it claims to defend.

Arab Leftist wrote on March 26, 2012 at 09:06 AM
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When I first saw the headline I thought this was going to be an English version of Joseph Massad's 2009 Al-Adab article كيف يجب ألاّ نَدْرس النوعَ الاجتماعيّ ("الجندر") في العالم العربيّ (How not to study gender in the Arab World) which can be read at http://www.adabmag.com/node/223

And if you search online you find that Massad gave the same lecture with the same title in English in 2009 (http://new.oberlin.edu/calendar/index.dot?id=1549942).

To my great surprise it was not! Not only has Ms. Mikdashi apparently appropriated the title of Massad's article, but the basic ideas and substance as well, without attribution or credit. This is very bad form. Credit where it is due please.

Amin wrote on March 26, 2012 at 01:13 PM
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@ Amin, If you read the adab article that you linked to you will see that the content of my post and Massad's article are very different. This is becuase we disagree on many points having to do with the study of gender in the middle east/arab world. I am curious as to what you find similar about the content, other than the very basic examples such as the importation of napoleonic law into the region- which anyone who reads a critical history of the middle east-or a human rights watch report for that matter- can figure out for themselves. In fact, I hope people do read the adab article because it is important, and it is important that we have several voices productively chiming in on these questions as they relate to our region. If you were to read the adab article and the jadaliyya article side by side, you will see that they have little in common other than basic facts and a shared impetus to respond to the ways that gender is a frame of study in the middle east/arab world (for me the frame is the middle east, for massad it is the arab world)

I think that my title and the format of my post are quite generic, in that they form a do and don't list. I wrote it as a pedagogical tool, which is why the form is as it is. You will see that not only is Massad not cited (though nowhere is he quoted or plagiarized) but neither is Edward Said, Joan Scott, Talal Asad, or many of the others who we are constantly thinking with.

Maya wrote on March 26, 2012 at 05:45 PM
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Maya, I thank you for your response. I join you in encouraging people to read Massad's article in Al-Adab and your piece side by side. I think that if they do, they will find that you have appropriated not only his title, but also facts (you acknowledged this), principal themes but also the very premise, as well as the pedagogical mode, which Massad uses throughout the essay. This is true notwithstanding any disagreements you may have with him. All of this merits that you acknowledge him.

You have said in mitigation: "You will see that not only is Massad not cited (though nowhere is he quoted or plagiarized) but neither is Edward Said, Joan Scott, Talal Asad, or many of the others who we are constantly thinking with."

But in your post you did cite a number of people: Paula Sanders, Simone de Beauvoir, Saba Mahmood, Lila Abu Lughod and Hegel. What all of those people have in common with all the other people you did not cite, except for Massad, is that none of them previously wrote a well-known essay called "How not to study gender in the Arab World." Only Joseph Massad did that, and it frankly stretches credulity to argue, in this context, that the title is merely "generic." How can it be "generic" when it is almost identical to the title of Massad's essay?

I would advise that you give credit where it is due and that in future you are much more careful.

Amin wrote on March 26, 2012 at 08:08 PM
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Maya: Why some of your respondants are so politly agressive? Why is it always difficult to appreciate other people's work? Is this a Syndrome among Arab intellectuals? I see it quite often here. Maya, your piece is fantastic!

Salma wrote on March 27, 2012 at 10:25 AM
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Dear Readers,

We would like to clarify a situation which is taking a lot more space than it should. The author of the post above, Maya Mikdashi, wrote this piece (a list of ten "No's") without the benefit of reading Joseph Mas`ad's piece here http://www.adabmag.com/node/223. The Editorial Team, particularly Bassam Haddad, suggested the title "How Not To Study Gender in the Middle East," which was not the author's preference because the word "gender" was not the best choice here. However, it was adopted because it reflected how the topic/matter was addressed in the dominant discourse.

There was absolutely no attempt to copy anyone or appropriate content or mode, as the two pieces should indicate (we are happy to let the readers decide in any case). The matter was one of oversight, considering the closeness of the title. We were actually alerted to Joseph Mas`ad's piece in al-Adaab after the fact, which we acknowledge and recognize as an important document in countering the dominant discourse on the topic (see link above), a discourse that is often monolithic and rigid.

And though we are happy to publish critical comments on the article above, we reject categorically the accusation that the author appropriated or plagiarized, in content or in form. We are content that several writers are addressing this topic in critical terms and recognize overlapping critiques as a function, first and foremost, of the stale dominant discourse on the matter.

We have communicated with Joseph Mas`ad and explained this matter, and are happy to host his writings.

Thank you for reading. Jadaliyya Editors

Jadaliyya Editors wrote on March 28, 2012 at 08:29 PM
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Good one, Arab Leftist. What are these people talking about? It is telling that the end goal here is "studying" the real world (from somewhere in some American or European university), rather than actually living IN the real world. These people tend to confuse the difference between life and a book on the topic of life.

Non-Arab Leftist wrote on April 04, 2012 at 04:41 PM
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Great article, and a huge add to the void filled with a couple of sane articles about the middle eastern society. Please keep writing! @Arab Leftist: STFU if you don't know what that means, google it.

An Imperial Arab wrote on April 14, 2012 at 06:15 AM
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This article raises really good points, but it seems to be raising the bar for entering the discussion to an academic level that would be inaccessible to most readers (perhaps not J's readers!). Also does the... you can't talk about X without talking about Y,Z and everything else trick, which doesn't allow for people to compartmentalise and discuss parts of the problem. It smacks of the "it's much more complicated than that" argument, which is always valid, but often used to avoid facing simple but uncomfortable points.

Austin wrote on April 24, 2012 at 09:24 AM
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It's 2012, and we still have to point out that there's a difference between Arab, Muslim, and Middle Eastern?

Miriam wrote on April 24, 2012 at 11:11 PM
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@miriam- yes, sad isn't it? This is a great article. As a researcher born, raised, and educated in the United States, I always welcome this guidance and direction. It can't be said enough. Whenever anyone studies subjects outside their own culture, even the most careful researcher has to be made aware of what may not be apparent without an outside party's observations. I liken it to learning a new language in adulthood- we may speak fluently over time but will never know it as well as those who are native speakers. Thank you.

Gina wrote on April 25, 2012 at 11:50 AM
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Neither new nor original, and we do not need a pedagogical tool at this time! But worse, is this material supposed to apply to women activists in the region who were dismissed in a previous article with being too close to the (Egyptian) regime? That was counterfactual and this condescending list of "don'ts" appears to be an attempt to impose intellectual controls on those who actually are engaged in the study of gender issues. Gender is not "how things came to be," rather it is crucial to reflect on lived realities and what Joan Scott refers to as "performativity of gender." Why are using the word alone? - gender WHAT? Gender arrangements? Gender roles? Or the currently debated issue - gender based discrimination and violence. Do you really think that activists need to write an undergraduate research papers instead of writing about current conditions which they have analyzed? And what happens if people dare to write without toeing the line of your "don't list"? Will they be boycotted? Ridiculed? This is an astonishingly anti-feminist and anti-democratic approach to gender. Islam has nothing to do with it? Really? The declaration two days ago that a 10 year old girl is fit to be married has nothing to do with Islamic interpretations of family law?

Sherifa Zuhur wrote on April 30, 2012 at 09:22 AM

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