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The field of women’s and gender history of the early modern/modern Middle East has been thriving over the past couple of decades. It is a particularly quixotic quest, then, to distill it down to a handful of signal contributions. I have chosen a few of the central themes as I see them, limited myself to two or three works in English each, and proceeded idiosyncratically–this is not a “best books” list, but rather a reflection on a few of the books that seem to me influential in terms of the ways they capture historiographical developments or set research agendas. I have not included major overviews and books that fall outside the early modern/modern period leading to some striking lacunae, not the least of which are the works of Leila Ahmed and the late Fatima Mernissi, both of whom deserve recognition not just as scholars but as true sources of inspiration for the field.
An early major focus of women’s history in the Middle East, as it got seriously underway in the 1980s and 1990s, was the women’s movements of the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, in keeping with a more general interest in the study of social movements on the one hand and women’s agency on the other. In writing the narrative of how women defined their problems, and organized to work for their rights, in a political context of colonialism and emerging nationalisms, historians underscored women’s agency in history and their role in the critical social movements of the day.
Margot Badran, Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).
Badran’s pioneering study of the Egyptian women’s movement covers the emergence of women’s “feminist consciousness” and the building of a “feminist movement” in Egypt whose impact was felt throughout the Middle East. Badran’s work has the great virtue of drawing on women’s voices – their speeches and their writings–at least of those of the upper and middle classes who were the main architects of this feminist movement. In tracing the development of these voices and the organizations they inspired, Badran also makes a compelling argument for rewriting the global history of feminism to take account of the Egyptian experience.
Ellen Fleischmann, The Nation and Its “New” Women: The Palestinian Women’s Movement, 1920-1948 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
Fleischmann contributes a history of the Palestinian women’s movement, in part a narrative history of the development of ideas and organizations that follows along the lines of Badran’s contribution, providing us with the critical historical details. Fleischmann also focuses, however, on the context of British colonialism and the Zionist presence, and therefore the centrality of the anticolonial struggle to understanding how Palestinian women thought about themselves and developed their feminist vision. The book is also notable for its use of oral history material, as Fleischmann was able to interview a number of the leaders of the interwar women’s movement in the nick of time.
Elizabeth Thompson, Colonial Citizens: Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege, and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).
Thompson’s landmark study of the colonial civic order in Syria also situates the history of the Syrian women’s movement squarely within a colonial context: the civil, political, and social rights of women are shaped, and their efforts to achieve them thwarted, by the patriarchal deal struck between French occupiers and their male collaborators within the Syrian elite. The book goes far beyond the narration of the early Syrian women’s movement, although it does that well, by arguing for the importance of gender for the civic order as a whole and examining how it fundamentally structured hierarches of power in the colonial state. It thus makes, by example, a compelling argument for gender as an analytical lens for Middle East history.
Gender and Nationalism
While the topic of nationalism had long been a staple for Middle East historians, using the gender lens charted new paths. Gender historians, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, began to study how new forms of national education, tastes, habits, and identities had been forged in institutional and, above all, familial settings. Gender proved to be central to the production of nationalism as a lived identity and a discourse. Studies of Egypt initially dominated in this area, and set the agenda for other parts of the region.
Mona Russell, Creating the New Egyptian Woman, Consumerism, Education, and National Identity, 1863-1922 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2004).
Lisa Pollard, Nurturing the Nation: The Family Politics of Modernizing, Colonizing, and Liberating Egypt, 1805-1923 (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2005).
This pair of books, published a year apart, moved the discussion of nationalism in Egypt, and by extension elsewhere in the Middle East, into domestic space. Both authors see the “new” Egyptian woman and the “new” Egyptian family as central to the origins and evolution of Egyptian nationalism as well as to the making of an Egyptian modernity. Russell focuses on consumerism and education, while Pollard emphasizes changes in family structure and practices. Read in tandem, the two works revisit and revise the history of nationalism, calling our attention to how Egyptian nationalism was made, in large part, in the bosom of the emerging middle class family.
Beth Baron, Egypt as a Woman: Nationalism, Gender, and Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
Baron’s book is in part a study of nationalist discourse and its highly gendered nature. Egyptian nationalist language and iconography were permeated by gendered references and images from their inception, and once Baron has pointed this out, and amply illustrated it through the use of cartoons, statues and photographs, it seems surprising that earlier studies of the development of nationalist thought in the region could have overlooked this core element. Baron is also concerned here with the elite Egyptian women activists who joined the nationalist struggle and faced both opportunities and constraints as a result of gendered rhetoric and anxieties on the part of their own countrymen as well as the British occupiers.
Islamic Law and Gender
The initial revelation that the Islamic courts in the early modern and modern periods were packed with women actors can be attributed to Ronald C. Jennings, whose article “Women in Early 17th Century Ottoman Judicial Records: The Sharia Court of Anatolian Kayseri,” published in the Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient (Vol. 18, No. 1 (Jan., 1975), pp. 53-114), first called the attention of women’s historians to the richness of the Islamic court records. A number of studies set in other specific times and places, based on women’s activities in the courts as economic and social actors, subsequently generalized Jennings’ findings. Historians then turned to engage broader questions about the gendered nature of Islamic law and legal practices.
Judith E. Tucker, In the House of the Law: Gender and Islamic Law in Ottoman Syria and Palestine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).
In this book I explore the legal discourse of seventeenth and eighteenth century Syria and Palestine as articulated by the muftis of the era as they opined on the gendered subjects of marriage, divorce, children, and sexuality, taking a particular interest in the interplay between the doctrines expounded by these jurists and the practices of the local courts as captured in the court records. Major conclusions include the vitality of a legal tradition that was built on patriarchal foundations yet proved flexible and responsive to women and the cause of social harmony.
Leslie Peirce, Morality Tales: Law and Gender in the Ottoman Court of Aintab (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
Peirce takes the court records of an Anatolian city for one year from the sixteenth century, and reads them in depth with an eye to how rights, obligations, and reputations were being negotiated and gendered in the period. Working at a level of micro-history, Peirce connects the social dramas reflected in the court records to local custom and empire-wide administrative and political developments, demonstrating how gendered law was being produced through the complex interactions of ordinary people, jurists, and local and state officials.
The history of the family long struggled to find much purchase in the Middle East field despite wide recognition of the centrality of the institution to any understanding of women’s and gender history. Margaret Meriwether made this point in 1999 in her seminal study of elite family structures and relations, The Kin Who Count: Family and Society in Ottoman Aleppo, 1770-1840 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999), but we then had to wait a good decade and a half for the next major book-length studies to appear.
Kenneth M. Cuno, Modernizing Marriage: Family, Ideology, and Law in Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Egypt (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2015).
Cuno had published several articles over the years that engaged family history in nineteenth and twentieth century Egypt. His extensive research with Egyptian census data, tax records, court records, fatwas, and memoirs culminated in this book that situates the history of the family in Egypt in the context of social, economic, legal, and demographic changes, and makes a compelling case for a new narrative in Egyptian family history, one which links the fortunes of the family and changing gender relations to the sweeping transformations of the period.
Beshara B. Doumani, Family Life in the Ottoman Mediterranean: A Social History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
Doumani’s study of family history in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries compares and contrasts how people lived in, and thought about, family in Nablus and Tripoli, two towns of the eastern Mediterranean. The gendered strategies of property devolution, with the waqf as a key instrument of transgenerational transfers of wealth, reflect local differences in social and economic relations as well as legal and spiritual cultures. The major point is well taken: the family, as a gendered social institution, is historically contingent, shaped by individual agency, Ottoman state intervention, and the Islamic legal tradition.
Sexuality and the Body
The history of sexuality was another neglected area in the Middle East history field, especially for the early modern and modern periods, perhaps in reaction to the sexualization of Middle Eastern women and men, and society in general, in the orientalist tradition of travel and scholarship. There were major breakthroughs, however, with the publication of two books over a decade ago that worked to open up the subject and set a research agenda that connected the history of sexuality to some of the major concerns of historians in the field.
Afsaneh Najmabadi, Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
Focusing, as a number of our other authors have, on the later 19th and early 20th centuries, Najmabadi points to the period as a time of rising sexual anxieties in Iran, as well as the production of new gender binaries and a reshaping of male sexuality. In large part a cultural history that draws on poetry, novels, paintings, cartoons, and travel literature, this book traces a process of hetero-normalization of love and sexual practices that informed Iranian modernities and national identities. The history of sexuality is not an exotic side story – it takes its place at the very center of the making of modern Iran.
Dror Ze’evi, Producing Desire: Changing Sexual Discourse in the Ottoman Middle East, 1500-1900 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).
Moving the discussion of sexuality to the Ottoman context, Ze’evi takes similar note of the relatively open sexual discourses of the 16th through the 18th centuries, colored by perceptions of sex as an acceptable topic of frank discussion and the homoerotic as a given. There was variation and judgment in these discourses, of course, as amply illustrated in the medical and legal treatises, Sufi writings, travel literature, and shadow plays that provide his evidence. European critiques of Ottoman sexual views and practices, taken up by Ottoman intellectuals in the 19th century, worked to silence the discussion and impose a hetero-normativity, at least in discursive space.
There are many important books missing from all parts of this list, and a number of critical topics as well. The history of women’s work and the gendering of the workplace, intellectual histories that attend to women thinkers and authors, and the centrality of gender to modern imperial discourses and practices are just a few. We now have a robust stream of publications and ongoing research in all of these areas, so we can rest assured that there is much more to come.