“Femmes de la Mediterranée,” Peuples Mediterraneens/Mediterranean Peoples 22-23 (January-June 1983).

As a meeting place of three continents and of the three monotheistic religions, the Mediterranean has encouraged a perception of structural similarities underlying religious-cultural differences, where single culture symposiums — one thinks of Women of the Muslim World as an example — yield to assumptions of intra-cultural unity and “otherness” vis-a-vis the West. The usefulness of this collection of writing about and by Mediterranean women springs not just from the interest and variety of its contributions but even more from the questions they raise, and the resonances they set up through their juxtaposition. Most of the writers are natives of the places they write or speak about, giving their presentations an immediacy and authenticity missing from much social science writing about “other” women. Women here are set in a relation to one another that encourages dialogue.

Editor Monique Gadant has selected material with sensitivity to the impact of new developments on Mediterranean women’s lives. “Femmes de la Mediterranée” includes among its voices that of an adolescent domestic worker in Tehran (passionate Khomeinist); of an Algerian civil servant who speaks about the conditions of female employment and action around women’s issues; of a Lebanese Arab nationalist; and of two Palestinian movement women. Among its studies are one of Moroccan and one of Turkish women migrants in France. It finds space for two categories dropped out of most women’s studies symposiums: adolescent females (represented here by socialist feminist Carpena’s recollections of her militancy in the Spanish Revolution as well as by Sakina, the 16-year old Iranian); and men, whose spokesman is ‘Abd al-Basir, an Egyptian village patriarch. Regional coverage is balanced, with four papers each on Europe, Asia and Africa.

But “coverage” is clearly not the aim of this collection as much as raising issues, pointing to similarities, searching for common ground. Gadant’s flexible editorial approach allows multiple levels of focus: nation, political movement, subnational minority, locality, individual women. Around half the contributions relate to women’s place in, and relation to, cultures and ideologies. A purely national and political focus would have excluded Hammouda’s fascinating study of the azriat (women poets) of the Aures Mountains, one of the few parts of the Mediterranean to have resisted the authority of patriarchal states, and one of the few where women have an unambiguous stake in their indigenous culture.

Women in Authoritarian States

Material from Turkey (Petek-Salom and Hukum, “L’emancipation des femmes apres Kemal Atatürk”), Tunisia (Zamiti-Horchani, “Les Tunisiennes, leurs droits et l’idee qu’on s’en fait”) and Yugoslavia (Morokvasic, “Etre femme en Yugoslavie”) indicates certain fundamental similarities in women’s situation in regimes characterized by recent establishment of the nation-state, military or single party rule, economic underdevelopment and policies of modernization. All three studies point to the gap between a theoretical equality established in law and a real inequality based on the persistence of women’s domestication and the disinclination of such regimes to tamper with male authority in the domestic sphere. Even in Yugoslavia, socialist laws have not penetrated the family domain, where men are still exempt from sharing domestic labor, and where women’s low family status leaks back into and diminishes their status in the public sphere.

Morokvasic’s paper draws on a number of sources, including debates within the Yugoslav Communist Party, to present a complex structure of historical, social and cultural factors disfavoring both gender equality and the emergence of a women’s movement. Alone among the contributors, Morokvasic raises the question of consumerism, showing how it counteracts women’s legal gains by emphasizing their role as managers of family consumption, as recipients of consumer goods, as adjuncts of sales publicity. Poor socialist states as much as rich capitalist ones use women to advertize their national airlines and tourist resorts, to decorate offices and the covers of magazines. Consumerism transposes a deep association between woman/food/sexual pleasure/luxury from the unconscious level to a universal sales language. It is worth noting here that repudiation of consumer society’s exploitation of women is a basic element in Muslim feminism. National economies, whatever their ideology, use women in similar ways — as a specialized, cheap and elastic labor force, and as an inducement to consumption. Consumerism redomesticates women, and fills public space with images of stereotyped femininity.

Morokvasic’s inclusion of debates on women within the Yugoslav Communist Party is a reminder of the need to take account of official ideology. Too often women’s studies proceed as if tradition or ideology hangs in a void, self- reproducing; yet the more that the control of women shifts from the family and the informal sphere to that of the state or party, the more urgent it becomes to discover how traditions or customs are rephrased in official discourse. Zamiti-Horchani cites Bourguiba’s statement that (male) “society” has the responsibility of making women conscious of their responsibilities as wives, mothers and home managers; and of “harmonizing” these responsibilities with their role as citizens. The Tunisian study is based on a half-male/half-female sample, and the inclusion of men allows the researchers to discover sharp difference between men and women in their concepts of what women should do and be (a difference that becomes sharper the higher the women’s educational level). Zamiti-Horchani concludes that “the Tunisian woman, more than the man, appears to be an agent of innovation, while the man…attempts to contain the new by integrating it with the old.”

Further research is needed to discover political (as opposed to economic) causes of new states’ revisionism regarding women. In Muslim states, the role of religion is generally considered primordial and self-evident, precluding a search for other factors. But when a communist, previously Christian, country such as Yugoslavia presents a similar pattern one must look for other explanations. Possibly the. need to compensate male partisans for the non-fulfillment of promises of social justice and equality made during independence struggles plays a role. Fadela M’rabet, in Les Algeriennes, connects a cultural conservatism centered on women to a neo-colonial class structure. We cannot exclude the possibility that fear of women plays a part; a speech of Banisadr’s gives weight to this idea, [1] and there can be little doubt that the formation of national women’s unions is one method of demobilizing them and removing them from the mainstream of politics. That woman’s submission to man in the home reflects and seals men’s submission to God/ruler/state in the body politic is an old theory renewed in a recent study of Islam and sexuality. [2]

Women in Political Movements

“Femmes de la Mediterranée” gives two substantial papers on women’s struggles — one from the past (Carpena and Beaurain, “Espagne 1936; Femmes Libres”), the other contemporary (Veauvy, “Le mouvement feministe en Italie”). Both point to conditions and consciousness that give rise to mass feminist movements; both evoke echoes from and contrasts with conditions described by women from Palestine, in Lebanon and Iran. The difference that emerges most strongly and clearly between northern and southern women is that women in the south feel the national issue to be primordial. This situation of continuous crisis, and its effects for women, are graphically conveyed by Mokhtar’s “Se liberer a Beyrouth,” beginning in the Nasserist 1950s and ending with the 1982 Israeli invasion. We feel how crisis continually recommits women to struggle, but how its form prevents them from consolidating or “feminizing” their struggle, with national priorities forcing it to remain spontaneous, auxiliary. This is nowhere clearer than in the Palestinian case. Mai Sayegh:

The problem of the condition of women in the context of what is happening — in the context of Sabra and Shatila, in the context of the dispersion of all the revolutionaries, in the context of the dispersion of our people and the questions people pose: “How to live, to eat, to find shelter?” How many martyrs, how many orphaned children who are hungry, how many to educate? The condition of women seems of little weight.

Even if one disputes the idea implicit here, that women’s situation concerns only women, or another idea Sayegh states explicitly, that gender relations cannot be changed without a territory and a state, yet it remains true that extreme national crisis suppresses consciousness of class and gender oppression. National crisis also accentuates women’s reproductive role: On the material level, the conditions of domestic labor become harder, and pro-natalist pressures more intense; on the symbolic level, society conscripts them into representing traditions and an authenticity threatened by a more powerful, alien culture.

Today’s states are yesterday’s national movements. The pattern of women’s mobilization during national struggle, followed by their demobilization after the establishment of the state, is replicated with slight variations in Turkey, Israel, [3] Tunisia, Yugoslavia, Algeria and Iran. During independence celebrations in Yugoslavia, women are remembered only as the mothers and wives of heroes, even though one third of all partisan deaths were women’s. So profound is the idea that women’s political action should be gratuitous and unrewarded — an idea rooted in their domestic specialization — that most Palestinian women find feminism, understood as women’s claims, morally shocking. As one Jerusalem woman activist put it, “I would feel guilty if I asked for more rights as a woman at a time like this.” Most of women’s labor in political movements is voluntary, unpaid, and undemanding, subsidized economically by family income, and psychologically by satisfactions found in the domestic domain. The Palestinian resistance and the Iranian revolution have admitted women militants, even though their leaders choose to emphasize political aspects of women’s domestic roles. A special women’s branch characterizes such movements; the integration of women into the main Palestinian resistance groups is mainly a minority phenomenon.

To dichotomize too rigidly between northern women’s oppositional and southern women’s externally directed political action would be to overlook the part Turkish, Arab and Iranian women have played in working-class movements. It would overlook, moreover, the way in which national struggle legitimizes women’s overt political action. Arab nationalist parents did not prevent their daughters from joining anti-American demonstrations in Lebanon in the 1950s because this was seen as patriotic action; Palestinian young women whose parents try to prevent their joining organizations respond by accusing them of treachery. [4]

Arab and Muslim women face social sexism in the form of parental opposition when they first join a movement; and they face it again inside the movement, in the form of special tasks, or pressures to drop out on marriage. Carpena’s account of her struggle with her father is reenacted half a century later by Sakina. And her irony about the role of Spanish women militants (“So, they are there to receive friends, to fix meals, to play the hostess.”) and about the attitudes to them of male comrades (“very happy to have a companion who understands them…but not that she be an activist”) is echoed in Mai Sayegh: “Men always want us to struggle as they tell us to, but they don’t want us to be free to choose our own manner of struggle.”

The whole question of separate and mixed political formations and the political consequences of segregation merits a more profound discussion. The instrumentality of national women’s organizations is obvious: intended to mobilize women’s support for national leadership and policies, to preempt the emergence of an independent women’s movement, they make official women’s separateness and subordination. Ouardia, the Algerian civil servant, notes that the Algerian National Women’s Union was the last to mobilize against the reactionary Family Code of 1981. She questions the use of raising women’s problems in the National Women’s Union, arguing that women should carry their issues into male arenas, since only men have the power to change things. Among the arguments used in support of segregated organizations is that a segregated organization is the only way to reach the mass of women. Another is that women in mixed formations never get the chance to plan, take responsibility, or fill leadership positions; segregated organizations provide women with a training ground. Carpena argues that the women who come to the Mujeres Libres “bring complaints they can’t voice among men.”

The rapid spread of Mujeres Libres in revolutionary Spain and the mass character of Italian feminism in the 1970s raise the question of what conditions encourage the rise of independent women’s movements. Veauvy suggests two: a long tradition of political and social struggle; and involved intellectuals. Gadant suggests a third: individualism, which freed women in industrializing Europe from family control. The existence of feminist currents in political movements of the southern and eastern Mediterranean suggests that here, already, some of the conditions are fulfilled, and that an indigenous form of “double struggle” is being practiced. A 1973 study within the Palestinian women’s union shows the radicalizing effects of women’s experience in mixed political formations. Most of the militants (though not older women from the union or the social institutions) criticized the resistance leadership for its lack of a theory or program of social change within the revolution. They also criticized male comrades for supporting the idea of women’s participation in struggle but preventing their own wives or daughters from joining. [5]

The Power of the Family

Europe’s examples of the survival of strong family systems are limited to peripheral regions like Corsica, Yugoslavia and highland Greece, where they are preserved by poverty and the distance of the state. In the Middle East and North Africa, we have to explain the co-existence of strong family systems with strong states. Ruling groups are linked through kin and marriage ties, hence access to positions of power in state or ruling party is largely determined by family connections. [6] High unemployment rates and fierce competition for respectable salaried employment again put an emphasis on kin connections. Status and respect in communities continue to be important values, and these are accorded on the basis of family identity. Family belonging continues to play a predominant part in marriage. On the level of ideology, state and religion continue to emphasize the sacrosanctity of the family. At the individual level, families remain the site of strong and permanent emotional bonds of mutual help, and of entertainment.

Increasing employment of women in the Middle East and North Africa does not form a basis for their emancipation from family control. The decision to work is related to family needs and marital status. It is not difficult for families to accept limited types and periods of women’s employment as long as the priority of their domestication is not challenged. Women’s earnings tend to be absorbed into family budgets. Women have their own interests in family belonging. Like men, women often reach responsible positions in state or party through family connections, though being bint fulan or mar’at fulan (the daughter or wife of so-and-so). The absence of neutral space where neither state nor family can reach deprives women of a basis for independence, or for permanent rupture with their families. Very few politicized Palestinian women broke off relations with their families when they entered resistance groups, and the few who did subsequently restored them. Among camp Palestinians, mainly of rural origin, even temporary ruptures did not occur: women either persuaded their families to allow them to join an organization, or they did not join. Indeed leading women cadres saw this contestation period as an important stage in women’s politicization, and as a means of politicizing families. [7] The permeation of women’s economic or political activities by family pressures leads back to domesticity through marriage. For Arab women, unlike women in the Spanish Revolution, free sexual unions are out of the question. Palestinian women mobilized by the resistance movement in the late 1960s found themselves by the mid-1970s redomesticated through marriage and childbirth, forced to relegate their political activities to second or third place. Women’s domestic role includes far more than limited household and child rearing tasks: It is mainly women who maintain the connections that “place” families in community and political structures, providing them with access to a wide range of resources. [8] This “stretched” domestic role prevents most women from shouldering political responsibilities; it also prevents most of them from feeling imprisoned by domesticity, or excluded from the world outside.

Most discussions of the public and domestic spheres assume that all political activity takes place in the first. Mokhtar demonstrates how, in an area still in the throes of decolonization, political events penetrate and shake families. She tells how the wars of 1975-1976 and 1982 remobilized her to work with the national movement, organizing relief for refugees, while her mother moved in to help with the housework. Even more significant was the impact of war and crisis on her sons, mediated through her own activism. They accompany her in her work among the refugees, and in 1982 her 15-year-old son joins the militias defending Beirut. For Palestinians in particular, most politicization begins in the family, and much of it is transmitted directly by mothers and grandmothers. The role of the martyr’s mother in Palestinian communities is another outstanding sign of the interpenetration of family and politics. The problem of honor, and the control of women’s sexuality, remain central to any discussion of the family in the Mediterranean. Minicuci has an interesting passage on the socialization of adolescent girls in rural southern Italy; and Quastana and Casanova raise an important feature of Corsica’s strong family systems, that “outsider” women are fair game for sexual aggression, as if in a joint male conspiracy to increase women’s need for defense by the clan. However, danger does not seem to increase family constraints on women beyond a certain point. The problem of honor played a part in encouraging the exodus of Palestinians in 1948 and 1967, but today in Lebanon, after ten years of crisis, a higher level of danger does not deter women’s mobility.

The Impact of Migration

The impact of migration on working class families is far-reaching in terms of numbers; given that cultural conservatism is strongest at the mass level, migration is likely to offer a mechanism of change for women at this level — probably more important than participation in political movements. Algerian Fatima finds it easier in France to limit family size, and expects that her husband will not stop her working once her two children are in school. Petek-Salom and Hukum present evidence that joint family migration from Turkey loosens constraints on women’s clothing and employment, and on daughters’ upbringing. In Calabria (Minicuci), male migration leaves women with greater responsibility in the management of land. In Fayyoum (Porret), male migration increases women’s self-confidence in proportion to their increased workload.

Andezian and Streiff-Fenart find that uprooting from their extended families increases women’s responsibility in family management. Migrant women construct social networks which enhance their influence vis-a-vis their husbands. Women’s networks are used to pass essential information, give support, integrate newcomers, constrain men’s behavior and mediate change. They note, however, that women’s new power is not translated into contestation of traditional norms, or husbands’ authority. On the contrary, women uphold and assume the family norms that men weakly or foolishly fail to live up to.

That migration can also set up conservative counter-reactions is suggested by the conservatism of Palestinian communities in Lebanon and in the United States. Mernissi also gives evidence that migration to cities deprives rural Moroccan women of the support of kin networks (through which goods circulate), as well as of their activities as weavers.

Women and Culture

Women’s relationship to cultures that devalorize them is discussed by several of the contributions to “Femmes de la Mediterranée.” Rossanda presents the only theoretical discussion, arguing for positive critical action within mainstream culture, and against cultural separatism. Quastana and Casanova present a dilemma: how do Corsican women situate themselves between an indigenous culture that denigrates them, and hegemonic French culture that offers them an alien liberation? Minicuci presents a paradox: Calabrian women have real power in terms of property rights in land; yet this power is effectively negated by an ideology that presents women as biologically inferior to men. Both these studies point to two further crucial paradoxes: women’s role in transmitting ideologies of female inferiority (Minicuci has useful notes on the ambiguous style in which this is done); and woman’s indispensability in servicing and reproducing the community which gives them neither power nor status. Some cushioning mechanisms are pointed to: in Corsica (as elsewhere where strong family systems persist) women gain in status through bearing children, and through power over sons; in Calabria women pass on a secret knowledge of their worth, and a secret mockery of males.

For Corsican women, their indigenous culture is so misogynist that it scarcely provides them with any foothold to revalorize their status within it. Several papers suggest that Arab and Muslim women do not confront, or are not conscious of, such a total cultural deprecation. Women’s power to appropriate and reinterpret Islam is evident in el-Guindi’s argument that the meaning of Islamic dress, as currently worn by Egyptian women is not to exclude them from the public sphere but to legitimate their successful penetration of it. The new headscarf reduces class differences whereas secular Western-style exaggerates them. To al-zayy al-islami el-Guindi attributes the “confident, self-assured, strong image that these Muslim sisters project in public.” This seductive argument passes over the harassment that working-class Egyptian women suffer as they move between workplace and home. Perhaps el-Guindi is attributing to Islamic dress an immunity that really comes from class status? In all Muslim societies where class divisions are strongly marked, upper class women enjoy unusual freedom and even power in the public sphere while male animus against women appears to be directed solely towards proletarian women.

Alone among the Arab or Muslim voices to criticize their culture are Ouardia and Malika, the university-educated Algerian women interviewed by Gadant. Malika expresses disgust at the way that conventional gender relations are reproduced by middle-class Algerian university students. Ouardia, shrewd and observant, criticizes Algerian women who grumble about their husbands for not sharing housework but do not try to change them; for accepting to do menial services for their bosses; for accepting the segregation of women’s issues in the national union. She tells the amusing story of some pious sisters who caused havoc in a provincial Algerian town by insisting on using a mosque and performing their ablutions at the same time as men. Her discussions with Muslim Brethren have convinced her that their aim is to remove women from public life.

Such critiques are noticeably absent from the words of the rural and working class women represented in this symposium. Nor do the women involved in political movements engage in cultural critiques. For them, as for Sakina, the struggle against an external enemy subsumes, and forms a justification for, struggle against parents and social limitations. These women appropriate their own culture to legitimate their actions. Only in its effects for Berber women of the Aures mountains is Arab Muslim culture clearly demonstrated as oppressive. Here the Algerian national movement first tried to stamp out pre-Islamic Berber festivals, in which women played a central part as azriat. Berber women’s poetry shows the strength of their resistance to Arabization: a rare case where their struggle as part of a collectivity and as women is one.

The Search for Dialogue

Women of North and South look at each other across a gap that is not so much one of development as one of power. Northern culture (of which feminism is part) is not neutral in relation to other cultures but is integral to Western political and economic domination. Women of the Arab and Muslim countries may resent their social oppression, but they will not accept to be told how to liberate themselves by women of the North, especially not by those who know nothing of their struggles or by a feminism that appears as one more example of the West’s power to export ideologies.

Are Northern feminists ready to dissociate themselves from European culture’s appropriation of other cultures? Is their critique of male logos and male power (the state) radical enough to make them take the perspective of women struggling against imperialist or colonialist oppression? A small item in Fawzy’s report on Palestinian women in Israel suggests how difficult this dissociation is, how much most Northern feminists stay within the arms of state power even while challenging limited aspects. Fawzy reports that the Israeli feminist movement took the unusual step in 1982 of inviting Palestinian women delegates to its annual conference, but would not admit their banners calling for Palestinian rights in the final march. This small incident, which could have been replicated in any Mediterranean country with a dissident minority, suggests how difficult it is for women to admit the legitimacy of a national cause that challenges their own.


[1] “Sexual Attraction and the Question of Hejab,” excerpted in A. Tabari and N. Yeganeh, In the Shadow of Islam (London: Zed Books, 1982), pp. 108-111.
[2] Fatna Aït Sabbah, La Femme dans l’inconscient Musulman (Le Sycamore, 1982).
[3] For an excellent study of the Israeli case, see A. Ehrlich, “Zionism, Demography and Women’s Work,” Khamsin 7 (1980), p. 14.
[4] Julie Peteet, “Women in the Palestinian Resistance in Lebanon: Pre-1982,” in R. Ridd, ed., Women in Situations of Political Conflict (Macmillan, forthcoming 1984).
[5] K. Abu Ali, Muqaddima hawla Waqi‘ al-Mar’a wa Tajrubatiha fi al-Thawra al-Filastiniyya (Introduction to the Reality of Woman and Her Experience in the Palestinian Revolution), GUPW, Beirut, 1975.
[6] Israel is no exception in this regard. See Uri Davis, Israel: Utopia Incorporated (London: Zed Books, 1977).
[7] Peteet, op cit.
[8] Suad Joseph, “Women and the Neighborhood Streets in Burj Hammoud, Lebanon” in Lois Beck and Nikki Keddie, Women in the Muslim World (Cambridge, 1978). See also Suad Joseph, “Working Class Women’s Networks in a Sectarian State,” n.d., xerox.

How to cite this article:

Rosemary Sayigh "Looking Across the Mediterranean," Middle East Report 124 (June 1984).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This