How are Middle East women political and how do they participate in states, movements, revolts and revolutions? Few activities of ordinary people are inherently political. How something comes to be seen as political at times and non-political at other times, and who gets to define it as such, are basic questions. Neither women nor men are political or apolitical in the abstract. How their activities come to carry a political charge must be understood in the context of their particular histories and cultures. What counts as politics can change dramatically as states consolidate and expand the public arena, as nationalist movements use traditional social forms and roles to mobilize women, or as revolutionary conditions break down the barriers between the political and the non-political.

Women’s political participation has become an issue for scholars mainly since the women’s movement has sought to mobilize women into political action. As a result of the women’s movement, this issue is now firmly on the historical agenda for scholars and activists alike. But women often do not choose the moment and the context for their political involvement. Their political participation may be evoked by the state, by rulers, and by politicians or others in authority. Women become a subject of mobilization, targets of political action programs, a mass to be welded into citizens or political followers. As they are mobilized they may begin to assume, for themselves and others, public identities apart from the private ones of kin and community. Depending on circumstances, women can be mobilized as members of kin, ethnic or tribal groups, as members of a class or gender, or as individuals. In Egypt, the Mubarak regime is attempting to recruit the support of middle and lower middle class women, while in Lebanon, women have hardly experienced the state in their lifetime. [1] On the other hand, some Middle Eastern women have mobilized themselves as individuals — and at times in a gender-conscious way, as Raymonda Tawil’s autobiography attests. [2]

When are women mobilized, which women are mobilized, who mobilizes them and does their mobilization differ from that of men of their kin, class, ethnic group or region? Does the nature and impact of women’s political mobilization differ if it is initiated by the state (Turkey, Iraq), [3] by nationalist movements (Palestine), by revolutionary parties (Sudan) or by spontaneous revolt (Egypt, Iran)? What happens to women when those mobilizers win or lose? Are there qualitative changes in women’s status and conditions?

Contest for Citizenry

In pre-state societies, politics, like economics and religion, is embedded in kin and communal relations. Politics became differentiated from kin and communal relations as states emerged. The competition for subjects often revolves around the creation and legitimization of hierarchically differentiated public (state) and domestic (kin, communal) spheres. But new states do not incorporate all of their citizens equally. Some citizens are admitted to the public sphere, where matters of state policy are at issue. Others are restricted to the domestic sphere of kin and community. The more powerful public sphere is usually associated by scholars with males and the domestic with females. [4]

The discourse of public/domestic domains in the study of Middle East women has been relatively static, compared with feminist studies of other regions. [5] The articles here offer a more dynamic analysis of the nature of the public and domestic than is usually found in Middle East studies. They give accounts of fluid, shifting relationships. The boundaries are neither fixed nor irreversible. The state expands and retreats, kin and communal groups gain and lose control over members. Women's location and the definition of their activities shifts as the boundaries move, or as they become more or less permeable.

The modern state not only formalizes politics, it also changes the nature of political conflict, diminishing the forms in which women might previously have participated. Judith Tucker argues that as the Egyptian state developed, formal politics expanded and women’s participation declined. Periods in which the state retreated saw an expansion of informal (street) politics where women participated more actively. Mary Hegland observes that the strengthening of the state in Iran under the shah reduced local political factionalism and competition, an arena where women had been active. My work on Lebanon also shows how women’s informal networks can be politically significant in a weak state. [6] Julie Peteet finds that among Palestinian women, politics has become an integral part of domesticity. Women’s domestic roles take on political significance, particularly as they become “producers of fighters.” Sondra Hale finds that the separation of public and domestic has been harmful to women in Sudan, and argues that the reintegration of the public and the domestic would increase women’s rights.

The organization of society is much more contested in the Middle East than in the West. Middle Eastern states and their rulers have not succeeded as have their Western counterparts in imposing their hegemony. Kinship and communal power flourish: Rulers rely on them as a mainstay of their power, while citizens turn to them to protect themselves from state repression or to compensate for inefficient administration. [7] The domestic sphere is a lively arena of social, political and economic action in the Middle East — far more so than in the West. Locating Middle Eastern women primarily in the domestic domain does not have the same meaning or outcome as it does for Western women. [8]

Women as Political Actors

How do women come to be seen as political?by states and rulers, by social movements and by women themselves? Tucker finds that in the nineteenth century the Egyptian state identified women as political. Peteet argues that in pre-war Palestine both British authorities and the Zionist movement considered Palestinian women as agents and targets of political action. On the other hand, in the Algerian war of liberation and in the early part of the 1975 Lebanese civil war, women were able to carry out underground political activity because the authorities did not see them as political. Hegland says that women were immune from harm in the Iranian villages because the authorities assumed that men were responsible for their women’s political acts.

Uncovering the context of women’s politicization may reveal possibilities and limitations. In Iraq, for instance, official mobilization of women is less about liberating them and more about strengthening the state. [9] Peteet finds that women’s questions are muted in the Palestinian national struggle. The agenda of the Sudanese Communist Party was to transform the polity but not the social arrangements subordinating women. Empowering women (at least in the Western meaning) does not appear to have been on the minds of the Iranian clergy.

When do women make women the issue of their political activism? Do they have to be detached as individuals from family and kin and community? Do they have to take up their own cause politically before there is substantive change in their position? Hegland argues that the roles of Aliabad women did not change as a result of their political participation. For Tucker, women’s political activism also did not bring about structural change in their lives. Peteet finds a potential for feminist consciousness but not feminist action in the Palestinian movement.

We must also ask when and how women become central to a political movement or process. Hale finds that women in the Sudanese Communist Party were a sort of Greek chorus; Egyptian and Iranian women have often been the emotional workers of political movements. Similarly, Palestinian women are in secondary and supportive, not leadership positions. How can progressive movements incorporate women as both active participants and subjects of discourse at the center of their political life? Must women have a movement separate from progressive, nationalist and liberation movements in order for them to champion successfully their own cause?

Feminism, Nationalism, Class and State

We need to look at the relationship between feminism, nationalism, class and state. [10] Peteet argues that the Palestinian national movement gave women’s participation in informal communal politics a national context and legitimacy. But this diluted a commitment to women’s issues because the movement has carefully avoided challenging patriarchal structures, thus deflecting the emergence of feminist consciousness. In some sense, Peteet finds, the absence of a Palestinian state inhibits the liberation of women. In Iraq, I found the presence of the state coopting the possibility of an autonomous women’s movement. [11] Many Middle Eastern states have created women’s organizations; their power, as with the General Federation of Iraqi Women, derives entirely from their close ties with the ruling elite.

Politics in modern societies are linked to both gender and class. These articles address the relationships between gender, politics and class mainly indirectly. They do not, for the most part, look at women’s political participation in class terms, but they provide some important clues. Do working class or peasant women participate politically any less than men of their class? Hegland, Tucker, Peteet and Hale all indicate they do. Class organization and membership affects the forms through which women participate, the processes in which they engage, the issues around which they mobilize, the social and political relationships they establish, the personal and social consequences of their political actions and the durability of their participation. All of these questions need further study.

Women’s Political Participation

These articles indicate that women share patterns of political participation. For one thing, women are often found in gender-linked social spaces: in nineteenth-century Egypt, the street and the public square; in pre-revolutionary Iran, in homes; in revolutionary Iran, the street. Hale finds the zar a prefigurative political form in the Sudan, even though women have also been active in work places. As Tucker notes, a formal definition of politics often defines women’s political participation out of the picture. The informal spaces of female participation may be not only gender-linked, but class-linked. Middle- or upper-class women may be less likely than working-class women to act politically in the street, neighborhood or square. They may, on the other hand, be more likely to act through formal organizations — political parties, women’s associations, philanthropic organizations, religious institutions, social agencies and the like. [12]

Similarly, women are more likely than men to engage in certain political practices. Egyptian and Iranian women use the taunt. Because of their position in visiting networks, Iranian, Palestinian and Sudanese women perform important emotional roles and help create social solidarity. [13] They may gather and pass on information to their men, persuade and cajole men to join factions, act as decoys and dramateurs. Women link factions, kin and political groups. [14] Women’s work proceeds even in turbulent times. They continue to perform important social rituals, hold families together and preserve social interaction.

The political participation of women described in these articles tends to be erratic, informal and organized around men with whom they are connected in socially legitimate ways. The leadership of the Sudanese Women’s Union was appointed by the male-run Central Committee of the Sudanese Communist Party. Palestinian women activists in the various revolutionary organizations take orders from their male-dominated leadership.

But we need to see the character of women’s political participation in a cultural and historical context. The absence of women from leadership positions in these movements is not surprising, for women have been only minimally represented in the West. Furthermore, Palestinian men are also often mobilized through kin networks. Rural Iranian and urban working-class Egyptian men’s political participation is also erratic. Perhaps men as well as women engage more actively in politics through informal channels. This is not to diminish the importance of the differences in men and women’s political participation, but rather to suggest the limits of broad generalizations. We always need to keep clearly in mind the specific context of both men’s and women’s participation.

How women’s activism becomes legitimate also affects the nature and durability of their participation. Iranian women’s activism was sanctioned by the clergy. Among Palestinians, and earlier among Algerians, women’s activism was sanctioned by a popular resistance movement. In Iraq and Libya, the state sanctions women’s participation. In Sudan, it was a political party, while in nineteenth-century Egypt women’s activism was legitimated by popular social revolts.

Peteet relates that a representative of the resistance movement may pay a visit when a Palestinian family objects to the political activism of a female member. This can be a powerful act of persuasion and legitimization. Similarly, the mass appeal of the Communist Party in the 1950s and 1960s served to legitimize women’s activities in the Sudanese Women’s Union. Organized mass movements appear to have greater abilities to legitimate women’s political participation than informal groups. Yet the fact that so many movements also recruit on the basis of primordial ties indicates that these affiliations and loyalties still are a significant, if indirect, avenue for legitimating women’s participation. How women’s participation gains social approval affects the form and possibilities of women’s activism. The fact that Iranian women gained legitimacy for their participation from the clergy, and most acted in the name of religion during the revolution, has meant that with the success of an Islamic revolution women are subjected to the clergy’s definitions of what is appropriate political — and non-political — behavior. That a secular nationalist movement has mobilized Palestinian women appears to have had quite different consequences.

The Price of Participation

Women often pay a price for their political participation in ways that men do not. They may have to become “honorary males” (Tucker) to remain honorable and public. They may feel compelled to be more ethical than most women, as members of the General Federation of Iraqi Women reported to me. They may face negative sexual or political labeling if they raise feminist issues. They may have to drop out of political activism periodically to enjoy female-linked roles or activities (Peteet).

This price that women pay for their political participation may be affected by their class membership, family background or financial autonomy. How are women, as compared to men, rewarded for their sacrifices by kin and communal groups, by public agencies, by the state? We should try to learn how the known costs affect women’s willingness to participate politically.

Perhaps the most significant contribution of these articles is the questions they raise. They challenge many current theories of women’s political participation in Middle Eastern societies and present us with a richer and more complex understanding of the problems. Much remains to be done to understand Middle Eastern women’s political activism inside and outside political movements. Toward that end, further work can develop historically and culturally specific analysis. Only if we understand clearly the specificities of Middle Eastern states, classes and ideological formations can we apprehend the necessary context for evaluating women’s place in politics today.


[1] Mervat Hatem, “Egyptian Middle-Class Women and Views of the Sexual Division of Labor in the Nationalist Personalized Patriarchal System,” presented at the Middle East Studies Association annual meeting, New Orleans, 1985; Yolla Sharara, “Women and Politics in Lebanon,” Khamsin: Journal of Revolutionary Socialists of the Middle East 6 (1978), pp. 6-15.
[2] Raymonda Tawil, My Home, My Prison (London: Zed Press, 1983).
[3] Deniz Kandiyoti, “From Empire to Nation-State: Transformations of the Woman Question in Turkey,” presented at the Forum on Current Research on Middle Eastern Women at the University of California, Berkeley, 1984; Serin Tekeli, “Women in Turkish Politics,” in Nermin Abadan-Unat, ed., Women in Turkish Society (Leiden: Brill, 1981); Suad Joseph, “The Mobilization of Iraqi Women into the Wage Labor Force,” Studies in Third World Societies 16 (1982).
[4] Michelle Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, eds., Women, Culture and Society (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974).
[5] Suad Joseph, “Working-Class Women’s Networks in a Sectarian State: A Political Paradox,” American Ethnologist 10 (1983), p. 1.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Suad Joseph, “The Family as Security and Bondage: A Political Strategy of the Lebanese Urban Working Class,” in Helen Safa, ed., Towards a Political Economy of Urbanization in Third World Countries (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1982).
[8] Cynthia Nelson and Virginia Olesen, “Veil of Illusion: A Critique of the Concept of Equality in Western Thought,” Catalyst 10-11 (1974), pp. 8-36.
[9] Joseph, “Mobilization.”
[10] Kandiyoti (see note 3) argues that feminism was built into the nationalist agenda of the Turkish state from the nineteenth century. Tekeli argues, however, that this was solely in the interests of nation building. Mounira Charrad (“The Politics of Family Law: The Tunisian Example,” presented at the Middle East Studies Association annual meeting, San Francisco, 1984) makes a similar point for the place of women in constructing the Tunisian state. Algerian women have on the whole been left out of the nationalist agenda in the interests of retaining the support of the Islamic clergy. (See Marnia Lazreg, “You Don’t Have to Work, Sisters! This Is Socialism,” presented at the Middle East Studies Association annual meeting, New Orleans, 1985.)
[11] Joseph, “Mobilization.”
[12] See Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot, “Revolutionary Gentlewomen in Egypt,” in Lois Beck and Nikkie Keddie, eds., Women in the Muslim World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978); Eliz Sanasarian, The Women’s Rights Movement in Iran: Mutiny, Appeasement and Repression from 1900 to Khomeini (New York: Praeger, 1982); and Leila Ahmed, “Mysticism, Female Autonomy and Feminism in Islam,” presented at the Middle East Studies Association annual meeting, San Francisco, 1984.
[13] Also noted in Vanessa Maher, “Kin, Clients and Accomplices: Relationships Among Women in Morocco,” in Diana L. Barker and Sheila Allen, eds., Sexual Divisions and Society: Process and Change (London: Tavistock, 1976) and Barbara Aswad, “Women, Class and Power: Examples from the Hatay, Turkey” in Lois Beck and Nikki Keddie, eds., Women in the Muslim World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978).
[14] Also noted in Barbara Aswad, “Visiting Patterns Among Women of the Elite in a Small Turkish City,” Anthropological Quarterly 47 (1974), pp. 9-27; Louise Sweet, “The Women of ‘Ain ad Dayr,” Anthropological Quarterly 40/3 (1967), pp. 167-183; Soraya Altorki, “Religion and Social Organization of Elite Families in Urban Saudi Arabia” (Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 1973); and Peter A. Lienhardt, “Some Aspects of the Trucial States,” in Derek Hopwood, ed., The Arabian Peninsula: Society and Politics (London: Allen and Unwin, 1972).

How to cite this article:

Suad Joseph "Women and Politics in the Middle East," Middle East Report 138 (January/February 1986).

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