Feminist analysis has added an important dimension to the peace movement’s understanding of the issues in the Gulf war. Several commentators have noted the gendered character of the metaphors and symbols that the Bush administration has employed in representing the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and the US response, and drawn attention to the dismal status of women in several Arab countries allied with the US, especially Saudi Arabia. Last November about 70 elite Saudi women conducted a “drive-out,” dismissing their chauffeurs and motoring off from the parking lot of the Riyadh Safeway as a protest against the traditional ban on women driving their own cars. The Saudi government’s repressive response — reprimanding and suspending the women from their jobs and enacting a new law explicitly prohibiting women from driving — made it clear that US objectives in the Gulf war did not include securing basic rights for women.

Some in the anti-war movement compared the unabashedly patriarchal Saudi attitude toward women with the officially more enlightened view of the Iraqi regime. In contrast, an Iraqi woman, Sana al-Khayyat, argues in Honor and Shame: Women in Modern Iraq (Saqi, 1990) that on a personal level patriarchal relations of domination are still the norm in women’s lives in Iraq. Her conclusion is based on interviews conducted in 1982 with 50 married, urban women from three distinct class backgrounds: illiterate housewives attending a literacy program; Baghdadi school teachers; and (mostly) university-educated professionals. The existence of an officially recognized Federation of Iraqi Women has legitimized the articulation of women’s concerns in the public sphere, and the Iraqi regime has made women’s education compulsory and encouraged access to work opportunities for women, even in traditionally male-dominated occupations. But al-Khayyat’s interlocutors give a uniformly bleak picture of sexual oppression in their daily lives, unsatisfying relations with their husbands, devaluation of their work and exclusion from decision-making positions in society. They believe that the official state-sponsored “feminism” of the Baathist regime has not made a dramatic difference in their lives.

These women’s experiences of oppression must be recognized and are a necessary starting point for investigation. Yet the lack of nuance in al-Khayyat’s conclusion raises questions about the viability of relying so heavily on uncontextualized personal testimony. Justifiably concerned over imposing culturally inappropriate categories, US scholars in Middle East women’s studies have privileged this mode of investigation. In this country, the field was shaped by collections of testimony like the anthology edited by Elizabeth W. Fernea and Basima Bezirgan, Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak (Texas, 1976) or, more recently, Fatima Mernissi’s Doing Daily Battle: Interviews with Moroccan Women (Rutgers, 1989). Still, al-Khayyat’s subjects can know only their own experiences. Without adding a substantial historical dimension to their testimony it is difficult to determine the full effect of the Baathist regime’s policies on the lives of Iraqi women.

The Arab American community was one of the under-reported casualties of the US war in the Gulf. The FBI’s announcement that it was interviewing Arab Americans to gather information about potential acts of terror provided a license to bigots to attack the community. Arab Americans have been regularly exposed to physical risk and vilification as the domestic accompaniment to US and Israeli military adventures in the Middle East. After the Gulf crisis began, hundreds of threats and dozens of acts of violence were directed against community centers, mosques, businesses and politically active individuals. Those engaged in defending the civil liberties of Arab Americans or trying to promote a more reasoned understanding of the community can benefit from Arab Americans: Continuity and Change, edited by Baha Abu Laban and Michael Suleiman (AAUG, 1989). It serves both as an introduction to the Arab American community and the issues it faces and as a manifestation of the effort of the Association of Arab-American University Graduates (AAUG) to construct a modernist Arab American ethnicity as a response to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Nabeel Abraham’s chapter on “integrationism” and “isolationism” as alternative strategies for Arab American organizations is the most self-conscious contribution to the volume. There are also ethnographic studies of particular communities, brief statements by young Arab Americans struggling to come to terms with their ethnic identity, and essays on Arab American political activism. The concluding contributions about the Arab world seem out of place in this book; yet their presence underscores the extent to which Arab American identity and politics, even for integrationist organizations like the AAUG, is shaped by factors external to the US experience.

Demographic arguments have always been central to the political debate about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. How large was the indigenous population of Palestine before the beginning of the Zionist settlement movement? How many were Muslims, Christians or Jews? How many Zionist immigrants came to Palestine? The Population of Palestine: Population History and Statistics of the Late Ottoman Period and the Mandate (Columbia, 1990) is a compilation of all the available population statistics with an introductory essay by Justin McCarthy, an Ottomanist and historical demographer with a record of meticulous scholarship in this field.

Among McCarthy’s more significant conclusions is that the Ottoman citizen population of Palestine in 1914 was somewhat larger than has generally been assumed (722,000 as opposed to the previously accepted figure of 650,000) while the citizen and non-citizen Jewish population was smaller than many have believed (60,000 rather than 85,000, of whom approximately 33,000 were recent Zionist settlers). McCarthy also refutes the notion that a large part of the Arab population of Palestine at the end of the mandate was composed of recent illegal immigrants to the country, a contention popularized by Joan Peters’ spurious From Time Immemorial. Unfortunately, McCarthy does not try his hand at establishing the precise number of Palestinian Arabs who became refugees in 1947-1949 — certainly one of the thorniest demographic controversies in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

No one should imagine that establishing more precise population figures will settle political disputes. But this apparently mundane exercise is a fundamental part of the project of recovering the history of Palestine from fantastic assertions such as “a land without a people for a people without a land” that continue to circulate as articles of faith in some circles.

How to cite this article:

Joel Beinin "Editor’s Bookshelf," Middle East Report 170 (May/June 1991).

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