‘Aziza the Alexandrian is serving a life sentence in her women’s prison in Egypt for the murder of her mother’s husband. ‘Aziza, the main character in Salwa Bakr’s novel The Golden Chariot Won’t Ascend to the Heavens, assassinated this man who had seduced her as well as her mother, and then, following her mother’s death, took another woman as his wife. [1] She plans to flee the prison in a golden chariot destined for the heavens, but she does not plan to leave alone. Bakr’s novel presents the other women prisoners elected to accompany her, 12 life histories that have warranted them a place in ‘Aziza’s chariot.

Umm Ragab, for example, became a pickpocket to support her children. Hana’, after 45 years as a sexual slave and domestic servant to her husband, kills him one night by leaving the gas on under a cooking pot. ‘Azima “the Tall” — too tall, that is, to be married — was a naddaba (professional mourner), then a vocalist at religious celebrations and finally a popular singer, who also killed her abusive lover. ‘Aida, on her mother’s orders, took the blame for her brother’s honor/revenge killing of her battering husband. Huda, at 16 mother of two and a drug addict, is the youngest. Bahiga ‘Abd al-Haqq, a doctor imprisoned for “malpractice,” recounts the painful difficulties of lower-class women who have made it into professional ranks.

Bakr’s fictional narrative not only proposes a sociological commentary on Egyptian gender relations but argues as well the necessary connection between women’s issues and their historical, institutional and familial context. What the state and the traditional order construes as “crimes” are recast as women’s responses to systemic abuses, mediated by class oppression, against the women themselves.

Middle Eastern women have been raising their voices and organizing for emancipation and social reform since the beginning of this century. In the intervening decades, much has changed in their lives. There is greater access to education and employment, and in many countries women have the right to vote. In some countries, laws governing family and personal status have altered patterns and expectations of family life.

Change has been uneven, varying significantly according to social class, location and ethnic or national group. Today struggles continue over who should control women’s lives, in the family and in society at large. While women themselves have often taken the initiative in demanding their rights, the state has played a critical role, initiating changes and coopting women’s own initiatives. Economic changes have shifted family organization toward a nuclear form, while migration throughout the region has compelled women to assume increased responsibilities for households and families, though not necessarily with increased autonomy or power. Civil strife, war and forced population movements have also left women with heavy burdens of household management and responsibilities. Underlying these forces and developments is the tendency of governments and nationalist/religious political movements to make women symbols of national and cultural integrity, creating pressures that have worked against women’s demands for greater autonomy. It is within this context that women are debating their concerns.

This issue maps out some of the current debates on women and gender which, in the West as in the Middle East, both recapitulate the recent history of women’s struggle and envision new forms and strategies to achieve political emancipation. Rather than ‘Aziza’s imagined “golden chariot,” these essays are excursions grounded in the material and cultural realities of women’s lives. The authors reexamine women’s location in the gender order and various ways women resist this positioning. Their aim is to explicate the ways that gender is invariably embedded in politics, and the consequent politicization of gender issues. In the Middle East and in “Middle East studies,” the disruption of old forms of thinking is creating space in which women’s independent initiatives are mapping new paths of social, cultural and political transformation.

One such critical conjuncture is marked by the Palestinian intifada. In the Israeli-occupied territories, existing local organizations reflect a generational divide: Social welfare groups such as In‘ash al-Usra are strongly nationalist and firmly hierarchical, with no strong concern for mobilization around feminist issues. The women’s committees that emerged out of student activism, voluntary work committees and other grasssroots movements of the 1970s may engage in similar projects, such as day care/nurseries, training and small-scale production, but their focus is on organizing popular participation in anti-occupation activities. The role of Hanan Ashrawi and Zahira Kamal in negotiations with Secretary of State James Baker bespeaks the entry of Palestinian women into the arena of public, even international, representation.

Today there is a greater focus on developing a women’s agenda, spurred by the erosion of gains achieved during the early intifada. [2] Three new research centers exhibit this concern, drawing on priorities developed earlier. The Women’s Resource and Research Center, set up in Jerusalem under the direction of Suha Hindiyya in 1989, held a seminal conference on the subject of domestic violence in July 1991. In Nablus, the Women’s Resource and Training Center, set up by the novelist Sahar Khalifeh in 1990, sponsors a two-year training program for young women to become researchers and field workers, and publishes an annual journal and an oral history series. [3] The Women’s Studies Committee of the Bisan Center in Jerusalem has just published the proceedings of an important December 1990 conference on women and democracy, and has provided a protected space for women to speak against the Islamist campaign to impose veiling.

On the other side of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, it is Israeli women’s organizations that sustain in large part progressive political projects. Among these, the Women and Peace Coalition grew out of a 1989 conference on “Feminist Response to the Occupation.” Women in Black, after three years, still holds vigils every Friday afternoon at 20-30 locations in Israel and in several European and North American cities. The Women’s Organization for Political Prisoners also dates from 1988 and assists Palestinian women prisoners and their families with material aid and information as well as legal assistance.

Organizational forms in other parts of the Middle East confront greater state opposition. In Kuwait, for instance, women’s organizations are of the social welfare sort, but politicized women are active outside a formal organizational framework, usually as writers and within professional associations. The first diwaniyya hosted by a woman (Rasha Al Sabah, vice rector of Kuwait University) began in 1990; it was attended by both women and men, and included a full discussion of women’s rights issues. Interrupted by the Gulf crisis, it resumed in August 1991.

The Sudanese Women’s Union, founded in the 1950s and active throughout the 1960s, was forced underground in the early 1970s. Emerging again in the years 1985-1989, it has been obliged to return to clandestinity since the Bashir coup. Another marker of antagonism to women’s rights is the Sudanese state’s persecution of the Republican Brothers because of the organization’s progressive stand on women’s equality and personal status laws.

This complex hostility, on multiple grounds and from official as well as unofficial platforms, to women’s sociocultural and political initiatives is also a feature in Egypt, where the government this summer closed the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA). The AWSA was organized in Cairo in 1985 by the Arab feminist and activist Nawal El Saadawi. Its quarterly journal, Nun, which aims to “stimulate thought against the offensive on the rights of women in the Arab world,” has been harassed by Egyptian authorities since it was inaugurated in May 1989. The government gave no reason for its order to dissolve the AWSA and to transfer its assets to a little-known and not terribly active social welfare organization, Women of Islam, directed by one Farouq al-Fil who is also a municipal official in the Cairo suburb of Maadi.

The authorities apparently decided to move against the AWSA following its September 1990 conference on Arab women and journalism. The participants discussed a wide range of issues, and came out opposing both Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the Western-led military intervention that followed. When the Ministry of Social Affairs reminded the AWSA that the 1964 Associations Law prohibited “discussing anything related to politics or religion,” the AWSA began a campaign to repeal the law. [4] The government assault on the AWSA appears to be broadly political and not explicitly directed at its feminist agenda, but it fits a broad pattern of government indulgence to the demands of militant Islamist groups when the target is women’s activism.

Women’s initiatives have also had to contend with their own contradictions. Kevin Dwyer’s new book, Arab Voices, provides an instructive account, by the women involved, of the campaign to launch and sustain a women’s magazine, Nisa’, founded in 1985. ‘Azza Ghanmi relates how a women’s club emerged in the Tahar al-Haddad Cultural Center in Tunis in the 1979-1980 period. Cultural centers were the only forums where oppositional politics could be discussed in the late Bourguiba period, and this was the only one in the country run by a woman. “Everything turned on our notion of democracy,” asserts ‘Azza. “The women’s club…was really the only democratic place in all of Tunisia, the only place where people could actually get up and express different ideas, and still meet the following week to continue the discussion…. Unlike every other institution in Tunisian society, we weren’t looking for unanimity.” [5] From within the women’s club a group of five to six women emerged that saw the crux of the problem to be women’s sexuality and control of women’s bodies. The club organized its first colloquium in 1983, on sexuality and contraception. Others followed, but so did tensions in the club, which by 1985 had lost much of its momentum.

Nisa’ was the project of these women and a group of women from the UGTT, the official trade union federation, who had come together originally to protest the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The magazine, which published its last issue in 1987, encountered many of the contradictory forces that had confounded the women’s club. Differences arose around the relationship of women’s issues and broader political issues like democracy, and around issues of sexuality and religion which, in the words of one woman involved, impeded efforts “to shorten the distance between ourselves — a female elite — and the mass of Tunisian women.“ [6]

While women today question the sufficiency of campaigns for legal and social reform, given the pervasiveness and cultural grounding of male domination over their lives, they still find it divisive, if not dangerous, to raise controversial issues related to male control of female sexuality. Challenges to norms of sexual control still risk marginalization, as the experience of the Nisa’ project showed. Nadia Farah’s piece in this issue on the Cairo Women’s Health Book collective points to one strategy for reconciling women’s emancipatory projects with indigenous cultural and religious traditions. In the spring of 1991, in the Galilee, a young unmarried Palestinian woman who had become pregnant was killed by her family for “desecrating the family honor.” A group of Palestinian women citizens of Israel staged a public protest in Nazareth in June, and have formed an organization to combat the “conspiracy of silence” between Palestinian elders and politicians and Israeli authorities surrounding such violations of women’s rights. [7]

“Women’s history,” in the words of the Stree Shakti Sanghatana women’s research center in India, “is an intervention: Its intent more political than archival.” [8] Similar oral history projects have been no less controversial in the Middle East. In dealing with the Palestinian intifada, the Gulf war and the Iraqi uprisings, or the transformations within the Soviet Union, the question of gender must be actively inscribed into programs of social change. Women’s questions to the social order resonate critically with popular demands for human rights, democratization, economic enfranchisement, personal autonomy and access to knowledge.

“Any discussion of the intellectual and political construction of ‘third world feminisms’ must address itself to two simultaneous projects,” writes Chandra Mohanty, “the internal critique of hegemonic ‘western’ feminisms, and the formulation of autonomous, geographically, historically and culturally grounded feminist concerns and strategies.” [9] Most of the essays here combine elements of both.

They address political institutions, such as Deniz Kandiyoti’s “Women, Islam and the State,” but also point to the inseparability of economy, polity and civil society in shaping the contours of gender and experience. Rosemary Sayigh’s approach is to foreground women’s daily lives and their exercise of and subjection to power mediated by their membership in family units. Anne Norton’s essay exposes a complicity across geopolitical divides of a discourse both militaristic and patriarchal that casts males and females in dominant/subordinate, conquered/conquering and penetrating/vulnerable representations, to construct an internationally gendered framing of the Gulf war.

The reports here from Egypt, Lebanon and Yemen demonstrate both the relevance of research and the redistributive potential of revised collaborative work — between researcher and subject (Sayigh), between states (Carapico) and among women (Farah). The participants in gender issues, academic and activist, are crucial to remaking not only the very means of communication but of their production and distribution as well. The project of producing a women’s health book suggests political engagement and an agenda for action at the most personal and intimate level of daily experience and sexuality, but one that can engage women across other constitutive elements of identity such as class, religion, citizenship and, hopefully, level of education. Farah’s piece also indicates possible activist bridges across the divide of Western feminisms and local Third World feminist concerns.

Avenues of dialogue between Middle Eastern and Western activists have been in place since the 1920s and 1930s. Differences in approach to each other and to questions of feminism can refer to cultural and religious differences, but more fruitfully to relations of power rooted in the legacy of colonial history and experience. While Western feminists currently are more sensitive to and appreciative of Middle Eastern women’s experience, tension still arises from Western assumptions of universal rather than culturally specific values. Dialogues between First and Third World feminists have facilitated Western feminists’ increased sensitivity to cultural and racial diversity at home as well. Recent efforts in Ms. magazine to include the voices and experiences of Arab women and to give greater recognition to the multiplicity of voices and experience at home represent a step forward in crossing such divides.

‘Aziza the Alexandrian dies in the last chapter of Salwa Bakr’s novel, just as she is making final preparations for the departure of the “golden chariot” which “won’t ascend to the heavens.” ‘Aziza’s project, as these essays suggest, is taking new organizational shapes and multiple innovative routes. The purpose is not to reach the heavens but to reorder the shifting political, social and cultural map of the Middle East and the international order.


[1] Salwa Bakr, Al-‘Araba al-dhahabiyya la tus‘ad ila al-sama’ (Cairo: Dar Sina lil-Nashr, 1991).
[2] See Rema Hammami, “Women, the Hijab and the Intifada,” Middle East Report 164-165 (May-August 1990); and Rita Giacaman and Penny Johnson, “Building Barricades and Breaking Barriers,” in Zachary Lockman and Joel Beinin, eds., Intifada: The Palestinian Uprising Against Israeli Occupation (Boston: South End Press, 1989).
[3] Penny Johnson, “Stories of Daughters,” Middle East Report 164-165 (May-August 1990), p. 29.
[4] “Egyptian Government Moves to Dissolve Prominent Arab Women’s Organization,” Middle East Watch, September 1991.
[5] Kevin Dwyer, Arab Voices: The Human Rights Debate in the Middle East (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 194-195.
[6] Ibid., p. 207.
[7] The Other Front (Jerusalem), July 31, 1991.
[8] Stree Shakti Sanghatana, “We Were Making History”: Women and the Telegana Uprising (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1989).
[9] Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” in Mohanty, Ann Russo and Lourdes Torres, eds., Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991), p. 51.

How to cite this article:

Barbara Harlow, Julie Peteet "Gender and Political Change," Middle East Report 173 (November/December 1991).

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