Deniz Kandiyoti, ed., Women, Islam and the State (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991).

Seteney Shami, Lucine Taminian et al, Women in Arab Society: Work Patterns and Gender Relations in Egypt, Jordan and Sudan (Oxford: Berg, 1990).

Bouthaina Shaaban, Both Right and Left Handed: Arab Women Talk About Their Lives (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991).

Kitty Warnock, Land Before Honor: Palestinian Women in the Occupied Territories (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990).

Fatima Mernissi, Sultanes oubliées: femmes chefs d’état en Islam (Paris: Albin Michel, 1990).

Fadwa Tuqan, A Mountainous Journey: An Autobiography (trans. Olive Kenny) (London: The Women’s Press, 1990).

Jean Said Makdisi, Beirut Fragments: A War Memoir (New York: Persea Books, 1990).

Fadhma Amrouche, My Life Story: The Autobiography of a Berber Woman (trans. Dorothy Blair) (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989).

A decade ago, gender issues in the Middle East, particularly the role of women in political life, were scarcely discussed. A few path-breaking books had appeared, but the field was small, both within the Middle East and in the academic world of Middle Eastern studies in Europe and the US. [1] Theoretical work and empirical research on women in the Middle East in the early 1980s lagged behind feminist studies and women’s history elsewhere. Most analyses still located women’s power, control and autonomy in the “private” domestic sphere, separated from the public world of men and politics. There was little acknowledgment of the complex and ambivalent effects of social and economic change, and only a few writers had begun to examine the difficult question of how class, ethnicity and gender intersect in influencing women’s lives.

During the 1980s, historians, sociologists and social anthropologists laid the ground for new theoretical insights, though the news has not all been good. The Iranian revolution and the rise of Islamist movements during the 1980s focused attention on the effects of Islamic beliefs and practices in women’s lives, but often from a narrow Orientalist perspective. There is an ironic convergence between the views of those who promulgate fundamentalist versions of Islam, emphasizing Islam’s comprehensiveness in explaining women’s status, and those in the West who seek to understand women’s experience in the Middle East in terms of an essentialist interpretation of Islam.

The books examined here fall into two categories: One records “women’s voices” past and present through biography and interviews; the other offers more academic analyses of political and economic change. Some of the books employ both approaches, mixing commentary and analysis with interviews and life stories. With a few exceptions, they move beyond the simple dichotomies of public and private, and the generalized view of Islam’s impact on women.

There is a strong argument that the buried history and contemporary experience stifled by male hierarchies in society, the family and the state have to be recovered by using sources not usually tapped in conventional history and social science. This has been a major contribution by feminists to academic disciplines, one beginning to make itself felt in the study of women in the Middle East. [2] Bouthaina Shaaban’s lively book, Both Right and Left Handed, takes this view in a wide-ranging series of interviews with Arab women in Syria, Lebanon (including Palestinians) and Algeria. Her book also exemplifies some of the problems and dilemmas of this approach: the danger of placing too much weight on “authenticity” without sufficiently questioning how these “voices” were selected, and the need to contextualize individual experience both socially and historically. While the book gives vivid and at times moving accounts of individual women’s lives, it sometimes verges on sentimentality and is often naive in its “innocent” approach to the subject. Despite these limitations, the author and her interviewees make some insightful observations on power and gender relations.

Autobiography represents a more coherent, though nonetheless selective, approach to personal experience. The three autobiographies included here — by Fadhma Amrouche, Fadwa Tuqan and Jean Said Makdisi — reflect the experience of women whose lives were directly affected by political struggle and war, though they did not take part in these struggles. Makdisi, a middle-class Palestinian, educated in the US, married to a Lebanese, and living out much of the civil war in Beirut, reflects most clearly the class rather than religious divisions of Lebanon. Her experience as a woman is expressed through her rejection of war but not as a conscious confrontation with male domination. For Fadwa Tuqan, living a secluded life in Nablus as the national struggle of the Palestinians was played out around her, consciousness of being a woman, and an upper-class woman, dominated her personal perceptions. Fadhma Amrouche had no such privileged background: An illegitimate child in Kabyle Algerian society in the early part of this century, she and her mother were both treated as outcasts.

All these women seem to have shared a strong sense of social or national identity, but it is counterposed to an acute feeling of personal marginality. Tuqan’s marginality was the outcome of her struggles to become a poet in enforced isolation. Makdisi felt compelled to remain in Beirut through years of fighting, yet her Palestinian and Protestant identities, Western education, and middle-class status isolated her from the people and struggles with which she had identified emotionally. Amrouche’s inherited marginality in her own society, bitterly experienced as a child, was reinforced by family and political turmoil as an adult. In all cases, this marginality seems to sharpen, and only occasionally to embitter, these women’s view of the hierarchies of gender, class and ethnic or religious group.

Religion, State and Ideology

Many of the themes which emerge from these books relate, directly or indirectly, to those more systematically studied in the Kandiyoti volume — an impressive collection that spans both the Middle East and South Asia, and argues explicitly that no simple chain of causality can explain the neglected area of relations between the state, political culture, religion and family.

These articles suggest that no a priori assumptions can be made about the ways in which the state deploys religious or secular ideology in its policies toward women. In Pakistan, Aisha Jalal argues, the vast majority of women are marginalized from both political processes and doctrinal Islam by abject poverty, drudgery and illiteracy. It has been mainly middle- and upper-class women who have negotiated with the state over its attempts to impose an “Islamic” code of conduct on women. Many middle-class women have accepted or at least acquiesced in these controls, while those who have rejected them are, because of their social position, least likely to bear their harsher consequences.

Several writers also address the question of how post-colonial states have incorporated women as citizens. They argue that citizenship itself is a gendered construction, built on assumptions about the desired nature of the family and women’s role in it. In many cases the state has actively intervened, both to mold family relations and to regulate the ways in which women can participate in politics and the labor force, further undermining the conceptual and political separation of “public” and “private” spheres.

Another aspect of the relationship between state ideology and women’s status developed in the Kandiyoti volume relates to the intertwining of “citizenship” with various forms of communal identity. Women have often been used as symbols in the construction of national cultures and identities, although ethnic, communal or religious continue to influence their lives and choices.

Religion is seen not as instrumental in the fulfillment of particular needs and objectives, both personal and communal, but rather as “a sphere of social solidarity.” [3] This has implications for women in the domain of sexuality, property and reproductive relations. In Lebanon, where the state is weak, Suad Joseph argues that the ruling elite “has supported the continued sectarian control over issues related to women and the family [particularly the education system, personal status laws and family structures] as a part of a strategy of maintaining the balance of sectarian power in the state.”

Makdisi, in Beirut Fragments, talks of the visible markers imposed on women in Lebanese society, where religious, national and ethnic divisions have been exacerbated by civil war.

If it is impossible to tell a man’s political beliefs from his clothing, it is relatively easier to tell a woman’s. Militiamen all look alike: Regardless of which side they are on, they wear similar uniforms and carry similar weapons. Their wives and daughters, on the other hand, do not look alike. From the bikini to the chador lies a range of clothing that bespeaks a parallel range of belief and action. And yet, while perhaps nothing has created so much passion as the sight of the chador on the streets of Beirut or the bikini on the beaches, nothing is as easily misunderstood or as prone to simplistic interpretation as these items of clothing.

Dress may be more than a matter of personal preference. As Afsaneh Najmabadi notes in the context of Iran, the meaning of modernity is double-edged, both politically and personally. In the Pahlavi state, women were expected to be both modern and modest. “This duality became, and continues to remain, a source of cultural, moral, social and political ‘schizophrenia’ for non-traditional Iranian women.” Under the Islamic Republic, dress codes and concepts of “modest behavior” have become more rigid, and state controlled. The gharbzadegi, or “modern” Westernized woman of the Pahlavi era, became the symbol both of the effects of imperialism and of internal moral corruption.

The manipulation of such symbolism is not confined to the state. Maxine Molyneux notes that Saudi-based opponents of the South Yemen regime pointed to Aden’s treatment of women as a symbol of its “degeneracy and godlessness.” In Egypt, Islamist groups have frequently attacked the opening of the country to the West through condemnation of the loose morals of women who wear Western-style clothes and adopt “secular” behavior.

Sharp ethnic or religious divisions or open national conflict can also create a defensive reaction which imposes “protective” restrictions on women. An interviewee from Jabalya camp in the Gaza Strip told Kitty Warnock, before the intifada:

In some ways, women are worse off now than they were before 1967. Men insist that we protect ourselves from being exposed to the soldiers’ gaze all the time by putting on long dresses and covering our heads…. Before the occupation it was only in the very south of the Gaza Strip that women were so traditional. I never saw any of my relatives dressed like that when I was a child, but now they all are. [4]

Economic Change

The state is not an autonomous actor in determining women’s status and conditions of life. Where aid comes from, and how it is deployed by the state or external agencies, can also affect its ideological impact. Economic problems, too, can modify ideology. In Iran, the rapid rate of population growth combined with economic crisis prompted the minister of health to announce in July 1991 that ration coupons will be restricted to three children per family, while domestic production of birth control devices will be increased and family planning units in villages expanded. [5]

Changing patterns of wage labor, the monetarization of the economy and the shifting fortunes of particular social groups can also affect how women fare. The UNESCO volume (by Shami et al) usefully addresses the changing patterns of women’s work (in Jordan, Egypt and Sudan) and its relationship to the wider regional and international economy.

On the question of migration, some interesting work has been done at the level of household and community in a number of the “sending” countries in the Middle East. Initially it was assumed that women would be “empowered” within the family as decisions devolved on them in the absence of their husbands, fathers or brothers. This does not always or even frequently happen. [6] Morsy’s examination of women’s position in two Egyptian Delta villages suggests that the political and social space which male migration creates for women depends on a number of factors not directly related to the migration itself: the woman’s position within her own family, and the relation between the village, the state and the international economy. State policies on the appropriation of surplus through taxation, production controls and marketing, and the legal status of women in relation to property, are still part of the equation. This and the accompanying study of agricultural work in the Jordan valley (Shami and Taminian) emphasize that, where women are concerned, economic change or technological development does not necessarily improve women’s economic or social position in the linear fashion suggested by adherents of modernization theory.

Another issue is how education and access to different types of work have affected women. The content of the education, including its assumptions about women, as well as the economic and family environment, are significant variables. Amrouche’s account of her French schooling in Kabyle Algeria highlights both its personal importance to her and the cultural ambiguity it introduced into her life. She was taught French literature and culture, apparently unmediated by any reference to life in Algeria, which left her stranded between two cultures. This problem was exacerbated by her own society’s suspicion of educated women.

Shaaban shows that in Syria attitudes toward women pursuing education and working outside the family have changed over the course of several generations. Sharp contradictions remain, though, between the state’s commitment to mass education for both sexes and social attitudes toward educated women, as well as where and in what sectors they work. Shaaban does not analyze the state’s motives for providing this education, or indeed its content, which frequently reinforces social stereotypes about “desirable” roles and behavior for women. However, many of her interviewees have found themselves under severe pressure from husbands, fathers or brothers for wanting to work or to develop a career.

We certainly cannot assume that women’s integration into education and the labor force is necessarily a linear progression. Shami and Taminian’s study of three generations in a Palestinian squatter area of Amman found that more women worked outside the home in the 1950s because of the parlous economic status of many Palestinian refugees, and the number fell in the next generation when overall conditions improved. Work now takes quite different forms, but constraints remain and new patterns of work and education may not lead to emancipation. Choices are still made within the household, and the level of education attained depends both on gender and position within the household, as well as on the family’s economic circumstances at the time.

Shami and Taminian’s account of the life of a woman sharecropper in the southern part of the Jordan valley highlights her resourcefulness in responding to these variables. Similarly, Fadhma Amrouche managed her family’s finances, surviving changing economic conditions of Algeria and Tunisia and also the slide into bankruptcy of her husband’s family. Some of Warnock’s older Palestinian peasant interviewees appreciated labor-saving devices which have made life for their daughters and granddaughters much easier physically, but at the same time they expressed a pride in their own competence, capacity for hard work and skills in crafts now no longer used. In the Occupied Territories, these feelings have inevitably been overlaid by the sense that the land which made that life possible is slipping away and has often ceased to play a central economic role in people’s lives, although it remains as a potent emotional and political symbol.

Political Participation

Mernissi’s Sultanes oubliées opens with a comment on the initial reaction to the short-lived premiership of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. Some religious notables, in their polemics against Bhutto, asserted that no women had ever ruled under Islam. Mernissi identifies a number of women rulers in Arab and Ottoman history whose careers were ignored or played down by Arab historians, a silence indicative of disapproval. She points out that none of these women could receive the title of khalifa, only the inferior status of a temporal ruler.

Mernissi links her historical search with the contemporary proposition that Islam and democracy are incompatible and the parallel view that Islam does not admit of equality for women. These assertions beg a good many questions, counterposing a rather idealized view of the European model of democracy against an Islamic essence. Nonetheless, it would be hard to disagree with the concern which moves her to address these themes — namely, the lack of political freedom at all levels in most Middle Eastern states today.

A number of writers consider the development of women’s movements and organizations in the Middle East which have engaged in the political arena. It is important to distinguish between the need of the state to mobilize its citizens, including women, and women’s ability to influence the political agendas, whether of governments or of political parties and liberation movements.

Egypt, where the strongest of the independent women’s movements in the region began, illustrates both the shifting projects of the state in relation to women and the variety of goals within the women’s movements. Contemporary women’s groups have not been tied directly to the state, but their ability to effect change has been circumscribed by state power and its approach to “the woman question.” In the Kandiyoti volume, Margot Badran argues that those who define themselves as feminists have developed discourses on women and patriarchy that reflect specifically women’s interests, in contrast to women in Islamist groups who, while they have personally taken on “daring social and political roles,” have largely acquiesced in a male-determined discourse on women. Badran adds that, while the state’s discourse on women has changed, and women have been permitted to take new economic and social roles, “a substratum of basic gender inequality is retained which does not ultimately challenge patriarchal relations nor the state’s own power bases.”

In Syria, Shaaban gives a generally favorable account of the reforms promulgated by the Baath Party, which are usually personalized as the achievements of President Hafiz al-Asad. Nonetheless, one party member interviewed accuses the Syrian Women’s Union of “not doing justice to the president’s championship of our cause.” Shaaban asserts that women’s organizations in the Arab world tend to be “tightly controlled by male-dominated bureaucracies, government or political parties.” Official women’s unions, even those on the left of the political spectrum, are more interested in winning women recruits and defending partisan positions than in feminist issues. The small number of women politicians and officials are “often anxious to prove that they are as good as men in ignoring women’s issues.” Shaaban herself has a good eye for what she sees as a current Arab male proclivity to lecture on women’s rights while usurping them in practice.

In Iraq, the Baathist state has actively worked to create the “new woman” through the provision of social services, education and work opportunities for women, as well as some reforms of personal status law. The goals of this resocialization and mobilization of women, Suad Joseph contends, have been to augment the labor force and to restructure loyalties away from the family toward the state. While providing genuine benefits for women in education, employment opportunities and free child care, the General Union of Iraqi Women has prevented any independent women’s movement from developing. Baathist policy, moreover, has not consistently favored women, or undermined family structures. During the Iran-Iraq war, the government pushed for women to have more children, and in 1990 a law was passed allowing males to kill “misbehaving” female relatives with impunity. Since the 1991 Gulf war, as the state is less able to provide benefits, people have been forced to rely increasingly on family and kin networks to survive, with implications for women’s position in the family and the labor force.

The Palestinian intifada has been a testing ground for the changes in women’s political position, and the results have been ambivalent. Women of all classes, both urban and rural, have been mobilized as never before, many through the women’s committees related to the various political movements, others through the neighborhood committees which sprang up. Yet this mobilization has not necessarily given women the power to influence the political agenda. [7] One of Warnock’s interviewees notes that “political” men talk about women’s equality and see women participating in struggles — even going to prison. “They see that women are not hidden and oppressed as they were in the past, and they believe that everything is already achieved. But at home, and in personal relationships, there is no equality.”

Politics and Personal Life

The question of how women participate in political life cannot ignore the impact of patriarchal constraints which affect women’s personal lives, their ability to make choices and express themselves. Palestinian women whom Shaaban interviewed in Lebanon highlighted the burden imposed on them, far more than on men, to cope and care for their families.

Social class affects this notion of capability. Makdisi recounts an incident during the 1982 war when a group of wives and children of Fatah fighters were sheltering in a derelict shop in her middle-class west Beirut neighborhood. Their presence seemed to highlight for her the isolation in which she, as a middle-class woman, had been living. They had almost no possessions, and two babies were born on the floor of the shop.

I was tempted once or twice to stop and converse with the women, to offer neighborly help, but somehow I never did, although we always exchanged greetings. The strange thing was that, in spite of their appalling situation, they seemed totally self-sufficient. I felt that offers of help would have been proudly, even humorously, declined, and that it was they who offered me something — a reality, a kind of substantialness that I lacked — for they were what the war was all about.

The tensions between subordination to men in the personal sphere and the demands of national political life are thrown into sharp relief in the Palestinian poet Fadwa Tuqan’s autobiography. She comes from one of the leading notable families of Nablus, whose male members were deeply involved in national and local politics but whose social conservatism severely limited women’s lives. Fadwa’s response to enforced seclusion was withdrawal into her own private world. She felt herself to be a blank in the minds of her parents, particularly her mother, who could not remember when she was born. Fadwa’s education was sporadic, and a misdemeanor led one of her brothers to ban her from leaving the house.

Tuqan sharply highlights the role of brothers in the power structure of families, whether as oppressors or protectors of women. While one brother exercises the tyranny to which his position entitles him, another brother, Ibrahim, becomes her mentor and protector. A poet himself, he helps her to write poetry. Although he does not openly defy his family, he gradually takes Fadwa into his orbit, allowing her to escape the confines of the family home, physically and intellectually.

While there is no doubt of Ibrahim’s key role in his sister’s emotional development, she remained under his shadow, both during his short life and after his death in the early 1940s. For Fadwa, the national political struggle had been the backdrop to her whole life. Nonetheless, it was largely overshadowed in her own consciousness by her struggle, as a woman, for personal rather than national identity. When Ibrahim died, their father tried to cast Fadwa as his successor, urging her to take up his mantle and write “political” poetry. Her response, and the struggles of her later life, embody many of the tensions which women experience in trying to come to terms with virtually unchallenged male domination within the family, while responding to the changing pressures and demands imposed by the state and national political struggles:

Father was demanding that I write on a subject totally removed from my interests and which had no connection with the psychological struggle going on inside me. A poet must be familiar with the life of the world around, before dealing with it in poetry. Where was I to obtain the suitable raw material required? Where was I to find the intellectual and psychological environment conducive to writing such poetry? Would I derive it from the newspaper Father brought every day at noon when he came home for lunch? Reading the papers, however important, was not enough to light the flame of political poetry within me. I was completely isolated from the life outside. This isolation had been imposed on me; I hadn’t chosen it of my own free will…. Since I was not socially emancipated, how could I wage war with my pen for political, ideological or national freedom?


[1] Lois Beck and Nikki Keddie’s 1978 collection, Women in the Muslim World, was an important early contribution to women’s history, anthropology and sociology. Elizabeth Fernea and Basima Bezirgan, in Middle Eastern Women Speak (1978), began the trend to examine “women’s” voices.
[2] See Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke, eds., Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing (1990).
[3] Sami Zubaida, Islam, the People and the State: Essays in Political Ideas and Movements in the Middle East (1989).
[4] For the ambiguous attitude of the nationalist movement in the Occupied Territories on the issue of modesty and women’s dress, see Rema Hammami, “Women, the Hijab and the Intifada,” Middle East Report 164-165 (May-August 1990).
[5] Middle East Economic Digest, July 26, 1991.
[6] For example, Elizabeth Taylor, “Egyptian Migration and Peasant Wives” MERIP Reports 124 (June 1964); Muna Abaza, “The Changing Image of Women in Rural Egypt,” Cairo Papers in Social Science 10/3 (Fall 1987); and Judy H. Brink, “The Effect of Emigration of Husbands on the Status of Their Wives: An Egyptian Case,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 23 (1991).
[7] For example, see Rita Giacaman and Muna Odeh, “The Palestinian Women’s Movement in the Israeli-Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip,” in N. Toubia, ed., Women of the Arab World (1988); Rema Hammami, “Women, the Hijab and the Intifada,” Middle East Report 164-165 (May-August 1990); Joost Hiltermann, “The Women’s Movement During the Uprising,” Journal of Palestine Studies 20/3 (Spring 1991).

How to cite this article:

Sarah J Graham-Brown "New Writing On Women, Politics and Social Change," Middle East Report 173 (November/December 1991).

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