Suad Joseph, an editor of this magazine, teaches anthropology at the University of California-Davis and is a founder of the Association of Middle East Women’s Studies and the Middle East Research Group in Anthropology. She has published extensively on sectarianism, gender and the family, and constructions of the self and state in Lebanon. Joe Stork spoke with her in early May.
What questions does the idea of civil society raise concerning gender?
The Western construct of nation-state, which became the compulsory political form for the rest of the world, is based on citizens as detached from communities, as individuals. In fact — in the Arab world, the Third World and much of the West — persons are deeply embedded in communities, in families, in ethnic, racial or other social groupings.
The Western construct of citizen — that of a contract-making individual — implies a degree of detachment and autonomy that is not universal. The capacity to make contracts emerges from the fact that this individualized self is conceived of as a property owner, first of all as owner of himself. I use “him” consciously here.
The Western liberal notion of citizen implies a masculinized construct. Males were the property owners. Carol Pateman argues that the contemporary state is in fact a fraternal patriarchy. In the discourse that established the philosophical basis of liberal bourgeois society, the idiom is that of brothers. The social contract is entered into by free men who constitute themselves as a civil fraternity. It’s an association of autonomous, individualized, contract-making persons, and contract making is possible only if you are a property owner, if you own yourself. The series of assertions that underlie this philosophical base are assertions of exclusion. Women and many minorities are not contract-making persons, because they are not property owners. Civil society is a fraternity, not a sorority, and not a family.
If we move beyond the gender-bound language of these paradigms, and if women become more equal as property owners to men, what keeps the state masculine? Is this still a problem?
In liberal feminist thought, with its goal of integrating women into and not challenging the basic structure of the state, the problem starts to get resolved. Marxist feminists argue that this only resolves the problem for elite women. Class, race, patriarchy and other forms of exclusion are still operating.
But isn’t that just saying that the integration is not inclusive enough? Is it a critique of the model of the state itself?
There’s no way that you could have enough inclusion without transforming the class-based structure of society. The very existence of classes is a demarcation of exclusion. Ultimately what gets reorganized and restructured are class boundaries. If you’re going to use inclusion as the avenue of resolving the problem, that can happen only if class itself is challenged.
It still strikes me as more Marxist than feminist, in that the locus of the problem is class. What’s more difficult to reconcile — class or patriarchy?
There are feminists who would argue that class and patriarchy are dual systems that operate autonomously of each other; you have to fight them on different grounds. Others argue that they are woven into each other and your strategy of organizing has to take account of the fact that class already has patriarchy built into it. There isn’t a single feminist answer as to the primary source of oppression — gender, class or race.
The question we want to examine is: What has the imposition of the nation-state, with its gendered concepts of citizenship and civil society, meant in those countries where it has been imposed?
There was patriarchy in the Arab world prior to colonization. What is interesting to investigate is the intersections of the pre-colonial and post-colonial patriarchy in the attempts to construct the contemporary nation-state. My sense is that there was much greater fluidity to the patriarchy that existed in the Arab world in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Judith Tucker’s recent work on Nablus courts, dealing with issues such as custody and divorce and child support cases in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, indicates that women made use of the courts effectively and actively, and across class lines. Women were very assertive in claiming their rights within what might be considered a public domain in Palestine. There’s interesting work from medieval Egypt up to the nineteenth century that shows that women were active property owners. Julia Clancy’s work on colonial Algeria indicates that women were active in religious movements, were looked up to and sought out as saintly figures. The point that comes out of all of this is that there was a lot more fluidity in the pre-colonial period than we had previously imagined in terms of gender hierarchy.
Contemporary representations of the Arab world often depict more rigid gender hierarchies — greater exclusion of women from public domains, to an extreme degree in some states. Hisham Sharabi argues that what he calls neo-patriarchy is a post-colonial phenomenon: It’s not that there wasn’t patriarchy before, but contemporary patriarchy is a product of the intersection between the colonial and indigenous domains.
Is this in any way similar to what’s happened in other societies?
There are some parallels — although we have to situate gender-state dynamics culturally and historically in each society. I’m particularly interested in comparing the Arab world to India and China, for a couple of reasons. One is that all three are areas with very long histories of state formation, and then periods of colonial control, and then periods of attempted “modernization.” In all three societies, the literature seems to indicate a consolidation of gender domination for women in the contemporary period: increasing control by men, families, communities and the state. There’s evidence that the contemporary period in some ways has created new controls over women that were much more fluid in earlier periods.
Is this owing to the gender character of capitalism per se, or also to the reactions to capitalism?
Both, and I think it’s also related to the particular construct of the nation-state that these societies have attempted to erect.
But it’s also a class construct of citizen.
Absolutely. Recall here Edward Said’s argument in Orientalism that the East is feminized in relationship to the West. Many scholars subsequently argued that not only is the Orient feminized, but that the oppressed, the subordinate, the minority is feminized. Hierarchy has tended to genderize in contemporary nation-states: Those in the superordinate position are masculinized, and subordinates are feminized. So constructs of class and citizenship have been imbued with gendered meanings.
And this is peculiarly modern?
The individual citizen, as an autonomous, contract-making self, is a peculiarly modern and Western discourse, a discourse that’s become hegemonic. It is important to look at what these notions of civil society and citizenship are based on in Western discourse, and the problems created by their uncritical application to Third World societies.
I was struck years ago by an article by Rola Sharara, a Lebanese feminist, in Khamsin, in which she argued that women in Lebanon, as in many Arab states, cannot feel the impact of the state in their lives. They feel the impact of their communities, and in particular the men of their communities. I think Lebanon was an extreme example of this, where citizenship was mainly experienced through communities. That is, ethnic, religious, kin-based communities exerted considerable authority and claimed the loyalties of their members. In some societies, such communities were competitive with state authority. Women may at times feel the oppression of the patriarchy of their communities more directly than that of the state. Elsewhere, perhaps Iraq is an example, people have often experienced communities as a source of protection from a repressive state. Local women’s movements will take different forms as a result. My political stance is one of critical support — to support local forms of resistance, but to engage in a critical dialogue based on the historical experiences of other countries. But I do not think the control of women by communities is independent of state control.
That’s part of the paradigm of modernization.
That’s what many of these states, notably Iraq and Syria, were attempting to do by undermining these communities in order to claim the control and the loyalties of their citizenry.
We have to be careful not to romanticize the control that does or did exist at the communal level.
Yes, it’s coercive, particularly for women. It’s not a question of preserving these ethnic, religious, tribal communities, or of the state saving women from these communities. States and communities can be competitive or collaborative forms of domination.
These communities are organized through patriarchal idioms, moralities and structures of domination. For women, in those states where communities are the primary vehicle through which they experience their membership in contemporary societies, these relations are mediated through patriarchy. In societies in which the state is more keenly felt, state forms of patriarchy penetrate more effectively into local communities. There are new, complex, shifting forms of gender domination. Insofar as the state is experienced as more repressive than the communities, then women often secure themselves in their communities, where they receive some protection from a repressive state. But to gain that protection they must submit to the control of the men of their community.
Western liberal philosophers have advanced civil society as the solution to the problem of state authoritarianism or despotism. If civil society consists of voluntary autonomous organizations capable of resisting arbitrary exercises of state power, let’s look at who or what are these voluntary organizations. In contemporary societies, they would be professional associations, unions, political action groups, chambers of commerce, even religious fraternities. All are in the “public domain.” They are the kinds of associations nearly always associated with men. Civil society is already identified or defined in a site from which women are thought to be excluded — the public domain. And it’s characterized by sets of associations that are linked with male activity. If you go back to how it is that this came to be, the construct of civil society assumes from the very beginning a split between public and private domains. It’s based on an assumed three-way distinction between that which is kin-based and non-voluntary, that which is non-kin-based, public and voluntary — civil society — and that which is non-kin, public and semi-voluntary — the state.
That definition of what constitutes civil society is based on a gendered distinction between public and private domain. Men and male activity are associated with the public and women and female activity with the private. The civil society construct, a Western construct, is now being challenged in the West by feminists and people of color. Its uncritical application to Third World countries and the uncritical use of the relative existence of components of civil society as measures of “modernity” or progress are highly problematic.
What does this mean in terms of the Arab world?
The distinction between what is public and what is private, and therefore the dichotomy that the concept of civil society rests upon, is even more problematic in the Arab world than in the West. In many Third World countries, Arab ones included, kinship and community are crucial organizers of social life. I don’t see state institutions or civil society operating independently of kin-based and communal relations. A person in a position of power in a government office or a voluntary organization brings with him or her the obligations, networks and rights of kin and community, and acts accordingly. Those claims of kin and community are operating for people in those positions. The people themselves don’t separate public and private.
The boundaries between this triangulation of state, civil society, and kinship or private domain are highly fluid. People’s commitments remain grounded in kin and community, and they carry those commitments with them, whether in the civil or state spheres. Men in Lebanon are no less identified with kinship, and therefore private communities and obligations, than are women.
But it’s patriarchal.
What’s crucial for understanding the gendering of these relationships is not the split between public and private, say, or between civil society and state, or civil society and the domestic, but how gender hierarchy operates. In Lebanon patriarchy privileges males and elders, including elder women. Numerous other variables affect the operation of patriarchy — class, ethnicity, region.
What does this mean for the stance we take on these questions of civil society and human rights?
Because men are very nested in familial and highly patriarchal communities, as nested as women, and insofar as states are often seen as repressive and external, it is in these communal-based relationships that both men and women find security. For many progressive Muslims in the Middle East, gender issues are secondary; familial bonds are seen as sources of support and security against what’s perceived as an even greater source of oppression — the state. That isn’t to say that there aren’t women and movements in the Middle East who argue that gender oppression is as virulent as class or colonialism.
If one’s rights are experienced as emerging from being part of these familial, ethnic, sectarian communities to a greater degree than emerging from being citizens of a state, then you can see the problem for women, because these communities are highly patriarchal. The control of these communities over women’s lives has in fact been reinforced by the state in many Middle Eastern states, with Tunisia and Turkey being partial exceptions. When the state intervenes actively to provide alternative arenas, at least in legal or administrative domains, for women’s participation in society, it creates space for maneuvering and negotiation and, over the long run, for mobilization.
This sense of space is implicit in the argument for civil society. Some would argue that the components of civil society work as much to help the state exercise social control as to hinder it.
I agree. We have assumed that the hegemonic discourse in the West actually describes the empirical reality of the West. Then we say: What’s wrong with these Third World societies is that they’re not coming up to the standard that in fact is not the reality even in the West. We have assumed distinctions between state and civil society, between civil society and the private sphere, and between the state and the private sphere. Both in the West and the Third World they’re not so separate. The problem of exclusion of women from the state has been accentuated by the attempt to separate these domains. The attempts to separate state, civil society and kinship weds women to the private domain and excludes them from the sphere of civil society and from the state. Saudi Arabia may be an extreme example of that. But that’s a modern phenomenon.
The whole argument about whether we have a weak state or a strong state, a weak society or a strong society, in a way is a specious argument, linked to an Orientalist perspective which sees other societies as seamless webs, whereas the West is articulated and differentiated. I don’t see the West being as articulated and differentiated as the West presents itself to be.
But formerly colonized societies to some extent have bought into the nation-state as the mode and vehicle of liberation.
The contemporary exclusion of women is in part — but not exclusively — the outcome of this compulsory model of nation-state, a model which has built into it the marginalization of females and female activity.
The point I’m leading to is that people do not perceive themselves as having rights as a result of their being citizens of a state. They perceive themselves as having rights because they are embedded in communities. And insofar as those communities are hierarchical and patriarchal, then the rights that they perceive will be organized around those hierarchical and patriarchal structures of domination. When we speak of human rights, we assume that we all know what we mean by that term. But we’ve universalized human rights by glossing over the diversity in the ways in which rights are understood. Our construct of rights was premised on the construct of the autonomous, detached, contract-making, individualized and masculinized person that emerged out of liberal bourgeois thought.
We don’t want to dismiss human rights as bourgeois constructs, as if they don’t matter.
What I’m struggling to develop is a construct of rights, personal rights, human rights, that is not embedded in a specific construct of personhood. I don’t have the answer to that now. The problem of the construct of human rights is very linked to this concept of the individualized citizen. If we have a construct of citizen that is wedded to a particular concept of self, it allows us to dismiss the rights of persons who don’t share that sense of self. The way we construct the notion of civil society, and the way we construct the notion of a nation-state — when you break out of those constructs, it not only allows for the possibility of the inclusion of women and other excluded groups, but it shows us that the ways in which men and women operate, act out their lives, maneuver and negotiate are not inherently so fundamentally different from each other. We constructed a difference, which insofar as it became compulsory, became internalized. Gender difference is historically and culturally constructed and reproduced through complex moralities, idioms and structures of power. Feminist discourse attempts to destabilize the hegemony of these constructs and by so doing create spaces for experiments in alternate forms of relationships.