Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam (Addison-Wesley, 1991).

Hisham Sharabi, ed., Theory, Politics and the Arab World: Critical Responses (Routledge, 1990).

Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo and Lourdes Torres, eds., Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism (Indiana, 1991).

In a television interview with Irish philosopher Richard Kearney, Edward Said distinguished between the intellectual as “professional,” who aspires to be included in government policy and opinion making, and the intellectual as “critic,” who marks the complexities rather than ratifying through his or her expertise the simplifications espoused by government pundits. Insisting on the historical affinities linking the Irish situation with Palestinian and South African struggles, Said went on to critique the benevolent “universalism” philosophically offered by Kearney as nothing more than the universalism of those who happen to be in power, and proposed instead “solidarity” as an alternative political and intellectual project.

Irish historiography is currently dominated by a school of academic historians who identify their work as “revisionism.” These revisionists, for all their appeal to “universalism,” nonetheless underwrite official government policy, the north/south border (or partition), as an indelible inscription on Ireland’s geography and in its history, while erasing the very crises that produced it and the catastrophes that continue to reproduce it: conquest, famine, rising, partition, civil war, the “troubles.” Irish historiographical revisionism — the intellectual as “professional” — stands in stark contrast to the challenges to dominant ideologies that have developed out of other crisis-ridden histories, such as dependency theory in Latin America or subaltern studies in India. A similar set of challenges may also be emerging out of the intersections in theory and practice of Middle East and women’s studies, if the books reviewed here are any indication.

These volumes in their discursive strategies — at once different and reciprocal — foreground the contradictions between institutional self-preservation and the critical urgency of transformation. The Arab woman as scriptural critic and interpreter (Fatima Mernissi), the representations of new theoretical paradigms (Hisham Sharabi et al), and feminism across the Third World/First World divide (Chandra Mohanty et al) challenge recalcitrant institutions and intransigent traditions — religious, political, academic and cultural — to redistribute their claims to intellectual authority and to reconfigure global policies and social and political orders.

In their very different, even disparate, points of departure, these collections propose various resituations of the intellectual and her/his critical work. The Veil and the Male Elite opens in a North African grocery store: “‘Can a woman be a leader of Muslims?’ I asked my grocer, who, like most grocers in Morocco, is a true ‘barometer’ of public opinion.” In response to her provocative question, Mernissi, the female inquirer, hears expressions of shock and dismay not only from the grocer but from a customer who has overheard the exchange. “May God protect us from the catastrophes of the times!” he exclaims. Still another shopper, a local schoolteacher no less aghast, invokes a hadith “that he knew would be fatal”: “Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity!”

In contrast to Mernissi’s popular siting of her erudite study of women’s rights in Islam, Sharabi and Mohanty et al locate their inquiries more explicitly within the US academic arena. From the contemporary Moroccan grocery, Mernissi proceeds into the past, to reinterpret those textual recitations wielded against her by the grocer and his customers. The contributors to the more academic exchanges explore alternative reconstructions of received disciplinary traditions.

The opinions Mernissi’s query elicited are not those of an exclusively male-identified posture. According to Moroccan election reports from 1977, referred to by Mernissi, there exists a drastically disproportionate relationship “between the massive participation of women voters and the small number of women elected.” To Mernissi, this indicates the manipulation of women voters by the professionals, the mullahs and imams, authorized interpreters of the “sacred texts.” According to Mernissi, “Not only have the sacred texts always been manipulated, but manipulation of them is a structural characteristic of the practice of power in Muslim societies.” Her inquiry proposes a feminist retaking of those texts.

The first part of The Veil and the Male Elite radically rereads a set of specific hadiths that relate to the position of women in Islam; the second part reconfigures the historical experience of Islam in the three years prior to the death of Muhammad, as these had conflictually contextualized women within religion and society. To refuse centuries later the political status of women in Islam, Mernissi argues, is not only to deny the signficance of the resistant example of Aisha but to persist still in “misrepresenting privileges and interests in the name of the Prophet.” In addition to the “fatal” hadith cited by the grocer’s customer, Mernissi similarly interrogates a second saying: “The Prophet said that the dog, the ass and woman interrupt prayer if they pass in front of the believer, interposing themselves between him and the qibla.” With each of these hadiths, Mernissi, working through textual analysis, manuscript genealogy, archival research and historical reconstruction, recuperates not only an alternative tradition from the past but establishes a set of countering injunctions for the present. Her reading of the early years of Islam — including the socio-space of the mosque, slavery, warfare, inheritance, violence, sexual practices and the hijab (that “piece of cloth that opponents of human rights today claim to be the very essence of Muslim identity”), as well as the chronology of the Qur’anic verses — is unrelenting in its insistence that in contemporary Islamic practice concerning the social position and political status of women, what “is being supervised and managed, in fact, is memory and history.”

Two questions, however, direct the itinerary of the book that Mernissi describes as a “memory-ship”, a “vessel journeying back in time in order to find a fabulous wind that will swell our sails and send us gliding toward new worlds.” There is the question posed in the Moroccan grocery store — “Can a woman be a leader of Muslims?” — the extended answer to which challenges existing religious institutions and their masculinist stewards. The preface to the English edition of The Veil and the Male Elite opens with another interrogatory: “Is Islam opposed to women’s rights?” This “other” question translates the radical critique of the book into a nostalgic, even defensive, apologia, the “attempt to recapture some of the wonderful and beautiful in the first Muslim city in the world.” Mernissi’s work remains taut with the tension between critical strategies and the appeal of apologetics.

The crisis of authority informs as well the essays in Theory, Politics and the Arab World. Set within the US academy, the clerical protectorate of received and manipulated truths here comprises Orientalists and Middle East “experts” who persist in their representations of the “other” both to themselves and to government bureaucrats. Hisham Sharabi’s preface asks us to read the essays “not only as an expression of a profound crisis within the field of Middle East studies, but also as a comprehensive multidisciplinary effort at reconstructing the field.” In his introductory essay, “The Scholarly Point of View: Politics, Perspective, Paradigm,” Sharabi situates the crisis across the First World/Third World divide, and calls on the “current movement of secular cultural criticism in the Arab world” to advance “an oppositional discourse seeking to transcend both Western hegemony and fundamentalist resistance through systematic critique.” This injunction notwithstanding, the essays that follow are firmly grounded within the parameters and paradigms of US curricular disciplines and academic discourse.

The issue of “theory,” of (self-)critical perspectives and critiques of knowledge and power, and their status within Middle East studies and attendant disciplines, links together the challenges these authors pose to their academic positioning and institutional credentialing. Samih Farsoun and Lisa Hajjar (sociology) argue most effectively for the radically disruptive role within their discipline of “theoretical innovation” as contributing to the “decolonization of sociology of the Islamic Arab world.” This, they conclude, “would entail a simultaneous elaboration of theoretical frameworks and a reevaluation of empirical methods and concepts.” Judith Tucker (history) describes “culture” as still the least developed of the academic approaches to the region: “The East-West encounter, always taken as central to the modern history of the region, turns out to be one of the most impoverished research areas.” Peter Gran (political economy) emphatically concludes that “genuine intellectual controversy resulting from an open conflict between paradigms is rare in Middle East studies.”

Despite the disciplinary “decolonization” to which Hajjar and Farsoun appeal, and Tucker’s identification of culture as an “impoverished research area,” those disciplines and the very academic structure that they subtend remain intact within the organization of the anthology. The tension between a certain loyalty to Islam and the urgent need to critique its gendered implementation that riddles Mernissi’s book is evident again in Theory, Politics — as the unreconstructed contradiction between the residual allegiances of academic professionalization and the theoretical imperatives to practice a disruptive and destabilizing institutional critique.

“Two simultaneous projects,” as described by Chandra Mohanty in her essay “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” underwrite the collected contributions to Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. The first project is an “internal critique of hegemonic ‘Western’ feminisms,” the second consists of constructing “autonomous, geographically, historically and culturally grounded feminist concerns and strategies.”

Whereas The Veil is divided between scriptural text and social space, and Theory, Politics is organized according to academic discipline, the essays in Third World Women are distributed across four sections, each internally divided by the tensions between “dismantling” and “building” that have been wrought in the geopolitics of feminism. The section on “Power, Representation and Feminist Critique” complements Mohanty’s essay with articles by Rey Chow on China as “crisis, spectacle and woman” and Barbara Smith’s reading of black lesbian fiction in the 1980s, and articulates the ideological contests that continue to interfere with, even as they construct, the terms of the debate. “Public Policy, the State and Ideologies of Gender” examines women in the public sphere: the Sexual Offenses Bill of Trinidad and Tobago (M. Jacqui Alexander), family planning and sex education in Brazil (Barroso and Bruschini), women and the informal economy in Kingston slums (Faye V. Harrison), and women and prison in the US (Juanita Diaz-Cotto). “National Liberation and Sexual Politics” foregrounds the often contradictory, even disputed, interactions between nationalism and feminism. For Angela Gilliam, these conflicts are integral to the reforging of solidarities within an international perspective. Evelyne Accad argues the priorities of the sexual revolution over the political, particularly in the Arab world. Nayereh Tohidi scrutinizes both the Khomeini revolution and its critics. Finally, in the section on “Race, Identity and Feminist Struggle,” Lourdes Torres, Nellie Wong, Ann Russo and Cheryl Johnson-Odim, representing the multiplicity of feminist positions within the US, articulate organizing and intellectual strategies to reconstruct the geopolitical divides that currently determine the “politics of feminism” and that identify the fault lines of this collection. A certain regionalization informs the distribution of essays: The section on public policy and the state, for example, looks largely at Latin America, whereas nationalism is identified with the Middle East.

Audre Lorde’s encomium, cited by Ann Russo, might well be read back into the incipient projects of each of these three volumes. For all their disparity and their different disposition of debate, they cross-reference each other, identifying what Mohanty refers to as a “common context of struggle.” According to Lorde, “Survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures, in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish.”

Declan Kiberd, the (anti-revisionist) Irish writer and critic, has noted that post-colonial cultures betray a marked “poverty of comparative studies,” which he attributes to the need of emergent nations to see themselves as “unique.” These three books both display and contest the difficulties and intransigencies of “comparative studies” — the critical strategies of political “solidarity” rather than the academic platitudes of a hegemonic “universalism.”

How to cite this article:

Barbara Harlow "Universalism and Solidarity," Middle East Report 183 (July/August 1993).

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