Nikki R. Keddie and Beth Baron, eds., Women in Middle Eastern History: Shifting Boundaries in Sex and Gender (Yale, 1991).

Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (Yale, 1992).

An eighteenth-century Ottoman woman left her urban household enshrouded in heavy veils. An Egyptian woman in the 1990s puts on her hijab before going out to work. To many Westerners, the veiled woman, repeated endlessly in popular and scholarly texts about the Middle East, is a signifier of Islamic patriarchy.

Is this a useful category of analysis for understanding Middle Eastern women? Is “the veil” a sign of “Islamic patriarchy”? If not, why are they linked in contemporary discourse? Until very recently, when Western scholars or readers wanted to learn more about women in Middle Eastern societies, their English-language options were either ethnographies or compensatory histories. A monolithic understanding of “patriarchy” serves as a unifying theme in much of this literature. It enables both a programmatic call for “modernization” (a Eurocentric conception that links patriarchy inextricably to Islam and calls itself an alternative) and a feminist critique (which assumes a sisterhood of oppression across cultures).

Nikki Keddie and Beth Baron’s anthology on Middle Eastern women’s history and Leila Ahmed’s book on the historical roots of the debate over feminism in the Middle East each use a historical approach to challenge a notion of static, unified patriarchy. The books complement each other in approach and material, and engage the issue of patriarchy on two levels: contextual and conceptual. Both focus on its local points of application — through time, across geography, and within different segments of society. And both problematize the conceptual tools used to analyze it, challenging Western assumptions about issues such as oppression, feminism or gender boundaries, searching out indigenous models for understanding change and envisioning an effective politics.

Women in Middle Eastern History provides useful discussions of the various ways women have negotiated their status and position in Middle Eastern societies, from the first centuries of Islam through the modern period. The chapters include a mix of specific studies on a wide range of topics as well as interpretive essays. The introductory piece by Keddie outlines major trends in the history of Middle Eastern women and poses problems for future research. The book is concerned primarily with historicizing patriarchy in the Middle East, offering more precise periodizations about women’s status, considering how material conditions and transformations affected gender relations, and refuting stereotypes. As the editors repeatedly emphasize, “gender boundaries in the Middle East have been neither fixed nor immutable.”

This is an extremely rich book. Judith Tucker, for example, explores how women made different use of family relationships in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Palestine. Virginia Danielson analyzes the ways commercial female singers in Cairo of the 1920s negotiated their careers with public opinion and established networks of support. Beth Baron details how companionate marriage developed among urban middle- and upper-class Egyptians in the nineteenth century. She locates this new practice not in the direct importation of “Western” models but in specific, indigenous responses to socioeconomic developments, such as the 1907 economic crisis which inflated the cost of bride wealth and dowry out of the reach of most families. Her periodization counteracts both the reflexive notion that there is a single model of the “patriarchal family” in the Middle East as well as the often implicit, and a historical, assumption that “love” is a self-evident ideal for marriage. Donald Quataert draws on archival sources to describe women’s labor in households and small workshops in order to challenge the dominant thesis of Ottoman economic decline in the nineteenth century (premised on examinations of male guild activity). While European industrialization reduced urban guild activity, work by women in home manufacturing and the textile industry “sharply expanded” in some regions and sectors. This economic history “from below” demonstrates that the seemingly “ancient” divisions of labor may be more recently constructed and flexible.

In a particularly strong chapter on medieval legal discourse on hermaphroditism (a new subfield of European history launched with the 1978 publication of Foucault’s Herculine Barbin), Paula Sanders argues that gender definition was critical to socializing individuals and “determining what kinds of protection against social disorder needed to be employed.” Sanders posits a medieval Islamic “bipolar [sexual] view of the world” which contrasts with the “single-sex model” Thomas Laqueur described for the Greeks (from which Islamic medical theory is in part drawn). [1] She also notes that Islamic texts exhibit “a complete absence of the anxiety about homosexuality that pervades the European texts on hermaphroditism.”

Both Deniz Kandiyoti in Women in Middle Eastern History and Ahmed in Women and Gender in Islam interrogate a static linkage between Islam and patriarchy. Kandiyoti, comparing materialist models of patriarchy in Islamic societies in the Middle East, Eurasia and sub-Saharan Africa, foregrounds women’s agency by focusing on women’s strategies for coping with different systems of male dominance. She explains the apparent conservatism of many Muslim women not as “false consciousness” but as attempts to restore some of the benefits of what she calls the original “patriarchal bargain,” such as financial support or family power later in life.

Conversely, Ahmed proposes that the terms of the modern debate on women and patriarchy are rooted in the history of Islam. Her combination of a social history of Middle Eastern women and analysis of prescriptive gender ideologies may read at times as methodological inconsistency and does not always address the analytical relationship between ideas and practices.

Ahmed first reexamines pre-Islamic and Islamic history to explore how Islamic conceptions of gender were transformed by cultural, urban and class pressures into an orthodoxy which is oppressive to women. From this, she proposes the existence of a more egalitarian and less androcentric “ethical voice” of Islam which was institutionally silenced in the Abbasid period.

Using Egypt as a case study of the modern period, Ahmed argues that “the Victorian colonial paternalistic establishment appropriated the language of feminism in the service of its assault on the religions and cultures of other men, and in particular on Islam, in order to give an aura of moral justification to that assault at the very same time as it combated feminism within its own society.” Qasim Amin’s 1899 book, Tahrir al-Mar’a (The Liberation of Woman) marks the entry of a “colonial narrative of women and Islam — in which the veil and the treatment of women epitomized Islamic inferiority — into mainstream Arabic discourse.” Ahmed alleges that historians have treated the debate surrounding Amin’s book as one between “feminists” and “anti-feminists” because they have accepted uncritically this “originating Western narrative” on the veil. Rather, Ahmed points out, Amin’s work provoked controversy because he espoused the Western view of the inferiority of Islamic culture. As for Amin’s position on women, his book “merely called for the substitution of Islamic-style male dominance by Western-style male dominance.”

Ahmed traces how this bifurcated framework about women and Islam was replicated by succeeding generations of feminists: Huda Sha‘rawi and Malak Hifni Nasif; Durriyya Shafiq and Zaynab al-Ghazzali. She further contrasts the “lively feminism” of the 1950s and 1960s with the absence of an “overt concern with feminism” and a prevalent use of the veil in the 1970s and 1980s. Ahmed stipulates, however, that the latter period was not a “retreat from the affirmations of female autonomy and subjectivity.” If this is the story of failed feminisms, it is only because the debates — “another version of the old class warfare” — have already been programmed for defeat by the legacy of colonialism. Arab feminism has been stymied by terms set during the colonial period, which “has trapped the struggle for women’s rights with struggles over culture.”

In the end, Ahmed’s study calls for Middle Eastern women to disregard the colonial framework and begin to engage critically in “their own” cultural heritage. Ahmed counterposes, for example, Islamic orthodoxy with several early political and religious dissident movements that espoused non-misogynist interpretations of Islam: the early Kharijis, the Qarmatians, some of the more radical strains of Sufism, and the philosophy of Ibn al-‘Arabi which emphasizes the “feminine dimension of the divine and the complementarity of the sexes.”

This project of uncovering indigenous models of feminism which do not conflict with an Islamic heritage is also addressed in Women in Middle Eastern History. Cynthia Nelson examines the life of Egyptian activist and feminist Durriyya Shafiq, who was socially and politically marginalized in the Nasser period. Shafiq agitated for social reform and political and individual rights for women in an appeal self-consciously styled on the model of Egyptian territorial nationalism which deliberately excluded the Turco-Circassian elite but remained flexible to religious and urban-rural differences. In one of the most theoretically explicit chapters in the book, Nelson uses three sets of Shafiq’s memoirs to explore the historical interweaving of Islam, nationalism and feminism; the role of the intellectual in social change; and important methodological issues about representation in women’s history (especially in writing biography).

Both books suggest other questions about the complex linkages between gender, cultural practice and religion. For example, Kandiyoti’s “ideal-typical” analysis and Ahmed’s exclusion of non-Muslim Middle Eastern peoples from her study may facilitate orderly analysis, but both leave open the issue of how political structures articulate with cultural heterogeneity. If the inextricable linking of Islam and patriarchy is a colonialist construction, as Ahmed suggests, what socio-religious vocabularies and structures are most commonly shared between peoples in the Middle East, and with what effects? At what point and on what basis do larger cultural heritages or materialist practices fracture or cohere on issues of gender?

These two books also reflect a general bias in Middle Eastern scholarship which privileges Egypt as a research topic. The paucity of sustained comparative study between areas or countries limits debate over the interrelationship of gender, Islamism and nationalism. What can Ahmed’s or Kandiyoti’s explanatory frameworks offer on the situation in Iran, Algeria or Yemen?

Both books will provoke important debates about women in the Middle East and about writing women’s history. Ahmed’s strategy is to use gender to disrupt the larger historical picture; the approach of Keddie and Baron is to detail specific social histories and changes through time on a broad range of topics. Both signal an increased appreciation of the complexity of questions about gender in the Middle East. The veil of an unproblematic “Islamic patriarchy” may yet be lifted from its place in our collective representations of the Middle East.


[1] Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990).

How to cite this article:

Nancy Reynolds "Women and Gender in the Middle East," Middle East Report 190 (September/October 1994).

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