In the past two decades, there has been growing interest in the study of women and gender issues in the Middle East, reflected in the greater number of books, journal articles, dissertations and conference panels devoted to such topics. [1] As a result, many scholars in Middle East studies have come to view the study of women and gender in the Middle East as a field in and of itself. [2] Elizabeth Fernea’s 1986 presidential address to the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) is considered a milestone in the evolution of Middle East women’s studies as a distinct field of inquiry. [3] Marking the occasion of MESA’s twentieth anniversary as well as the founding meeting of the Association of Middle Eastern Women’s Studies (AMEWS), Fernea gave an optimistic account of the contribution of women’s studies to all areas of Middle East studies. She concluded that:

women’s studies, like Middle East studies, has come of age as a field. It has not only carried us, as ethnocentric Westerners, into previously unexplored areas of the world which we thought we knew, but it has also opened new areas of inquiry for ourselves and our students. [4]

Critics, however, have argued that the greater visibility of scholarship on women and gender issues in the Middle East does not necessarily signify a conclusive triumph nor a qualitative transformation in gender awareness within the field. In 1988, less than two years after Fernea’s address, the MESA Bulletin published an article by Margot Badran that offered a more cautious review of the emerging field of Middle East women’s studies and critically examined the potential for, and obstacles to, its institutionalization. [5] Badran challenged the widely held view that Middle East women’s studies emerged as a distinct field only in the late 1970s with the publication of Elizabeth Fernea and Basima Bezirgan’s Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak and Lois Beck and Nikki Keddie’s Women in the Muslim World. [6] In contrast, she pointed out that “a generation earlier, foreshadowing the creation of the new field, Zahiyya Dughan, a Lebanese delegate to the Arab Women’s Conference in Cairo in 1944, called upon Arab universities to accord the intellectual and literary heritage of Arab women a place in the curriculum by creating chairs for the study of women’s writing.” [7]

In addition to placing the development of Middle East women’s studies in the Western academy in the broader context of Arab women’s scholarship and activism, Badran’s article assessed the representation of women’s studies and gender issues at MESA conferences. She pointed out that the first papers on women and gender issues at MESA — 12 papers and two panels — were delivered in 1973 and that, following a slight increase in 1974, the number of panels stayed the same in 1975. Despite this fairly impressive beginning, Badran described a “slump period from 1976 through 1983 when the number of papers diminished.” [8] In 1984, however, there was a dramatic increase in papers on women and gender issues (37), yet the number dropped to 19 in 1985. Badran used these numbers to illustrate her more cautious argument about the persistent challenges facing scholars working in this field. She concluded that “the study of women remains marginal within Middle East studies, while women’s studies still remain largely centered on the West.” [9]

Given these contrasting views, it is helpful to examine what has changed in the representation of women and gender issues in Middle East studies over the past decade as documented in MESA conference programs, membership directories and graduate and undergraduate course listings. As the table below demonstrates, whereas the number of panels devoted solely to women and/or gender issues has not changed dramatically in the past decade, there has been a slight increase in the percentage. [10] Perhaps the most interesting trend highlighted in the table involves the increase in the number of women and gender papers on non-gender panels. This number has steadily grown in the past decade from four papers in 1986 to 28 in 1997, indicating an increase in the overall representation of women and gender issues on the conference program. This accomplishment reflects a conscious attempt by scholars to present their work on general panels in order “to have gender issues become a fully integrated part of academic inquiry.” [11] Indeed, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of scholars who included women and/or gender issues in their research interests. In the 1996 MESA directory, for example, 381 members mentioned these issues, compared to 150 in 1992 and only 79 in 1986. [12]

These numbers lend some support to the optimistic claim that women and gender issues are moving closer to the center of the research and teaching agenda in Middle East studies. But if this is indeed the case, one would also expect to find a large number of course offerings on women and gender issues in the Middle East. Yet, the 1995-1996 MESA Directory of Graduate and Undergraduate Programs and Courses lists only 46 courses with women and or gender issues in the title offered in North American institutions and four in other parts of the world. In other words, the vast majority of the full-time faculty who listed women and gender issues as one of their research interests do not teach a course on these issues. It is possible, however, that many have integrated these issues into other courses on the region, and that additional courses on these issues are occasionally taught under the category of “special topics.” Nevertheless, the overall picture suggests that the project of integrating women and gender issues into the Middle East studies curriculum is far from complete.

This problem may be related to the challenges facing Middle East studies more generally due to its interdisciplinary nature. Despite the lip service paid to interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching, curriculum changes occur primarily at the departmental level. Thus, scholars who teach in institutions without Middle East studies programs encounter the double challenge of developing and teaching Middle East courses as well as pushing for the integration of women and gender issues into their discipline’s curriculum. Some disciplines are more hospitable to the integration of women and gender issues into their undergraduate and graduate curricula than others. Topping the list of home disciplines for those scholars who declared women and gender studies among their research interests are anthropology with 74 scholars, history with 72, political science with 35, literature with 32, sociology with 30, Middle East/Near East studies with 21 and women’s studies with 20 scholars. Badran concluded her 1988 article with the recommendation “to accelerate the institutionalization of Middle East women’s studies within the context of Middle East studies.” [13] Yet the efforts of the past two decades have not transformed curricula. Since there are many more scholars interested in these issues today compared to a decade ago, we should step up our efforts to integrate women and gender studies into the curricula both within our home departments and in interdisciplinary programs, such as women’s studies, cultural studies and general education. Whenever possible these efforts should be related to existing university initiatives designed to diversify and internationalize the curriculum.

One cannot overemphasize the importance of cultivating the relationship between scholars interested in women and gender studies in the Middle East and women and gender studies programs in general. On a pragmatic level, in addition to being natural allies in struggles concerning curriculum transformation, women’s studies programs have served as support systems for scholars working on women and gender issues in the Middle East and have been indispensable in several tenure battles of feminist scholars. On a theoretical level, it is imperative that we keep up with debates within feminist theory as well as with the expansive body of literature on women and gender studies in other parts of the world. On a political level, we should take advantage of the relative space that exists in most women’s studies programs to raise critical and provocative questions concerning such issues as the representation of non-Western women and the cultural origins of certain gender practices. Since media representations of women and gender practices in the Middle East tend to be sensationalist and stereotypical, it is our task to counter these simplistic portrayals with more nuanced images and sophisticated analyses.

Similar initiatives are necessary within the field of Middle East studies.Scholars who write on women and gender issues have been at the forefront of theoretical, methodological and political debates in the field and it is important that we not only continue to participate in these discussions but also that we play a more active role in defining the terms of such debates. This implies moving beyond the “add women and stir” approach to an emphasis on gender analysis as a way to unravel structured inequalities, power asymmetries and patterns of inclusion and exclusion. This agenda would transform the field of Middle East studies so that women and gender issues become central rather than marginal. Toward this end, we must make explicit the gendered nature of the field and its theoretical, methodological and political underpinnings. On a more pragmatic level this project implies asking such questions as why only two women have been chosen since 1986 to be MESA’s Annual Meeting Visiting Scholars and why the 1993 MESA conference was the only time in the past decade that women and gender issues were featured on special plenary sessions. [14]

These questions are not designed to spoil the celebration of the important gains we have made in a relatively short time but rather to point out that critical issues concerning the integration of women and gender studies within Middle East studies remain. To overcome the challenges facing us we must explore new ways to make Middle East studies more hospitable to feminist and gender analysis and to make our scholarship more relevant to the daily struggles of ordinary women and men in the Middle East.


[1] A library search using “women,” “gender” and “Middle East“ as key words shows that almost 100 books and over 275 journal articles, including book reviews, have been published on these topics in the past decade. This number includes only English language publication and does not include contributions to edited volumes, dealing either with the Middle East or with women and gender issues in other parts of the world. Another interesting trend involves the growing number of doctoral dissertations on the topic.
[2] See for example Beth Baron, “A Field Matures: Recent Literature on Women in the Middle East,” Middle Eastern Studies 32/3 (July 1996), pp. 172-186.
[3] During the first two decades the discourse has stressed mostly “women,” and “omen’s studies.” In the past decade, however, the word “gender“ has become more central to these debates. This development has been influenced by similar trends in women’s studies.
[4] Elizabeth Fernea, “MESA Presidential Address, 1986,” MESA Bulletin 21 (1987), p. 7.
[5] Margot Badran, “The Institutionalization of Middle East Women’s Studies in the United States,” MESA Bulletin 22 (1988), pp. 9-18. The article was the basis of a presentation at the 1987 MESA conference as part of a panel titled “Studying Middle Eastern Women: The First Two Decades,” chaired by Elizabeth Femea. This panel, brought together participants on the 1974 MESA panel, titled “Middle East Women,” also chaired by Elizabeth Femea, in an attempt to review interim developments in Middle East women’s studies.
[6] Elizabeth Warnock Fernea and Basima Quattan Bezirgan, eds., Middle Eastern Women Speak (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977); Lois Beck and Nikki Keddie, eds., Women in the Muslim World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978).
[7] Badran, p. 9.
[8] Ibid., p. 11.
[9] Ibid, p. 9.
[10] The table reflects the total number of panels and papers on women and gender presented at MESA from 1986 through 1997. Papers on the first panel dealing with sexuality (1997 conference) were also included in this category. The table distinguishes between panels that focus solely on women and gender issues and general panels that include one or more papers on women and/or gender issues. Papers and panels were classified based on their titles. I am aware, however, that there may have been papers which addressed gender issues without stating this in the title.
[11] Correspondence with Eleanor Doumato, editor of the AMEWS Review, October 26, 1997.
[12] A closer examination of the profile of scholars interested in women and/or gender issues, featured in the 1996 MESA membership directory, reveals that 237 hold permanent academic positions, 118 are graduate students and 26 are professionals working in the field but not in academic institutions. The 1986 numbers are taken from Badran, p. 14.
[13] Badran, p. 17.
[14] Deniz Kandiyoti was the visiting scholar in 1993 and Hanan al-Shaykh in 1994.

How to cite this article:

Simona Sharoni "Women and Gender in Middle East Studies," Middle East Report 205 (Winter 1997).

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