Women’s Struggles in the Arab World


Mapping Arab Women’s Movements:

A Century of Transformations from Within

Edited by Pernille Arenfeldt and Nawar Al-Hassan Golley

Cairo, Egypt: American University of Cairo Press, 2012, 392 pp., $34.50, hardcover

Reviewed by Marilyn Booth

For the past two years, across Arab societies, resistance in the streets to tyranny has brought issues of gender justice to the fore, even as women have been targets of politically motivated sexual violence. As so often in political struggle, in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere, women have been represented as symbols of both the with-it modernity of the oppositional movements and the retrograde status quo. Mapping Arab Women’s Movements provides country-specific narratives that focus historically and empirically on women’s varied activisms and how these have intersected with the rhetoric of competing political agendas. Like women elsewhere, Arab women in their own politically specific spaces have carried out their political work on behalf of female compatriots (and often male compatriots too) by creatively using (and dodging) these symbolic possibilities, as well as by simply getting on with the job at hand.

Nine countries in the region are mapped: Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Yemen, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. A tenth chapter describes Islamically oriented activisms in North America, while the editors’ introductory chapter assesses shared themes and challenges. An appendix reproduces a 2006 UN report, “Women’s Movements in the Gulf Countries.” Of course it is impossible to cover the entire region in one volume—and apparently the editors tried for comprehensive coverage—but it is unfortunate that no North African country apart from Egypt appears. A chapter on Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, or Libya could have illuminated, for example, the particular trajectory that struggles over Personal Status Codes (which define family law and other gender issues) have taken in this region.  

Not only do the narratives emphasize change “from within”; they do their mapping from within. The international group of scholars gathered here includes participants in movements they analyze, while interviews with activists comprise an important part of the research archive. The result is a panoramic yet exacting and example-filled portrait of each national scene, the authors of which are attentive to, as the editors put it, their “different forms of connectedness to the countries they examine.” They are also attentive to the political and human-ecological histories in which each national story unfolds. Rita Stephan’s chapter on Lebanon, for example, delineates how the peculiarities of that country’s elaborate, confessionally structured political system shape what women can do, yet also enable them to take political space, since the fragility of the system and its history of conflict make close control impossible. Eileen Kuttab explains that the implacable presence of the Palestinian national liberation struggle has required Palestinian women activists to work on the two fronts of gender equity and national sovereignty simultaneously, continuously, and in the face of near-constant reverses. The book is a fine introduction to the political history of these Arab nations as it relates to gender-based activism.

As the editors point out, many similarities cross national boundaries, and these similarities also link Arab feminisms to those in other world regions. Most women’s collective work in the region began with elite-led philanthropy, women’s literary associations, and journalism among tiny circles of literate women from the late nineteenth (Egypt, Syria, Lebanon), early twentieth centuries (Iraq, Palestine), and later (the states of and around the Arabian peninsula). Women were visible in all Arab national liberation movements, marching, organizing, offering material support (including arms smuggling), and sometimes fighting on the battlefield—like the multidimensional activist Nazik al-‘Abid, who fought with the Syrian Arab Army against the French in 1920. Anticolonial sentiment yielded new formations, for instance in Aden (South Yemen), where Yemeni women, marginalized by the British founders of the Aden Women’s Club, forced a leadership vote in the early 1950s and took over the organization—as Amel Nejib al-Ashtal describes in her engrossing chapter on Yemeni women’s movements.

From the start, issues of modernization and gender policies have been entangled and intertwined with concerns about taking Euro-American societies as models, particularly given western imperial powers’ heavy-handed presence in the region. Polarizations resulted that still define much of the rhetoric around gender justice: to act for greater gender equity was and is to court the ire of those who oppose any dismantling of patriarchal social arrangements. While religious doctrine is no more constitutive of antifeminist outlooks in the Middle East than it is anywhere else, religiously based ideology can be a vehicle for opposing women’s aspirations in the name of “tradition”—even when the content of “tradition” has no religious basis.

In some cases, when governments have tried to promote gender-neutral laws or policies, particularly in matters of personal status, they have been defeated by religious conservatives in the legislature. However, often it was such governments’ own repression of independent activist initiatives that left a vacuum in a nascent public sphere, which was filled by the religious discourses that have expanded their purchase across the region since the 1970s. In other cases, states and religious groups colluded out of shared interests, with women often becoming the victims of uneven and contradictory laws. Some revolutionary regimes—such as General Abd al-Karim Qasim’s in late-1950s Iraq, discussed here by Nadje al-Ali—made “progressive family law” or other pro-woman measures a core element of their vision and agenda, but their achievements often fell victim to abrupt political transitions. Iraq’s 1959 family laws, for example, were superseded once the Ba’th regime emerged and solidified into dictatorship. As Leslie Lewis shows in her chapter on Egypt, women working within a religiously defined framework (whether Islamic or Coptic) benefitted from earlier feminists’ success in achieving the rights to participate in public debate, education, and waged employment. Yet, they often found themselves working for goals similar to those of their predecessors and encountering similar obstacles.  Bringing women into the work force was crucial, but women-friendly policies were geared toward producing compliant subjects not toward reducing inequality or transforming gender relations.

Another commonality throughout the region has been women’s up-front contribution to nationalist movements, only to have gender issues ignored “come the revolution”—at which point women found themselves struggling to right the gender wrongs of new national but only ambiguously inclusive constitutions (this is currently going on in both Tunisia and Egypt).  Several authors trace the impact of international agendas, especially those crystallizing around the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), on local movements. Women have been able to utilize high-profile international achievements to pressure their governments into compliance. However, although many Arab governments have ratified CEDAW, they have done so with a range of reservations—a reminder of the region’s heterogeneous experiences and discourses. “While the reservations are explained with reference to Islamic shari‘a,” the editors note, “the variations between the reservations made by individual countries bring attention to the varying interpretations of Islamic law across the Arab region.”

These and other processes have led many women activists to rethink their terms of engagement: what discourse of rights and equity will best incorporate local needs and appeal to local sensibilities? This dilemma is one impetus behind the emergence of gender-justice campaigns rooted in reinterpretations of Islamic practice. Other gender-focused, religiously based initiatives, however, seek to maintain status-quo gendered hierarchies—just as the religious right has done in the US. In other words, in the arena of gender activism, religious discourses are malleable and varied. Indeed, religious and secular vocabularies are anything but isolated one from the other; the rhetorical opposition is mostly a recent one, a “putative polarity … [that] has gained discursive power not so much because it reflects reality, but because iterations of its message serve particular political interests,” both locally and internationally. One good example is the use of role models from early Islamic history. Since the late nineteenth century, activists of every stripe have drawn on the figure of Khadija—Muhammad’s sole wife until her death, a businesswoman, and his staunch supporter—to advance notions of gender equality and women’s public presence as foundational to Islamic practice. 

Much in this book will sound familiar to readers cognizant of women’s-rights histories elsewhere. The essays contest notions of “Middle East exceptionalism,” still so unfortunately persistent, though sadly they do so by showing how Arab women have faced the same kinds of constraints and obstacles as have women the world over, even as each struggle has its own indigenous roots.

As the editors point out, on the basis of these well-researched studies, many challenges remain, from internal issues of hierarchical organization to democracy deficits in the society at large that militate against independent activism and public debate on controversial issues. Continuing legal discrimination, objections to gender equity as an allegedly “foreign” concept, and notions that personal status issues are sacrosanct (and thus that domestic violence is “off limits”) are among the deterrents that movements for gender justice face. Pressures from foreign funders to focus on certain agendas may impede the work that locals most wish to do—while local NGOs are often accused unfairly of being foreign implants. Indeed, one feature common to all these national landscapes is the accusation that women’s activism is imported in its aims, methods, and rhetoric. Not only has feminism—even unnamed—generated accusations of cultural betrayal; it has also been accused of sanctioning “immorality”—just as it has often been in the West. For example, as Pauline Homsi Vinson and Nawar Al-Hassan Golley note, of interwar Syria, “many conservatives regarded the growing tendency by Syrian women to eschew the practice of veiling as a manifestation of western intrusion.”

That the editors have adopted the most capacious possible concept of “movement,” as a loose sense of “collective engagement” that does not presuppose specific organizational forms or intentions, or particular activist goals or agendas, allows contributors to emphasize the sheer heterogeneity of Arab women’s campaigns as well as the importance of informal groups, especially in conditions where the formation of civic organizations is discouraged or prohibited. Thus, contributors include in their discussions “informal organizations that, in retrospect, can be viewed as having contributed to greater gender equality, but do not have this as a stated priority.”  Compounding the complexity of definition is that activists have struggled for nearly one hundred years to come up with an Arabic equivalent for the European neologism “feminism” that would convey the indigenous purchase of the concept without the essentialism and ambiguity inherent in terms derived from the Arabic mar’a/nisa’ (woman/women). Yet by keeping “movement” and “feminism” so undefined, as practical as that may be, the volume risks leaving readers with a rich but bewildering array of information, unmatched by a clear but flexible analytic framework that would help them to think beyond the details.

Some contributors find the problematic term “state feminism” useful, though others do not use it in describing state initiatives. This volume might have been an appropriate site for subjecting that much-debated term to pointed scrutiny, since it can cover a myriad of approaches, many of which can hardly be considered “feminist.”

Still, on their own merits, these individual country studies are invaluable for their mostly succinct and careful narratives. Written before the Arab region’s recent eruptions of political opposition, they are historically grounded snapshots of the state of women’s activisms in the pre-“revolutionary” status quo. In Arab societies today, gender equity issues remain pressing and contentious, even as the ground is shifting. The determined, ongoing, strategic activism of so many individuals in so many venues, well-highlighted here, means that democracy movements throughout the region will not be allowed to isolate gender discrimination from other kinds of inequality.

Marilyn Booth holds the Iraq Chair in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She is writing a book about 1890s gender debates and early feminism in Egypt.

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