Women, Structure, and Agency in the Middle East: Introduction and Overview to Feminist Formations' Special Issue on Women in the Middle East

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  • Women, Structure, and Agency in the Middle East: Introductionand Overview to Feminist Formations' Special Issue on Womenin the Middle East

    Valentine M. Moghadam

    Feminist Formations, Volume 22, Issue 3, Fall 2010, pp. 1-9 (Article)

    Published by The Johns Hopkins University PressDOI: 10.1353/ff.2010.0022

    For additional information about this article

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  • 2010 Feminist Formations, Vol. 22 No. 3 (Fall) pp. 19

    Women, Structure, and Agency in the Middle East: Introduction and Overview to Feminist Formations Special Issue on Women in the Middle East

    Valentine M. Moghadam

    In many ways, the recent past has not been kind to women of the Middle East. Economic stagnation, the spread of patriarchal Islamist movements, the per-sistence of the authoritarian state, the nonresolution of the PalestinianIsraeli conflict, and the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq all have left their mark on the legal status, economic well-being, and security of Middle Eastern women. And yet, despite these travails, and to a certain extent because of them, women in the Middle East and North Africa have developed strategies for survival and empowerment and have evolved in ways that shatter every stereotype that has represented them as victimized, passive, and traditional. They are building strong womens organizations, conducting research, demanding equal citizenship, and networking internationally. In the process, they are changing the nature of the public sphere and helping to build civil society in their coun-tries; and they are helping to shift the balance of feminist powerin terms of conceptual and strategic innovationsfrom North to South.

    Three important events related to womens rights in the region have marked the first decade of this century. The first was the reform in 20032004 of Moroccos personal status code (the Mudawanna) granting Moroccan women new rights; this followed a long struggle to which Moroccan womens groups and a regional feminist network, the Collectif 95 Maghreb Egalit, had made indispensable contributions. The new Moroccan family law has been called epochal in nature. The second event concerns the 2004 Arab League Summit held in Tunis where the host nation surprised the other member states by

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    calling upon them to consider the promotion of the rights of Arab women as a fundamental axis of the process of development and modernization of Arab societies (Labidi 2007, 7). While this statement implies something unique about Tunisias approach to womens rights, it is also suggestive of the recognition slowly being accorded to womens participation and rights, as the Arab Human Development Report series also confirms. The third event was the emergence of a vocal and visible feminist movement in Iran in 2005 through such campaigns as Stop Stoning Forever and especially the One Million Signatures Campaign for equality and legal reform, along with the massive participation of women in the Green Protests of the summer of 2009. Clearly, this is not a region that is unchanging, nor is it one in which women are simply victims of oppression or bystanders to events.

    Women in the Middle East constitute a diverse and heterogeneous popula-tion and their social positions within and across countries vary by social class, ethnicity, and urban/rural location. Macro-level factors that shape womens legal status and social positions are the countrys social structure and stage of development, as well as the nature of the state and its economic, social, and cultural policies. There is no archetypal Middle Eastern Woman but rather women in quite diverse socioeconomic and cultural arrangements.

    Women are likewise divided ideologically and politically. Some women activists have aligned themselves with liberal or left-wing organizations; others have lent their support to Islamist/fundamentalist groups. Some women reject religion as patriarchal; others wish to reclaim religion for themselves or to iden-tify feminine aspects of it. Some women reject traditions and time-honored cus-toms; others find identity, solace, and strength in them. More research is needed to determine whether social background shapes and can predict political and ideological affiliation but, in general, womens social positions have implications for their consciousness and activism.

    Despite this diversity, there are at least two common characteristics that are particularly noticeable when comparisons are made with women and gender relations in other regions of the global South, such as Latin America and East Asia. One is relatively limited access to paid employment and under-representation in the political system; the other is that women in nearly all the countries of the region experience second-class citizenship that is inscribed in Muslim family law and reflected in patriarchal cultural practices and norms. Both issuesunderrepresentation in the economic and political domains and discriminatory family lawsare at the heart of contentious politics involving womens rights groups, governments, and conservative movements. And they are the subject of a now-prodigious scholarship in Middle East womens studies, produced both by women from the region and by feminist scholars from the global North.

    The articles in this special issue of Feminist Formations, along with the film and book reviews, illustrate the points made above while also showing

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    the range of conceptual and methodological approaches that now character-ize feminist scholarship of, about, or from the Middle East. The contributions include cultural, historical, and social-scientific studies, and they demonstrate the qualitative and quantitative research methods deployed by individual scholars and by research teams. Topics include women, gender, and national identity; women, work, and occupational choice; leadership and decision making among women; the situation of women in a war zone or under occupation; transnational linkages; literary and artistic production by and about women; and forms of resistance to domination. It is entirely fitting that a special issue of Feminist Formations be devoted to feminist scholarship of the Middle East. Politically, not all articles agree with one another on matters pertaining to patriarchy or womens activism but it is precisely this illustration of the diver-sity of approaches in Middle East womens studies that makes this special issue distinctive, and from which the broader community of feminist scholars and educators can benefit.

    Women as Activists and Leaders

    In Tess Pierces article Singing at the Digital Well: Blogs as Cyberfeminist Sites of Resistance, we become aware of blogging as cyberfeminism. Pierce introduces us to Riverbend, an Iraqi whose blog was called Baghdad Burning and who is now living in Syria (as are so many Iraqi refugees). Among other things, the article elucidates the multiple identities of an individual woman in the Middle East: (Secular) Muslim, family member (daughter, sibling, cousin, grandchild, and so on), (Iraqi) woman, computer programmer, warblogger, and world (blogosphere) citizen. Pierce also shows us how Riverbend was learn-ing to become a political leader and activist through blogging, which was her training ground. And even when the weblog was not overtly political, Pierce argues, it did exemplify the feminist mantra that the personal is political. The invasion and occupation of Iraq and the devastating effects on the population have become the subject not only of political debates but also of many academic studies, including trenchant feminist critiques. This article reminds us of Iraqi womens agency, resistance to oppression, and technological fluency.

    In the Middle East, as in other parts of the world, occupational sex-segregation remains the norm, but occasionally one observes women entering into traditionally male-dominated occupations. A recurrent feminist question is: What happens or, more precisely, what changes, when women enter such occupations? In that vein, Staci Strobl asks, are policewomen in the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) progressive or neo-traditional? Her answer is that they are both: On the one hand, the policewomen are in a nontraditional occupation, and as such they are challenging traditional gender roles, but on the other, their role as policewomen is neo-traditional in at least two ways. First, they handle the soft areas (my words, not Strobls) of children, women offenders,

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    and expatriate households; and secondly, the policewomen seem not to have any sympathy with migrant workers and do not seek to protect them, instead viewing them as do most of the nativesthat they should be happy making money in the Gulf countries. While women should be present in diverse occupa-tions and professions for the sake of equality and rights, feminists should not be under any illusion about the extent of institutional change, especially in such domains of the states repressive apparatus as the police force or the military.

    Susan Madsen examines the early life experiences of a sample of UAE women leaders. The article is distinctive in that it draws attention to the absence of women in managerial, executive, leadership, and decision-making positions in the UAE (and in Middle East countries in general), along with the paucity of scholarship on women and leadership in Middle East womens studies. The barriers and challenges that women face are formidable: Employer biases and discrimination; negative perceptions of womens professional capabilities and commitment; segregation of sexes and workplace relationships; and lack of networks and professional associations. Nonetheless, women leaders are found throughout the region. In the case of UAE women leaders, Madsen finds that three critical factors were key, all of them common to the six women she inter-viewed: Open-minded fathers; good higher education; and a habit of reading books early in life. She also found, however, that her women leaders seemed to emulate male patterns of elite behavior, including a certain imperious manner. An example is that they tended to cancel or change appointments at the last minute or without explanation. Obviously, what is needed is a new concep-tion of leadership, such as that promoted by a transnational feminist network called the Womens Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP).1 Madsen does not pursue this line of inquiry but future research should include interviews with womens rights activists from the Middle East or Muslim-majority countries who are involved with the WLP, and the extent to which they have adopted an alternative form of leadership that is democratic, nonhierarchical, ethical, and participatory.

    Palestinian womentheir movements, travails under the occupation, sociodemographic trends, and ideological divisionshave been the subject of many studies. Ashgan Ajour reviews the 2008 book by Islah Jad, The Palestinian Feminist Movements between Nationalism, Secularism, and Islamic Identity. Jad argues that the womens movement has shifted from a social movement with grassroots organizations and political consciousness to a set of professionalized and disparate networks and NGOs. In her book, Jad criticizes those women-led NGOs that espouse a discourse of universal rights and are divorced from national rights: The secular women could only reproduce liberal feminist discourse with its dominant ideology that excludes the Other. As a result, the Islamists discourse on gender does not necessarily emanate from religion but rather is a reaction to secular feminist discourses and claims. According to Ajour, Jad asserts that the Palestinian womens movement now lacks the

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    capacity to mobilize the masses and lead to sustainable change; by contrast, Islamist women have succeeded in mobilizing a huge number of women to engage them in Hamass political fights. Ajour adds that I view such success as more beneficial for menand I could only agree. Ajours review of Jads book shows that the Palestinian womens movement today is as divided as the national movement is, with less-than-promising implications for the status of women.

    Hannah Rought-Brooks, Salwa Duaibis, and Soraida Hussein continue the discussion of Palestinian women and show how they are caught in the crossfire between occupation and patriarchy. The article is concerned with the diverse forms of violence experienced by Palestinian women: From male relatives, as well as from Israeli soldiers and settlers. The authors are all associated with the Womens Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling (WCLAC), an important Palestinian and feminist institution working on reforming the personal status laws, combating violence against women, and increasing womens political participation. It faces many obstacles, however, from both Palestinian society (conservative forces) and the Israeli occupation. The Israeli house-demolition policy and other human-rights violations perpetrated by the Israeli occupation have had a terrible impact on health, education, an adequate standard of living, work, and family life. The frustrations and indignities of everyday life contribute to violence against women by male kinwho unfortunately enjoy impunity for their actions. As WCLAC leader Maha Abu-Dayyeh states: The struggle for womens rights is formidable under ideal circumstances but in a situation of a militarized conflict the task becomes overwhelmingly difficult.

    Feminist Attitudes and Praxis among Palestinian Women Activists is the subject of the detailed study by Randa Nasser, Fidaa Barghouti, and Janan Mousa. The authors begin by citing scholar Julie Peteet to the effect that for many Palestinian women activists, political activism was being grafted onto domesticity, politicizing and mobilizing the domestic sector. At the same time, Palestinian women activists are praised for their vanguard attempts to chal-lenge gender hierarchy and patriarchal cultural norms, while simultaneously struggling for their national liberation from Israeli colonization. The article examines feminist attitudes and behavior (praxis) of 205 women activists along several dimensions: Stance toward womens mental and physical abilities; traditional/nontraditional gender roles; exploitation of women; mens control over womens bodies and lives; and rights and opportunities. The results are interesting: Women are more likely to express support (over 70 percent) for absolute equality in protection from violence, decisions on the number of chil-dren, educational opportunities, and wages. Some 68 percent support equality in the choice of spouse. However, the authors find less support for decisions on family finances, inheritance, political participation, employment opportunities (only 56 percent), equality in personal status laws (55 percent), and freedom of movement (53 percent). This may be surprising but it should be noted that Palestinian social indicators and sociodemographics are not very promising and

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    show some regression, especially in the area of family planning. At the national level, just 15 percent of women above age 15 have postsecondary education, and just 17 percent of working-age women participate in the labor market. In Gaza, fertility rates have gone up and teenage marriage rates among girls are high. Clearly, patriarchal attitudes and practices persist, exacerbated by the distortions caused by the Israeli occupation.

    As for egalitarian marriage, the authors cite one leftist woman: My hus-band truly believes in gender-role equality but he is not used to doing housework and often forgets or ignores his domestic responsibilities ... and I end up caring for his needs more than he does mine. As every feminist in the world knows, this is a universal problemand it is recognized as a problem by many women activists and leaders in the Middle East.

    One of the sources of the persistence of patriarchy in the Middle East is family law. Legal scholar Lamia Rustum Shehadeh examines the rather com-plicated set of family laws in Lebanon and the efforts to effect gender-relevant legal change since 1999. Shehadeh does a fine job of explicating the very complicated legal system that includes sixteen different codes for eighteen dif-ferent religio-ethnic groups! She details all the different codes and then con-trasts them to civil and secular laws, including labor law and the Penal Code. She provides many examples of gender injustices in Lebanon: For example, the Penal Code still allows a rapist to escape prosecution by marrying his victim; there is adultery of the wife though not of the husband; and abortion is a crime. The array of Lebanese family laws is the legacy of the old French law of femme couverte, as well as Shariah-based notions of guardianship: Upon marriage, the wife loses most of her civil rights; she becomes the ward of her husband and assumes a subordinate legal position. Shehadeh explains that in 1996, then-president Elias Harawi proposed an optional civil family law that was endorsed by many womens groups but was fiercely opposed by conservative forces who mobilized against it to defeat the proposal. Ironically, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women has been signed by the Lebanese governmentthough with numerous reservations pertaining to family status. Shehadeh concludes that Lebanon remains a highly patriarchal society in need of a uniform and gender-egalitarian civil code and family law.

    Women and Work

    Patriarchy and political economy alike tend to depress both demand for and supply of female labor. In countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, and Turkey, women are only about 20 percent of the salaried labor force. Middle-class, educated women may have more occupational choice but they have begun to experience unemployment. Prior research (including my own) has pointed to education as key to womens advancement but there now tends to be high unem-ployment among certain types of graduates in the Middle East, such as those

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    from technical/vocational schools in Egypt. Working-class or under-educated women from low-income families have limited options and can be found in all manner of informal, home-based, or irregular work.

    What else do we know about women, work, and economic participation in the Middle East? Research has shown that employers view married women in particular as more costly and less reliable, as they are likely to take maternity leaves and are believed to be more focused on family than work (Moghadam 1998, 2003). Public-sector employment is shrinking, thus limiting employment opportunities for educated women; meanwhile, the private sector is not woman-friendly. Women-owned businesses are growing but they are still underrepre-sented in the business sector, especially among large businesses. NGOs have become attractive employment sites for women, as they offer an alternative work environment; this is especially the case with domestic-advocacy NGOs and the local offices of international NGOs. Womens underrepresentation in the political domain means that advocacy for womens economic participation and rights tends to be relegated to the womens NGO sector.

    Belks Kmbetoglu, I nci User, and Aylin Akpnar take up some of these issues in their article on unregistered Turkish women workers in the textile, services, and food industries. Here, they discuss precarious employment in the context of neoliberal globalization, the loss of social power and membership by unions, and the lack of enforcement of worker rights. Estimates are that hidden economic activities may constitute 2550 percent of all economic activities in Turkey and typically are tied to export industries through a chain of subcon-tracting. The women engaged in such work tend to be poorly educated and unskilled, propelled by poverty or economic need to take such work to augment the household budget. Issues and problems that they encounter include sexual harassment, low wages, lack of social insurance, poor working conditions, and an unhealthy workplace environment. Such work hardly alleviates the womens poverty but rather expose[s] these women to a continuous cycle of low wages, abuse, and health hazards. Solutions have been proposed by the 2008 Initiative for Female Labor and Employment: Widen the scope of employment security; create incentives for registration of small-scale businesses; increase wages in female-intensive industries; adjust work hours to harmonize work and family life; and provide child-care facilities. These are reasonable and progressive proposals but will the Turkish state implement these measures to guarantee the social and economic rights of working women?

    In Egypt, Moushira Elgeziri interviewed sixty women of ages 2040 working in the informal labor market. This is just a small segment of the women gradu-ates of commercial schools engaged in precarious employment in the informal economy. In Egypt, commercial schools constitute a secondary-school track for those who intend to go into technical work or entry-level white-collar work. It has been called the poor sister of general education and the graduates tend to hail from working-class families with illiterate parents. Elgeziri addresses

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    the issue of the intersection of gender and class, including the importance of connections (wasta) and cultural capital in obtaining good jobs; and she examines perceptions of certain types of jobs (such as working in shops, which is not considered desirable or appropriate). Many of the available jobs that are advertised are geared to upper-middle-class graduates of universities with knowledge of computers and foreign languages. The women graduates of the commercial schools hope to become accountants, clerks, or secretaries but what they find instead are jobs as shop assistants, assistant teachers in kindergartens and schools, typists and secretaries in small businesses and NGOs, and even as domestic maids. The working conditions, including sexual harassment, are often such that staying at home becomes an attractive option (if at all possible). The womens vignettes that Elgeziri shares with us point to the status rigidity in Egyptian social structure, as well as the limited options available to the women graduates of these technical schools.

    The author is thus skeptical of the capacity of education to contribute to womens advancement. But in Egypt (and some other countries in the region), the problem seems to be threefold: The deteriorating quality of education; economic stagnation and the lack of job creation in the formal sector; and the persistence of gender biases. At the very least, governments need to invest more in teacher training and job creation and to enforce anti-discrimination legisla-tion, in order to make education worthwhile for the daughters of working-class and low-income families.

    Concluding Comments

    The turbulence and dramatic changes of recent decades have affected Middle Eastern women in different ways. Social and political change in the region has been neither linear nor uniform, but contradictory and paradoxical. The effects on women have been similarly complex, as Sheherazade Jafari shows in her reviews of two books on gender, politics, and state-building in Egypt and Iran, and as seen in Leyla S imsek Rathkes review of autobiography and Kemalist republicanism. But women have hardly been passive onlookers; instead, they have actively taken part in movements for social and political changerevolu-tion, national liberation, human rights, and democratizationand they have formed and led their own movements. One is struck by womens agency, their creativity, and their innovations. The articles in this special issue attest to this, as do the reviews. Indeed, the film reviews point to filmmaking as both activism and sociology. One film is about Baghdad before and after the American inva-sion; another puts the spotlight on a Palestinian woman from Gaza divorced by her IsraeliPalestinian husband and her heartbreaking attempts to seek justice, as well as access to her children. Another film discussed in this issue concerns an Egyptian Jewish family facing Islamismreminding us, poignantly, about the strains on multiculturalism in the Middle East. Finally, and on a more uplifting

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    note, the film Persian Wedding charmingly engages with bi-cultural and cross-cultural issues in connection with an aroosi. (Disclosure: I reviewed the film positively prior to its release.)

    And there is more going on in the region. In Morocco, having helped bring about the family-law reform, feminists are now engaged in a coalition with human-rights organizations and physician groups to decriminalize abor-tion and thus amend the penal code. In Iran, the One Million Signatures Campaign for repeal of discriminatory laws has mobilized thousands of young women, and even young men, in a vast, grassroots, and door-to-door effort, including street theater and role-playing, that is also a crucial exercise in citizen-led democracy-building. In Tunisia, the Association Tunisienne des Femmes Dmocrates launched the regions first centre dcoute, or counseling center for women victims of harassment and violence, setting in motion similar initiatives throughout North Africa and the Middle East, most recently in Egypt. Such women are not acting out roles prescribed for them by religion, culture, or the neo-patriarchal state; they are questioning their roles and status, calling for greater rights, participating in movements, building coalitions, making films, writing books, and undertaking sophisticated feminist analyses.

    Valentine M. Moghadam joined Purdue University in 2007 as a professor of sociology and womens studies, and director of the Womens Studies Program. From May 2004 to December 2006 she was chief of the Section for Gender Equality and Development, of the Social and Human Sciences Sector of UNESCO, in Paris. Prior to that, she was a sociology professor and womens studies director at Illinois State University and senior research fellow at the United Nations Universitys (UNU) WIDER Institute. Moghadam was a member of the UNU delegation to the World Summit on Social Development (Copenhagen, March 1995), and the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, September 1995). Born in Tehran, Iran, she received her higher education in Canada and the United States. Moghadams areas of research are globalization, revolutions and social movements, transnational feminist networks, and womens employment in the Middle East. She has authored or edited eleven books, lectured and published widely, and has served as a consultant to many international organizations. She can be reached at vmoghada@purdue.edu.


    1. This is elaborated in the WLPs signature manual, Leading to Choices: A Leader-ship Training Handbook for Women (Mahnaz Afkhami, Anne Eisenberg, and Haleh Vaziri [2001]). For further information, see .