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New Texts Out Now: Maha El Said, Lena Meari, and Nicola Pratt, Rethinking Gender in Revolutions and Resistance

[Cover of [Cover of "Rethinking Gender in Revolutions and Resistance: Lessons from the Arab World"]

Maha El Said, Lena Meari, and Nicola Pratt, editors, Rethinking Gender in Revolutions and Resistance: Lessons from the Arab World. London: Zed Books, 2015.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this book?

Maha El Said, Lena Meari, and Nicola Pratt (MES/LM/NP): The book emerged initially out of a three-year project between the University of Warwick Centre for the Study of Women and Gender and Birzeit University Institute of Women’s Studies, funded by the British Academy, and entitled “Reconceptualizing Gender: Transnational Perspectives.” This project culminated in a workshop in July 2013 at the University of Warwick, entitled “Rethinking Gender in Revolutions and Resistance: Lessons from the Arab World.” This edited volume includes some of the papers from that workshop.

We were motivated to put together this volume by the limited amount of academic literature on women and gender in the wake of regional social-political transformations since the end of 2010 (notable exceptions are articles by Nadje Al-Ali, Hoda Elsadda, and Diane Singerman, and a special issue of the Journal of North Africa Studies, edited by Andrea Khalil). This is in stark contrast to the huge amount of “gender-blind” books that have been published about what has problematically become to be known as the “Arab Spring.”

This absence of gender was surprising, given the unprecedented media attention to Arab women during the mass protests and uprisings and in the political process following on from these. However, for the most part, these media reports were problematic, as they failed to go beyond either celebrating women’s participation in the uprisings and mass protests or bemoaning the threats to women’s rights posed by newly empowered conservative forces (notable exceptions are online think pieces by Deniz Kandiyoti, Maya Mikdashi, and Sherene Seikaly amongst others). We believed that neither of these positions fully encapsulated or explained the shifts in gender relations and gender norms that occurred both leading up to and since the mass protests and uprisings of 2010/11.

Moreover, by presenting 2010/2011 as the starting point in a discussion of gender in the Arab world, these narratives erase a long history of women’s resistance activities and civil society dissent, including women’s involvement in struggles against colonialism and foreign occupation, for democracy, and around social justice. Moreover, they are often infused with orientalist assumptions about the Arab world and homogenize women’s experiences across time and space, ignoring issues of class, nationality, and other axes of social difference.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

MES/LM/NP: The volume’s main concerns are the transformations in gender norms, identities, and roles intrinsic to the political upheavals since 2010, as well as resistance and dissent before then. The point of departure assumes that an attention to gender sheds fresh light on understanding the contemporary social-political transformations in the Arab region. Yet by taking gender dynamics and women’s issues in the Arab world as a point of departure, we do not intend to single out women from their social-economic-political contexts. Rather, we aim to deploy feminist analysis as a tool in order to shed light on overlooked aspects of social-political transformations. The volume explores both continuities and ruptures in gender roles, relations, and norms resulting not only from the dramatic uprisings and protests occurring since the end of 2010 but from other moments of upheaval and resistance. We seek to capture the complex constitution of women’s subjectivities and agency in relation to structures of power, which cannot be reduced to gender. The volume also considers the ways in which women’s bodies become objects of control by different actors in order to mark the past from the present in processes of political and social change—with particular consequences for different women—but equally how women’s bodies become powerful tools of resistance against dictatorship, colonialism, and patriarchy. Moreover, we seek to challenge the constructed binary of religion versus secularism that often frames evaluations of socio-political transformations in the Arab world, particularly in relation to the situation of women, whereby secularism is assumed to be a marker of “progress” and religion a marker of tradition or even “backwardness.”

The volume begins by addressing the complex multiple layers of analysis required in order to situate the socio-political events that were reduced under the term “Arab spring.” These events include peaceful protests and sit-ins, armed conflicts, Imperialist geopolitical proxy wars, state fragmentation, counter-revolution, political repression, and authoritarian renewal. The volume then discusses some of the existing arguments regarding gender and sociopolitical transformations.

The three main themes discussed in the volume (which form the basis for organizing the different chapters) are: the malleability of gender and sexuality in revolutions and resistance; the body and resistance; and gender and the construction of the secular/Islamic binary.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

LM: The book’s themes intersect with my academic and political interest in revolutionary movements, anticolonial feminism, and critical epistemological and ontological frames for approaching gender and women issues in the Arab World. My chapter in the book reflects my theoretical/political interest in anticolonial struggles and the significance of approaching colonialism from the viewpoint of resistance. The chapter is a continuation of my previous work on the Palestinian anticolonial praxis of sumud and the possibilities it opens for destabilizing colonialism and transforming society.

MES: This book brings together my social and political activism and my research interests. With the revolutionary wave that swept the Arab World, the “woman question” came into prominence once more, with the same old approach and attempts to relegate women to the domestic sphere and suppress women’s political participation, which was forcefully resisted by women. Therefore, I felt it was important to address this by reexamining and redefining the state of women and by taking a critical look at shifting social relations.

NP: The book has enabled me to develop further my longstanding interest in the relationship between gender and geo/political processes in the Arab world, such as my previous work with Nadje Al-Ali—for example, What Kind of Liberation? Women and the Occupation of Iraq (2009) and Women and War in the Middle East (2009). In particular, working on this book has led me to rethink my epistemological approaches to the study of gender in the Arab world.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MES/LM/NP: The original empirical material and new theoretical contributions make this volume an important resource for teaching both Middle East studies and gender studies courses, as well as for scholars and researchers interested in the gendered dimensions of sociopolitical transformations and women’s agency during periods of sociopolitical upheaval. In addition, we hope it will find a place beyond academia, attracting a general readership amongst those who are interested in justice and democracy movements in the Arab world, including the role of women within them. Given that the book challenges some of the assumptions underpinning Orientalist/Eurocentric attitudes towards “Saving Muslim Women,” it is probably a far-fetched dream to believe that the volume would be of interest to policymakers and practitioners within NGOs and multilateral organizations working on projects to support women’s participation and “empowerment” from a narrow liberal-secular viewpoint.

J: What other projects are you working on now?       

NP: I am currently finishing the manuscript for a monograph exploring middle class women’s activism in Egypt, Lebanon, and Jordan from independence until the Arab uprisings. The book documents the changes in women’s activism over this period; writes women’s activism into the histories of these countries; and attempts to reconsider women’s activism beyond instrumentalist accounts.

I am also preparing for a new project that seeks to develop a political economy approach to understanding gender norms, identities, and relations in the Arab world, in the context of neoliberalism.

MS: I am currently busy with establishing an anti-harassment and anti-violence against women unit at Cairo University, which involves a lot of research and organizing of gender training and awareness campaigns. I am also leading the Evalgender + Chapter in the MENA region, which is an initiative that advocates gender-sensitive programing and evaluations.

Finally, I am starting a translation project to produce an anthology of Arab-American women writers in Arabic. The aim of this anthology is to throw light on the construction of Arab-American feminism, which has flourished on the hyphen between the Middle East and the United States.

LM: I am currently working on a project on colonial geography and gender in Palestine. The project traces the cumulative consequences of systematic colonial violence and dispossession in what is called “Area C” concerning gender roles, responsibilities, relations, and life opportunities and the responses to them. It further examines how forms of developmental and humanitarian interventions by international, national, and local organizations affect the population in “Area C,” particularly women from different age groups.

I am also working with colleagues from Birzeit University on a book project on political incarceration in colonized Palestine.

J: How does this book differ from other attempts to think about women's agency and gender dynamics in the wake of the Arab Uprisings?

MES/LM/NP: As noted above, gender dynamics and women’s agency have been marginalized in the scholarship on the Arab uprisings and the histories of the Arab world more broadly. Our volume builds on existing work in the field of studies of gender and transformations in the Arab world, including studies of women’s participation in political struggles and social movements in the colonial and post-colonial periods, and studies of the gendered dimensions of processes of geo/political, economic, and social changes.

Our volume moves debates further by problematizing dominant ontological and epistemological frameworks for thinking about women’s agency and the importance of gender dynamics in sociopolitical transformations in the Arab world. In particular, it draws on Judith Butler’s reconceptualization of agency as a process of resignification in order to understand women’s agency as performative of sociopolitical transformations, rather than merely instruments of such changes. The volume highlights the diverse modalities of women’s agency and the creative ways in which the “local-cultural-religious” is resignified and subverted in women’s praxis and claims-making, thereby contributing to transformations in gender norms that cannot be reduced to either “Western-liberal-secular-feminist” or “local-cultural-nationalist-religious” frameworks. Finally, the volume illustrates how the forging of alternative gender norms is integral to resisting authoritarianism and colonialism, thereby obliging us to rethink “the political” in revolutions and other transitions.

Excerpts from Rethinking Gender in Revolutions and Resistance: Lessons from the Arab World

From Chapter One, “Reconstructing Gender in Post-Revolution Egypt,” by Shereen Abouelnaga

The prefix “post” might suggest that the Revolution is over, either in the sense of being crushed or having fulfilled its aims. I use “post” in neither senses because I fully adopt the slogan “the Revolution continues.” The prefix means what happened after the famous “eighteen days.” Egyptians also generally use the word “revolution” to refer to the same period (25 January – 11 February 2011). The title of this chapter is highly misleading in another sense. It suggests that “reconstructing gender” has been a corollary of the Revolution. Perhaps the Revolution has been one of the epistemic incentives but not the only one. It seems that the huge numbers of women who took to the streets during the eighteen days in 2011 led the media, analysts, writers, and observers to conclude that such a conspicuous presence meant that gender was being revolutionized. It is impossible not to notice the plethora of studies, articles and conferences that took the Egyptian and Tunisian Revolutions to be markers of the liberation of women. Surely, this is an oversimplification that does not take into consideration the mish-mash of socio-cultural complexities along with power relations. To conflate the public sphere with the streets and to assume that women were previously physically incarcerated is quite a mistaken hypothesis that keeps generating more simplistic views about the dynamics and polemics of the context. It was a Revolution against the corruption and barbarity of a regime—with a special focus on the physical torture that had become systematically perpetrated by the security services—in which almost every citizen was willing to play a role regardless of gender, religion or class. Gender roles and women’s rights were not listed on the agenda of protesters, in spite of a few feeble unheard voices; and, in retrospect, that was the mistake.

This chapter argues that the initial formulation, or rather unfolding, of new constructs of gender appeared as a result of the incessant violations of women’s rights, where the body stood as the main protagonist. That is to say, gender became a priority when the Utopia of the eighteen days turned into a dystopia.

From Chapter Seven, “Islamic Feminism and the Equivocation of Political Engagement: ‘Fair Is Foul, and Foul Is Fair,’” by Omaima Abou-Bakr

The recent rise and fall of the Islamist rule in Egypt calls for reflection, not just on the role of Islamic feminist ideas in society, but also on the shifting political grounds and questions of ethical and principled opposition. The presentation of this subject does not take the approach of the usual secular-Islamism binary or a criticism of secular liberalism, but is rather focused on a critique of any feminist movement, be it secular or Islamic, that allows itself to be co-opted and silenced by corrupt political regimes. I attempt to conceptualize and articulate an ethical politics for the Islamic feminist trend, not necessarily or not only defined by its contrast to secular or liberal feminism in Arab context. The Islamic feminist orientation in Egypt so far has been mainly concerned with the areas of discourse and religious knowledge, critiquing patriarchal interpretations and advocating feminist justice within and through Islam. In other words, it began as a theological and knowledge project, with definite potentials of being a useful resource for legal reform for women, but lacked a strong activist dimension. Therefore, I am arguing that if Islamic (not “political Islamist”) feminists wish to grow and develop into a conscientious social and activist movement—especially in this region at this historical juncture, they need to take stands vis-à-vis the politics and ethics of both the religious establishment and the ruling regime.

This chapter, in its first part, will discuss the general issue of the precarious relationship between feminists and the state, especially in the modern Egyptian context, and, in its second part, will look into the moral ambiguities associated with Islamic feminism’s political stands.

From Chapter Eight, “Islamic and Secular Women’s Activism and Discourses in Post-uprising Tunisia,” by Aitemad Muhanna

This chapter explores the construction of an Islamic-secular feminist binary in Tunisia and the historical and contextual reasons behind its amplification in post-uprising Tunisia. The research analysis draws upon empirical data collected from a large number of female political figures and women activists working in Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), which mostly emerged after the Tunisian uprising. The research participants were from two sites: Tunis, the capital, and Kasserine, an interior poor region located in the middle west of Tunisia. They include Islamic women activists and secular feminists and female leaders belonging to different political parties, human rights and feminist organizations, in addition to independent academics, researchers and activists.

This research demonstrates that the “Islamic-secular feminist binary” in the Tunisian society is artificially constructed and does not reflect the actual gender politics adopted by the two self-identified groups. The de facto division between Islamic and secular women’s activists and organizations is not based on two different ideological orientations (i.e. Islamism versus feminism). Rather, it is influenced by multiple political, social, cultural, geographical and more importantly subjective factors reflecting the different individual experiences and histories of women leading these organizations. Both Islamic and secular women’s groups and organizations appear not to be homogeneous. There is a wide range of diversity in their interpretation of gender and gender politics and their understanding of women’s equal rights responding to the fluid and unstable political power relations, regardless of different ideological orientations. Gender politics as a result remains contingent and unpredictable, reflecting changes in the political equation of power in post-uprising Tunisia.

[Excerpted from Rethinking Gender in Revolutions and Resistance: Lessons from the Arab World, edited by Maha El Said, Lena Meari, and Nicola Pratt, by permission of the editors. © 2015 Zed Books. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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