Feminist Solidarity in the Middle East through the Lens of Gender

by Thisuri Wanniarachchi


In 1965 Elizabeth Fernea is exposed to the life and culture of the Iraqi village El Nahra. She is invited to dine with the Sheik and is introduced to the Sheikh’s Harem. It is through these women and the many others that she meets in El Nahra she is introduced to the gender- grounded social norms of Iraqi society that are vividly surveyed throughout her novel Guests of the Sheik. She takes great pains in this book to debunk the notion of the “passive middle-eastern woman” by portraying how women achieve agency through their cultural beliefs of the “moral woman” (the woman who wears the burka and respects the traditional, religious and familial expectation of a woman.) In the mid 1970’s anthropologist Erika Friedl sets out to Deh Koh, an Iranian village, to study the role of women in Shiite communities of Iran. Thirty five years of research later she writes her essay A Thorny Side of Marriage (1991). Her argument is that opposing the cultural and historically evident norm of having girls wedded in their preteens, often before the onset of puberty, in late 20th century Iran, there is an increasing number of women choosing “autonomy” and freedom through education and jobs, over early marriage. In 2004 Saba Mahmood publishes her book Politics of Piety, a provocative critique of secular and liberal frameworks, based on her research in 1995-1997 Cairo, Egypt. In it she explores the Egyptian woman through a close examination of the women’s mosque movement in Egypt where women are active social agents. In this essay I plan to use the writing of these three anthropologists and their research and views on the power and role of gender in Middle-eastern society, to explore how they all contribute to the construction of a broader argument of feminist solidarity, despite all the baggage and chaos of transitions that surround this most misinterpreted and stereotyped region in the world.

The evolution of Fernea’s impression of the Middle Eastern woman throughout Guests of the Sheik is quite though- provoking on its own. In this stimulating ethnography, Fernea finds herself embracing this new culture and understanding it for what it really is: tradition built on deep rooted, well thought out ideologies of Islamic society. She is impressed by the discipline, and the attention to detail that El Nahra’s culture composes itself with. For example it is dawned on her, through her interactions of other women who chose to wear the abaya, that the abaya, protects females and does not necessarily handicap them or control their mobility. She no longer protested against the segregation of women from men as the typical westerner in her often used to, as she now knew that women themselves have no objection towards it. She came to understand that it was a choice; a well-respected and accepted one.

In a more recent book In Search of Islamic Feminism, she speaks of how Islamic feminism attempts to regain consciousness of a core component of early Islam: devotion to women’s rights. Fernea argues that modern Islam puts in great effort to make the element of the female gender in Islam one of its central “national, cultural and religious” priorities. She also emphasizes on the contrasting natures of western and Islamic feminism. She argues that Western feminism is considered unnecessary in the Middle- east because the outcomes expected from Western feminism already exists in Middle eastern society. “My attempts to talk about a female view point generally drew blank looks until a woman in Saudi Arabia answered, “What’s so new about that? In our society, we’ve

always had female perspective”…I began to wonder if this particular philosophy of Western feminist thinking was ignored in Middle-eastern societies because it was already present there and taken for granted.” 1 In countless means, Fernea explains that, “ours (West’s) is still a cultural feminism – in other words, try not to be too feminine, try to focus on your mind and try not to focus too much on your makeup and clothes.” She argues that when women in the U.S. struggle with body image concerns, struggling to portray an image of a “natural” beauty “that is often artificially defined through marketing schemes”, Middle Eastern women will say: “What’s wrong with being feminine, that’s a road to power.”2
She states in In Search for Islamic Feminism, that since westerners “had no access to the female sphere in Middle Eastern society, they were inclined to exoticize or devalue it.” Largely the observation of the Middle Eastern woman involved a “secluded odalisque” she says, “ a lazy, sexy lady in a harem veiled from all men but her husband.” She states that the current day image is often “of an abused housewife forced by her husband to don a veil. One can trace the stereotype of the passive, downtrodden Middle Eastern, African, Asian woman to the pre-feminist academic world.”3 In all her work she fights to explain to the western reader the common notion that the veil is not barrier that hold middle- eastern women back. “Sometimes this dress gives women extra authority as they struggle to achieve gender equality.”
Erika Friedl’s work observes gender through the lens of marriage, or the process and need for marriage. Although traditional Iranian societies believed in the idea of early marriage mostly due to the top heavy male- female ratio in Iran, Friedl argues that this culture has begun to change in recent times. “More and more demand a voice in whom they are going to marry, or else they choose a marriage partner themselves. More and more young unmarried women are living not at home but in dormitories as students or, if they are working, on their own or with female roommates. Finally, more and more young women who don’t have jobs live at home with their parents throughout their teens and beyond. Divorce is becoming more frequent, as well. ”
Friedl’s work focuses on this new social change that has begun to occur within Iranian women. It is a society of women in transition, a rebellion, if you will, in solidarity, with an understanding of each other’s injustice of being pressured into early marriage. “Although Iran has no official forum for rethinking restrictive assumptions about men’s and women’s nature and about marriage, these assumptions have come under scrutiny. Despite harassment in the streets by men, pressure at home to get married, the need for circumspection in public, sexual urges, and the wish for children, young women now press for what we would call “autonomy” and they call “freedom,” a freedom they don’t easily find in marriage. The casting of marriage as confinement and as antithetical to work and study and to “getting somewhere,” as they say, amounts to a critique from within of this fundamental institution. This trend toward a critical evaluation of women’s fate, as it were, meets with resistance from a great many conservative men and women, who see it as the beginning of the end of life as they think it ought to be lived. But it also meets with hopeful encouragement from many others, who say that their religion implies equality of the sexes and liberation from unnecessarily confining marital practices”

Saba Mahmood‘s ethnography explains the ways in which Cairene women succeeding the mosque movement do not follow a secular-liberal vision of feminist agency and resistance. In disposition of post structural feminism, Mahmood does not assume a Western “resistance in the face of power” but instead evaluates how these women produce an ethic of piousness, and a unique sense of agency, by the process of veiling.
Politics of Piety; The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject critically incorporates the breakdowns of ‘Western’ secular feminism by observing the lives of pious Muslim women in Cairo, Egypt. Mahmood observes and interviews people in three mosques: Umar, Ayesha and Nafisa. She observes that women who visit the Umar mosque are mostly housewives, and working class women on their way home. They come in various forms of dress, but most are in full face and body veil. The Ayesha mosque is located in a poorer neighborhood where there are sounds of birds chirping, street market noise, and school children screaming. the women who attend this mosque are more poorly educated. The Nafisa mosque has the largest female audience of all mosques in Cairo. 500 women attend the weekly lesson, housewives and students. Mahmood’s detail explanations of the women’s broad ranging social classes, economic status, level of educational qualifications, emphasize on the fact that despite all their differences, they found a common ground in their religion and gender; their role of being a Muslim woman. It is this sense of feminist solidarity that leads the way to the Women’s Mosque Movement. Mahmood’s writing and research establishes an important mediation at a point in time when secular feminist discourses are increasingly active across the political sphere in anti-Muslim dialogues around the world.

Mahmood’s, Fernea’s and Friedl’s work deeply explore the element of gender in the Middle East to contribute to the greater argument that the middle-eastern woman, as misinterpreted as she is, is unique, powerful, culturally driven so much so that she goes beyond the expectations of Westertern Feminism, to redefine womanhood and create a more feminine, confident, mutually respected and united womanhood than that of the ideal post-modern, western woman.


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