Reconstructing Gender in the Middle East: Tradition, Identity and Power.
This anthology is firmly anchored in, and derives its strength from its engagement with feminist debates on the construction of gender. The cogent analysis by the editors in their introductory essay and the explication ex·pli·cate
tr.v. ex·pli·cat·ed, ex·pli·cat·ing, ex·pli·cates
To make clear the meaning of; explain. See Synonyms at explain.
[Latin explic of their conceptual framework For the concept in aesthetics and art criticism, see .
A conceptual framework is used in research to outline possible courses of action or to present a preferred approach to a system analysis project. is exemplary, as is the geographic and disciplinary coverage they have mustered. Turkey, often slighted in anthologies, here is represented in two of the essays, as is Morocco, Iran and Israel. Together they account for eight of the fourteen essays, while Egypt and Palestine are the focus of the other two country-specific ones. Most of the essays were presented originally at a 1991 University of Michigan (body, education) University of Michigan - A large cosmopolitan university in the Midwest USA. Over 50000 students are enrolled at the University of Michigan's three campuses. The students come from 50 states and over 100 foreign countries. conference on "Gender and Society in the Middle East." The presenters, from the disciplines of history, anthropology, sociology, political science, and literature, all seem to have had some affiliation with the institution. Wisely, the editors cast a wider net and commissioned several other essays.
In the introduction - oddly, their only written contribution - the editors argue for the necessity of focusing on experience and voice in order to recapture agency for those "doubly hegemonized" by western cultural imperialism Cultural imperialism is the practice of promoting, distinguishing, separating, or artificially injecting the culture or language of one nation into another. It is usually the case that the former is a large, economically or militarily powerful nation and the latter is a smaller, and patriarchy. These two concepts delineate the underlying methodology for the volume. The essays are divided into three separate sections - tradition, identity and power - introduced by historian Juan Cole John "Juan" Ricardo I. Cole (born October 1952 in Albuquerque, New Mexico) is an American professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. , anthropologist Ruth Behar Ruth Behar (born Havana, Cuba, 1956) is a Jewish Cuban American anthropologist, poet, and writer who teaches at the University of Michigan. After receiving her B.A. from Wesleyan University in 1977, she studied cultural anthropology at Princeton University. and literary scholar Anne Herrmann respectively. As compelling as this organizing principle seems - especially since these have so often been the defining constructs in Middle Eastern women's studies women's studies
pl.n. (used with a sing. or pl. verb)
An academic curriculum focusing on the roles and contributions of women in fields such as literature, history, and the social sciences. , as the editors note - it tends to detract from detract from
verb 1. lessen, reduce, diminish, lower, take away from, derogate, devaluate << OPPOSITE enhance
verb 2. the complex and permeable relationship between tradition, identity and power.
Some of the best essays in the collection do just that - or at least raise provocative questions about this relationship. For instance, Farzaneh Milani, in Part I (Reconstruction of Tradition) explores the way that Iranian poet Simin Behbahani Simin Behbahani  (Persian: سیمین بهبهانی) (born July 20 , 1927, Tehran, Iran) is one of the most prominent figures of the modern Persian literature and one of the most outstanding amongst the subverts inherited verse forms, even to the extent of reversing the usual gender roles of male observer/lover and female observed/beloved. Spared the fate met by others who dared to challenge authority, her work remains available. One wonders, however, how it is interpreted/used by Iranian women readers in their ongoing efforts to refashion Re`fash´ion
v. t. 1. To fashion anew; to form or mold into shape a second time.
Verb 1. refashion - make new; "She is remaking her image"
redo, remake, make over identity, and even to re-assert power.
Leila Hessini's essay does not leave us guessing. She demonstrates quite convincingly how the donning of the hijab by contemporary Moroccan women is a reappropriation of "tradition" that has enabled them to forge new identities and has provided a means of empowerment. Her work also broadens the discussion on "reveiling," which has concentrated so heavily on Egypt.
The other piece in this section, by Zehra Arat, exposes the illusory nature of Mustafa Kemal's "state feminism." While not offering a particular new insight, this article helps to sort out the complicated relationships among feminists in Turkey today, the focus of Yesim Arat's essay in Part II. These two articles on Turkey by political scientists seem oddly misplaced mis·place
tr.v. mis·placed, mis·plac·ing, mis·plac·es
a. To put into a wrong place: misplace punctuation in a sentence.
b. in sections on tradition and identity respectively. They would have had considerably more impact in the section on the reconstruction of power (Part III), alongside Diane Singerman's engaging exploration of the way that women's power is played out in everyday life in the popular quarters in Cairo.
Part of the difficulty in the placement of these pieces is not only the discrete way that tradition, identity and power are treated, but also the fact that the editors chose to focus on power mainly in its symbolic form: text (voice) rather than behavior (experience). This emphasis, reinforced by Anne Herrmann's introduction to Part III, is most clearly seen in Elizabeth Bergman's essay on the use of Moroccan Arabic parables. Citing Bakhtin, she deliberately refuses to contextualize con·tex·tu·al·ize
tr.v. con·tex·tu·al·ized, con·tex·tu·al·iz·ing, con·tex·tu·al·iz·es
To place (a word or idea, for example) in a particular context. the use of the parables. As a result, her argument that the ambiguities and contradictions of the parables "provide women a means to negotiate for power within the circumscribed circumscribed /cir·cum·scribed/ (serk´um-skribd) bounded or limited; confined to a limited space.
Bounded by a line; limited or confined. boundaries of home and family" (p. 201) is unconvincing. Ultimately, her focus also relegates women to the private sphere, a notion that has been discredited by most scholars of Middle Eastern women's studies.
In contrast to Bergman's decontextualized analysis, Miriam Cooke carefully embeds her literary analysis in social reality. Comparing the literature of war written by Palestinian, Lebanese and Iraqi women, and contrasting it with the earlier literature by Algerian women, she argues that this post-colonial literature has been transformative. Leila Hudson's exploration of the gendered underpinnings of Intifada chants and songs (in Part II, on identity) would have been nicely juxtaposed jux·ta·pose
tr.v. jux·ta·posed, jux·ta·pos·ing, jux·ta·pos·es
To place side by side, especially for comparison or contrast. here, pointing to the conditions under which gender boundaries are reinscribed rather than transformed. Together with Israeli-Palestinian novelist Anton Shammas' short article on the "genderization" of Arab/Palestinian presence in Hebrew literature, these three pieces raise provocative questions about the differences between men's and women's war literature. One only wishes that the tone of Shammas' piece was less flippant flip·pant
1. Marked by disrespectful levity or casualness; pert.
2. Archaic Talkative; voluble.
[Probably from flip. .
The middle section of the book on the reconstruction of identity (in which Hudson's and Arat's essays discussed above appear) includes one of the best essays in the entire collection, Erika Friedl's "Notes from the Village: On the Ethnographic Construction of Women in Iran." Friedl engages us totally as she leads us both through her own changes in thinking and to increasingly nuanced questions about the study of shifting identities. Clinical psychologist Rachel Persico's reflections on growing up in Israel pale by comparison, especially since the Ashkenazic discovery of the "equality bluff" is old hat. It would have been nice to see, instead, a sample of the new scholarship on the construction of Israeli Mizrahi identity.
Despite their unevenness, the essays in this anthology are an important addition to the growing literature on gender in Middle Eastern societies and lend themselves to classroom use. The book would have been improved had the editors written a concluding chapter that addressed both the complex interaction of tradition, identity and power and that drew on the creative tension between, and at times contradictory implications of, some of the pieces.
Sherna Berger Gluck is Director of the Oral History Program, Department of History, and Lecturer, Women's Studies, at California State University Enrollment
, Long Beach.