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Dawn Chatty and Annika Rabo, Editors. Organizing Women: Formal and Informal Women's Groups in the Middle East. Oxford, UK: Berg Publishers, 1997. 236 pages + index. Paper $19.50.

THIS EDITED BOOK IS A COLLECTION of essays first presented at a workshop in June 1995 at the Centre for Cross-cultural Research on Women, University of Oxford, UK. To begin with, the book title, "Organizing Women", I thought, is very suggestive in terms of advancing a recognition of women's political subjectivity in the construction of their particular imagined community. Practices of social networks and group formations are posited as critical strategies of empowerment for women, which in turn enable them to exploit the political moment to speak out and to speak on behalf of women of similar concerns. (This is particularly observed in feminist organizations in Lebanon, Tunisia and Egypt). Equally important is to consider as the editors observe "what happens when women in the Middle East try to organize themselves?" Most revealing is the event that prompted the workshop, resulting from a lived frustrating experience encountered by a group of pastoral women in Oman who were refused government permission to org anize themselves independently, despite their success story in participating in income-generating activities. Women, in this instance, in the name of protectionism, were denied an autonomous public voice/space in negotiating their gender-specific needs, outside the boundary of domesticity. This event raises two interrelated issues: opportunities and constraints. It links economic opportunities with development as much as it highlights the limits of participating in development projects under a traditional regime of patriarchal ruling, where both public and private patriarchies retain utmost legitimacy over women. This is not to deny that controversial notions of traditional gender roles in society vis-a-vis their place on the scale of equality discourse remain central, yet critical, in the discursive positioning of women. These questions of opportunities and constraints/obstacles are captured throughout the readings, along with the dilemma faced by women when seeking a public space of their own (women only g roup) without becoming a place for men's use.

First let me situate the context and framework of the articles included here and then give a brief account in terms of thematic focus and general arguments. The book is comprised of 10 articles that cover a wide range of regional and geographical locations in the region of Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Effectively these studies are located in Arabic-speaking countries, including Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Morocco, with the exception of Senegal. While such groupings of countries amount to highlight the representation of the category, Arab Middle Eastern women, Chatty and Rabo, in their introductory chapter, rightly problematize the use of the term given its historical colonial overtone in representing women of the Middle East--voiceless victims who are mired in tradition and passivity. In addition, the fallacy of homogenization in using such term is highlighted by the authors as they draw attention to the existing vast differences not only in religious identity (Islam and Christi an) but also in existing cultural practices both between regions and within countries.

An important area on which the book is focused is the project of "modernity" and developmentalism. This includes themes of civil societies, the question of gender equality, nationalism, Islam and identity, and most of all, the (repressive) style of nation-building. These issues are considered in a number of articles and addressed in the context of recent and new development of women's groups. Broadly speaking, the articles can be divided into two fields of study: anthropology and sociology. The anthropological studies draw extensively on ethnographic fieldwork and provide rich detailed accounts of localized practices of women's activism. These are manifested in a ritualized form that follow a kinship model of networking and generally take extra domestic orientations. In fact, the readings force us to rethink the dichotomies of private/public world in a more fluid and interactive relationships. This is shown, for example, in Seteney Shami's ethnography of Palestinian women's domestic activism in Amman beyond the public/private divide, followed by Eva Rosander's accounts of different practices of kinship work among women's groups in Africa (Morocco and Senegal). Likewise, Suad Joseph's case study concerns itself with the Christian Women's League in Lebanon and critically addresses the reproduction of hierarchical practices of patronage/clientele relationships among women/feminists. What is refreshing about these studies can be seen in attending to the play of women's agency in reproducing and/or modifying kinship ties, against the commonly assumed notions of passivity and subservience. As Nancy Landisfarne remarks in her concluding chapter that women, like men, also seek to maintain the very symbolic practices of hierarchy in terms of status, prestige and power.

By comparison, other articles offer sociological analyses of womens political activism and draw links with recent political upheavals, economic development crisis and repressive politics of state apparatus. Given the significance of these phenomena in shaping the recent development of women's group consciousness I discuss in greater length some of the critical issues raised in these arguments.


The articles covering Egypt and the Gulf regions address the centrality of the state in strengthening women's social and legal positions in the name of nation-building. Towards the project of modernization during 1960s and 1970s women in particular have made remarkable advances in educational achievemnt and professional careers. In contrast, in the 1980s and 1990s, along with the recent shift to free market economy and globalization, such advances are shown to have been increasingly attacked by the state. Suffice to say that neither the process of modernization nor economic development projects have brought prosperity at least for the majority of the population in question. This condition is said to be shaped by several factors: the increasing rise in religious-based movements and their close affinity with patriarchal tendencies (Islamist and its variations), the use of repressive control mechanism by the state, and, significantly the failure of international development agencies, along with state-sponsored projects. It is in this context that the popular rise in anti-Western/anti-colonial sentiments promoted by Islamist movements have led to a counter discourse of gender equality. In other words when Islam is posited as a culture of resistance against economic marginalization and neo-colonial oppression the power of the discourse can be seen in making it extremely difficult for women of relatively lower socio-economic classes not to be united.

It is in this context that women's activism becomes visible and mobilized amidst an increasing tension between local narratives of nationalism and identity vis-a-vis the current conditions of socio-economic hardships. According to Shahida EI-Baz's reading of the Egyptian situation, the impact of both economic sanctions and the increasing withdrawal of state services due to structural adjustment development programs have led to greater gap between the rich few and the poor majority. In this critical stage of political instability and economic uncertainties the political mobilization of Islam as portrayed by women and men in Islamist associations becomes, particularly for the poor, a critical departure for relocating their subjectivity and identity. The complexity of these issues are also illustrated in the work of May Seikaly on Bahrain. In fact in a climate of political and economic insecurity, women occupy a vulnerable position and become easy targets of being positioned at once the problem and the solution . For example, in Egypt, among others, women are pressured yet again to quit their jobs and become full time mothers against instances of presumably child delinquency. Not surprisingly, women (as a group) despite their advancement in the field of education and profession, still implicitly inhabit the space of the "reserve army of labour," precisely because of the primacy attached to the discourse of motherhood and domesticity.

Undoubtedly towards the project of negotiating space and place in organizing themselves women's collective voice and agency is rendered critical in privileging particular meanings (as opposed to universal) in terms of locating their struggles. For example, in Egypt, El-Baz looks at the political nature surrounding women's activism from grass-roots levels to middle-class concerns. The contradiction of objectives among women activists are explained in relation to class locations along with ethno-sectarian affiliations, education and urban/rural discrepancies. Nadje AI-Ali, in turn, situates Egyptian women s political activism in the narrative of a politicized "liberation" struggle, be it from Western domination and control or feminist struggles for gender equality. Similarly, the situation of women in Bahrain and to a lesser extent in Kuwait, is not radically different. This is consecutively argued in May Seikaly's and Haya al-Mughni's readings of the situation by problematizing the multiple and contradictory political and economic class locations of struggles. However, the majority of women's activities, particularly in the Gulf region, tend to follow a rather traditional path of gender roles by prioritizing a family welfare agenda and charitable services.


For an overall review of women's non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the Middle East and North Africa Valentine Moghadam offers a wealth of information in terms of identifying the specific branches and activities, including the politics of representation advanced in these groups. NGOs, in particular, occupy a critical if not a conflicting position as they are linked to development agencies both nationally and internationally; thus they are more likely to be subjected to government constraints and cultural ideological pressure from within. Furthermore, NGOs tend to face greater control and censorship in countries that follow socialist political regime, such as Syria, Lybia and Iraq, as well as in non-democratic conservative regimes. These acts of control serve to repress the reality of women's problems/needs and compromise their welfare status. In principle, while these voluntary organizations take the form of civil society in terms of running their own affairs, in practice they are equally regulated and pressured, not unlike formal state-run women's organizations, by the machinery of state control and surveillance.

Not surprisingly that a great majority of these women's groups, including NGOs, are being compromised in terms of their issues and concerns by having to forge strong links with government institutions and/or to make alliance with male-dominated political parties/ideologies.

The exercise of power and control by male institutions simultaneously occur between private patriarchy in the domestic arena and public patriarchy in the public sphere. In the region of the Middle East it remains the case that despite the various political regimes, state control and censorship, coupling with increasingly public influence of religion retain supreme legitimacy in controlling women's voice; precisely since it is women who are perceived to potentially constitute a "moral" threat to the social fabric as a whole. The viability for establishing civil societies that advocate individual rights and speak of group interests outside the lens of patriarchal surveillance proves a challenging task if not an impossibility under the current social and political climate.

However, women's group formations have recently multiplied in the region of the Middle East. These range from feminist/women's groups concerned with legal and cultural reform movement, Islamist women s associations that advance a complementary model of gender equality, professional voluntary associations to fend off discriminatory sexist practices, charitable societies for promoting community welfare and significantly service oriented NGOs, primarily concerned with anti-poverty and women's welfare projects. While these women's groups vary greatly in terms of their specific agenda and priorities it could be argued that their mobilization into a new use of public space signifies a sense of political presence/visibility that cuts across and beyond public/private power struggle. In general terms, women of the Middle East can be grouped into two camps: those who ally themselves with the renewed forces of "traditionalism," signifying a return to "authentic" cultural and family values, and those who promote the not ion of the "modern" subject, advancing a political discourse of gender equality and citizenship rights. It could be argued that the latter is likened to a Western version of liberal feminism, under which women, like men, are being reconfigured as equal members of the nation-state. Significantly, the establishment of feminist consciousness and groups, while concerned with improving legal and economic social conditions of women per se, is nevertheless primarily limited to and consumed by college educated and professional middle-class. Evidently, for the poor and the marginalized the struggle is to be seen in relation to their practical survival needs, as against promoting strategic gender interests that require fundamental legal and cultural reform movement. It remains the case, however, that currently women's activism is still caught between an age-old-paradigm: political Islam and cultural "modernity," both of which are inscribed in the narrative of developmentalism.

To conclude, women are continually faced with the situation of negotiating their political subjectivity/agency between two modes of patriarchy: private patriarchy that is enacted in the authority of men over women in family and personal matters and public patriarchy as manifested through the state and increasingly the religious establishment, particularly Islam. Interestingly enough public patriarchy co-exists in ambivalence with private patriarchy in that it reinforces and at the same time contradicts women's subordination to male authority. Perhaps it is at the point of ambivalence and confusion, inhabited as the space in between, that women's resistance to being treated as second class citizens will continue to grow. It is only then, I would argue, that women might establish a space of their own without being at once a doubling of placeness.

Nabila Jaber teaches in the Department of Feminist Studies, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.
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Title Annotation:Review; Organizing Women: Formal and Informal Women's Groups in the Middle East
Author:Jaber, Nabila
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2001
Next Article:Religious Minorities in Iran.

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