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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 of their conceptual framework 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 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 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, anthropologist Ruth Behar 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, as the editors note - it tends to detract from 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 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 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 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 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 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 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.

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, Long Beach.
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Author:Gluck, Sherna Berger
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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