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Transgressions and "Bad Girls".

This is a collection of essays, personal and academic, that employ or investigate figures of the "bad Arab girl." Each of the collection's twelve chapters illustrates how a particular example of transgression, whether (un)intentional, fabricated, or circumstantial, produces the label of badness.

Co-editor Nadia Yaqub debunks the notion that transgression is a synonym for resistance in this collection. Instead, she associates it with "acts of negotiation and naming" in addition to resistance, as well as with the visibility of women's bodies (p. 7). Describing transgression as "multivalent and open to interpretation," she compellingly encourages readers to attend to nuances, teasing out patterns and particularities in how transgressions are contingent and tracing how they unfold and accrue significance (p. 3). Her introduction also offers a short section that problematizes Orientalist, paternalistic, and culturalist Western analyses of Arab women's oppression.

Yaqub writes that transgression "allows us to sidestep fraught questions surrounding agency and instead direct attention to how women negotiate the structures in which they are embedded with varying degrees of freedom and constraint" (p. 6). To frame this decentering, she argues that while Saba Mahmood's work on pious Muslim women is valuable, (1) it still eludes Linda Zerilli's observation that a completely independent agent does not exist (2) (p. 6). While I appreciate that Yaqub strategically centers the book's analyses and narratives in lieu of theoretical debates that might be unduly distracting, she does, in fact, single out two women, Samar Yazbek and Nada Prouty, as "independent agents" on account of their break from natal families or communities (p. 13). This situates Yazbek's and Prouty's transgressions in a depoliticized equivalence and indicates that the gesture of decentering agency upholds a narrow definition of the concept. My critique here is not an argument for agency's centrality; rather, I am questioning why the delineation of contextual particularities appears as a paradoxical attempt to circumvent and uphold individualistic, liberal feminist assumptions. It is precisely because the collection's range of transgressions discourages closural definition or reductive valorization that Yaqub misses a valuable opportunity to pose questions about how transgression, agency, justice, and power structures are related, (3) on the one hand, and how one might practice the recognition of agencies, on the other. (4)

Though transgression is offered as a dynamic shaping inquiry outside of value judgements, Yaqub slips into perplexing valorization in her reductive framing, on page 1 7, of Randa A. Kayyali's essay on CIA agent Nada Prouty. Kayyali, in her reading of Prouty's strategic self-construction as a formerly oppressed Arab girl "liberated" into becoming an American patriot, situates Prouty's gendered mobilizations of the "good American" and "bad Arab" in the imperialist discursive field of U.S. politics (p. 69). Where Kayyali "illustrates one narrative of ethnicity, gender, and immigrant status that can be sold to a general American audience" (p. 65, emphasis added), Yaqub merely identifies a bad Arab girl's story of survival. This moment forecloses deeper interpretations of Kayyali's contribution to the collection's "landscape of badness" (p. 17) and fails to question a dubious feminist imperative to extol agency.

That said, the collection offers valuable and interesting essays, among them Kayyali's. I will highlight the ones I found most engaging.

Co-editor Rula Quawas, who passed away in the summer of 2017 before the book was published, shapes her essay, "Inciting Critique in the Feminist Classroom," around a video by four students about sexual harassment on Jordan University's campus. The video, posted online without the students' consent, elicited mixed reactions as well as misogynistic backlash, most notably by the university's administration. Quawas situates her students' work within the feminist classroom's capacity to foster critical thinking, self-reflection, and the "ability to imagine and articulate big questions from multiple perspectives" (p. 26). While this essay creates a problematic binary of feminist agency vs. feminine passivity, it offers an urgent and heartfelt argument for feminist pedagogy.

Adania Shibli's "The Making of Bad Palestinian Mothers during the Second Intifada" investigates the bad Arab girl in the context of mother-blaming. Shibli traces the development and dissemination of the "official narrative that claimed that Palestinian mothers were sending their children to death" once it became impossible for Israel to deny its murders (p. 93). In countering this racist misrepresentation, Shibli notes how such a narrative robs Palestinians of "the right to protest their deaths" (p. 106) and identifies shahada (martyrdom) in Palestinian mothers' discourse as "a means of organizing grief" throughout decades of ongoing settler-colonial violence (p. 107).

In '"They Are Not Like Your Daughters or Mine': Spectacles of Bad Women from the Arab Spring," Amal Amireh problematizes the abstraction of women's bodies in celebratory and cautionary discourses of the Arab Spring. Amireh challenges the notion that women's bodies are mere "sites and texts" and "insist[s] on the centrality of their gendered embodiment" (p. 114). The essay focuses on Fayda Hamdi, a Tunisian police officer who allegedly slapped Muhammad al-Bu'azizi, and Libyan Iman al-Obeidi, who was raped by Qadhdhafi's men. Amireh's analysis reveals the contradiction between the media's mythmaking and these women's narratives: Hamdi and al-Obeidi's embodied selves are precisely what disrupts their iconic status, for their transgressions emerge from the fact that "[t]hey do not lit the sanctioned scripts available to them--as silent victims or as outspoken women of courage" (p. 126).

Besides the collection's relevance to women's studies, four of the essays offer contributions to transnational literature and culture studies. One such work is "Reel Bad Maghrebi Women," by Florence Martin and Patricia Caille, which attends to gendered representations in Maghrebi films geared to international (Western) audiences. The authors situate "reel bad Arab girls" in relation to early Maghrebi cinema as well as globalization's cultural politics, analyzing women's representations in three films that reject both Eastern and Western "regimes of truths" (p. 170). "New Bad Girls of Sudan: Women Singers in the Sudanese Diaspora," by Anita H. Fabos, reads three Sudanese singers in the diaspora as transgressive figures on account of their "Sudanese origins, global visibility, and challenges to the ethnic, religious, class, and gender status quo" (p. 186). In "Syrian Bad Girl Samar Yazbek: Refusing Burial," Hanadi Al-Samman discusses Yazbek's political opposition as transgressive to her familial ties to the regime. She illustrates how Yazbek's witness accounts of the war in Syria name criminals, resurrect dead voices, and create a "relational encounter with the space and its people that underscores discontinuity, defiance, effective opposition, and survival" (p. 161). The artistic performance piece "Suspicious Bodies" shows Rima Najdi's persona Madam Bomba donning a fake TNT suit in the streets of Beirut. Though the polyvocal form is interesting, the questions and reflections emerging in encounters between performer and audience/participants are somewhat underwhelming.

Overall, Bad Girls of the Arab World is a most welcome contribution to the held of women's studies. It is relevant to courses that examine representations of women, post-colonial and transnational feminisms, and/or gender in Arab-majority countries.


1. Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton University Press, 2011).

2. Linda Zerilli, Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom (University of Chicago Press, 2005).

3. For a critique of valorizing transgression and subversion, see Kumkum Sangari, "Consent, Agency, and the Rhetorics of Incitement," Economic and Political Weekly, v. 28, no. 8 (1993), p. 868.

4. For a discussion on transnational literacy as recognition of agencies, see Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "Teaching for the Times," in Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, and Postcolonial Perspectives, eds. Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufti, Ella Shohat (University of Minnesota Press, 1997), pp. 468-490; and for a discussion on practicing the recognition of women's desires and non-feminist avenues for social justice, see Lila Abu-Lughod, "Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others," American Anthropologist, v. 104, no. 3 (2002), pp. 783-790.


Nadia Yaqub and Rula Quawas, eds., Bad Girls of the Arab World. University of Texas Press, 2017. 256 pp. notes, bibl. index, pap., $27.95, ISBN 978-1477313367.

[Siwar Masannat is pursuing a Ph.D. in English (creative writing) and a graduate certificate in women's and gender studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Masannat is the author of 50 Water Dreams (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2015).]
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Title Annotation:BOOKS
Author:Masannat, Siwar
Publication:Resources for Gender and Women's Studies: A Feminist Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2018
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