My father has long questioned my interest in the Middle East in terms of the popular perception of women’s status there: “Sarah, I can’t understand how an independent, stubborn woman like you wants to study and promote a culture that treats their women so badly? Are you going to have to travel to Afghanistan and shuffle around in a burka?” (Ok, he’s from New Hampshire; it’s a little cut-off from the real world.)
My response over the last several years had been something like, “I’m not a feminist, Dad. I think there are bigger issues to look at in Middle Eastern Studies than the treatment of women.”
My perception changed today after hearing Master’s Program Director of Graduate Studies Nadia Guessous speak about the study of gender and sexuality in MES and the discussion that followed. I had never considered, as Professor Guessous suggested, the implications that deconstruction of false perception of women’s roles (and gender roles, generally) in the Middle East could have on popular discourses in the field: Orientalism, Modernization, Islamism, etc.
Given these implications, the class discussion turned to how this scholarship ought to be used when a student asked, “How are these studies challenged by the reinstatement of the Taliban in Afghanistan and their overt oppression of women?” Professor Guessous’s response, that it was a challenge to all the deconstruction work done so far by scholars, caused excitement in the classroom that played itself out in my head at a million miles a minute. Had this “deconstruction” ever made its way to the people like my father, a well-educated news-watching American, who are being bombarded daily with images of oppression of women in the Middle East? How valuable is this scholarship if it doesn’t make its way to those who use Orientalist concepts of gender roles in the Middle East to justify the current occupation?
Another classmate (whom I lauded heavily after class) posited that the scholarship on women and gender in the Middle East was not accessible to the popular audience – the deconstruction of gender roles was never articulated in laymen’s terms, in the nightly news or the New York Times. Thus the average American reflects back to popular articles like Lewis’ “The Roots of Muslim Rage” (The Atlantic Monthly, September 1990) and Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” (Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993), who’s Orientalist bias informs the popular understanding of the Middle East in general and Arab women in particular. As a student trained not in academia but rather media, I place a high value on the accessibility of knowledge for its power to inform policy.
Given this argument, I ponder the effects that the popular accessibility of this scholarship might have not only on policy, but on our Western conceptions of knowledge, modernization, and feminism. I leave you to do the same with these questions:
1. How does popular American feminist reaction to the state of women in Afghanistan reflect and challenge our own ideas of feminism? How does the fact that we use (or oppose) as justification the “American heroes liberating the oppressed women of Afghanistan” reflect our own conception of gender roles?
2. How does U.S. media coverage of Arab and Muslim women reflect our own feminism and views of Middle East? Does it reflect a de-valuation of some roles in society?
For further reading, I encourage you to look at:
Code Pink: Women for Peace (http://www.codepinkalert.org/)
“Saving The World’s Women” in the New York Times Magazine (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/23/magazine/23Women-t.html)