Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Accessibility Controls Policy

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)


shifa said...

Hey Sarah, duly noted. Your questions are of course important to consider especially as academics but also for everyday Americans. I think one important aspect of this question is the relationship, both historically and currently, of using these Western Feminist ideals to justify Western intervention in the Middle East, whether it be colonization, occupation, war or even just convincing American's of the brutality of Islam as a religion based on its "treatment of women," which in itself hugely generalized. An important text that considers this is Leila Ahmed's "Women and Gender in Islam," among others.

Shardul said...

I agree that media depictions of Middle Eastern women are generally biased and perpetuate the idea that all women in the region are subject to some type of cultural or political oppression. I also agree that the condition of women in the Arab-Muslim world is of great interest to those who wish to legitimate our military interventions in the region. However, there has also been a strong defensive response from some intellectuals and private citizens in the Middle East who have effectively dismissed any discussion of the second-class citizenship of Middle Eastern women as part of an imperial and neocolonial discourse. These are two extreme narratives that have emerged from the complex postcolonial political reality of the Middle East. The largest rhetorical element of these arguments disregards or ignores a complex empirical reality that varies from country to country. I think it is important to acknowledge the specific challenges that women face in the region by comparing their condition to women in other parts of the developing world so as to not reinforce the idea that the Middle Eastern is an exception in the area of gender relations (and if that is the case, then to tease out the elements that make the Middle East different). There are tangible economic methods of measuring gender parity (women’s participation in the work force, literacy rates, levels of educational achievement) that we can use to talk about the condition of women and these metrics can go a long way in helping us understand areas where there may be a cultural aspect to gender disparity. This is not to say that cultural studies cannot important in help us understand gender relations: however, by only looking at culture we miss larger questions regarding the political, legal, and economic realities of gender in the region.