Perhaps the most sensitive issue in public discourse about the Middle East is the political, economic, and social position of women in Arab and non-Arab societies. As Leila Abu Lughod and others have argued (http://www.smi.uib.no/seminars/Pensum/Abu-Lughod.pdf), Western discourse about Middle Eastern, and specifically Muslim women has been formulated in a particular way which while disregarding or downplaying the West’s own problems with gender relations, also provides a compelling justification for military intervention. On the other hand, an extreme sensitivity to the “hegemonizing” Western discourse sometimes results in a defensive, culturalist argument which argues that problems of gender have been grossly misunderstood by Westerners, who need only to take a closer look at the actions of Middle Eastern women to discover that they are powerful cultural and political agents (thus the focus on “agency” in some contemporary social scientific literature). In my opinion, this perspective obfuscates the stark political and economic reality of gender in the Middle East.
Sometimes the culturalists attempt to resituate or transform tradition through a reinterpretation of religious texts in order to reassert a fundamental, inherent precept of a culture which, if universally adopted, would have a profound equalizing effect on gender relations. This is one way I can explain the burgeoning interest and investment of Middle Eastern Studies students in shari’a- the prevailing belief among many of them being that a new ijtihad would result in a more equitable indigenous legal structure (that would better protect the rights of minorities, women, etc). Professors and students with Islamist sympathies find this type of liberal exegesis especially appealing because it affirms a priori beliefs about the inherently, progressive nature of Islam and counters the secularist argument for a wholesale adoption of Western legal and social categories. In the complex postcolonial configuration of the Middle East and of Middle Eastern studies, an approach based on a revisionist historical framework is certainly appealing because of the way in which it exonerates culture and instrumentalizes it for an eschatological end. I find the logical presuppositions of such an overtly political project to be questionable at best because the approach places an extraordinary amount of hope in “tradition” (however dynamic that tradition may be) and perhaps, implicitly, attributes a certain primacy to culture as a catalyst for social change. In general, I find that there is an overreliance on cultural approaches to explain the condition or status of women as well as to prescribe a new way forward. Rather, I think what is needed in addition to cultural studies work is a better understanding of the economic and political dimensions of gender disparity in the Middle East.
My point here is that a micro approach which neglects issues of workforce participation and economic achievement is fundamentally inadequate because it disregards potentially important mechanisms of change. If we look closer at gender disparity in this way, there are a number of potential solutions to gender inequity that lie firmly outside the cultural studies framework. Some may say that this approach is reductive because it explains gender as a politico-economic position and posits “economics” and “politics” as monolithic categories without addressing how cultural norms give rise to particular political and economic preferences, but I think the question needs to be examined from multiple angles in order to produce a more nuanced understanding of persistent, pernicious structural inequalities. For now, the cultural approach seems to dominate academic circles where many are (for reasons of political correctness, ideological investment, and disciplinary training) more comfortable talking about constructions of masculinity in medieval times than for example, wage disparities between men and women in modern day Egypt.