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Solidarities Across Borders: Teaching and Writing Women, Gender, and Sexuality History in MENA

Session X-02, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 5:30 pm

RoundTable Description
Courses on “Women, Gender, and Sexuality in the Middle East” appear with startling frequency in undergraduate curricula in the United States. At many institutions, these courses respond not only to faculty expertise but to student demand. Those of us who teach these courses often set out to undermine the exoticization and exceptionalization of gender and sexuality within the MENA region that drives our subject’s very popularity. This roundtable asks: what can we collectively imagine for these classrooms? What are the politics of our interventions, and what worlds are we helping to build? After 9/11, powerful critiques of the complicity of white feminism with imperialism (and of projects of “saving Muslim women” more specifically) became central to our classrooms and our research. How could we, scholars of gender and sexuality in the Middle East institutionally based in the United States, best confront powerful stereotypes about the subjugation, passivity, and homogeneity of women in the region we study? How could we show students that questions of gender and sexuality in the Middle East were far more complex than they may have previously believed, while also addressing trans-regional commonalities that American students may struggle to register? While useful as a starting point, these goals sometimes sat awkwardly with commitments to thinking about equity, transformation, and solidarity as projects that stretch beyond national and cultural borders. This roundtable gathers junior scholars writing and teaching on women, gender, and sexuality in the Middle East to explore the politics and possibilities of teaching and researching these questions in the United States in 2022. It reflects a shared sense that while debunking Orientalist stereotypes and uncovering Western imperialist agendas remain essential, we are hungry for new intellectual and pedagogical directions. What questions and strategies can emerging research on women, gender, and sexuality in MENA suggest for our pedagogies? How could we help students to imagine the Middle East not only through the lenses of specificity and context that counter Orientalist generalizations, but also in ways that sync up with global movements? How could students and researchers based in the United States work more closely with colleagues in the region to build what Chandra Mohanty calls “a noncolonizing feminist solidarity across borders,” even as our different audiences, interests, and contexts may invite different forms of scholarship and political work?
  • When I set out to design a syllabus for a standard course at my institution on Women and Gender in the Middle East, I struggled under the weight of the long history of women in places like New England, where I teach, gathering together to critique, and then sometimes seek to transform, the lives of “women in the Middle East.” How could I frame a process of collective inquiry that highlighted the longstanding links between women in the Global North, colonialism, and violence, but also went beyond critique to open up questions about sexuality, gender, and women that shed important light on past and present worlds? The result—a course on “Sex and Power in the Middle East”—used sexuality and gender as analytic categories to study formations of power (Empire, Colony, Nation, and Neoliberalism) through MENA case studies. It emphasized that these formations matter within, but also stretch beyond, the MENA region. While this approach helped to de-exceptionalize sex and gender in the Middle East, it raised a different problem: as Afsaneh Najmabadi once put it, are gender and sex useful categories of analysis beyond the Americas (and, she asks, beyond the modern)? If so, how can we frame them in transnational and translingual registers, and if not, what might be brought to stand in their place? In other words—and this is the question I’d like to pose to the roundtable—how do courses designed around questions of "sexuality" and "gender," concepts primarily forged in the context of Euro-American histories and scholarly traditions, overshadow frameworks or categories of inquiry that might generate less interest in an American context steeped in the aftermaths of Orientalism, but shed different light on the history of social, political, and intimate life in the region itself?
  • In a discussion session reviewing the writings of Huda Sha'arawi within the wider context of British colonialism in Egypt, a student suggested that Sha'arawi was simply conforming to Western influences in her decision to remove the face veil. The student's comment summarized a common viewpoint adopted by students at this small liberal arts and women's college; processes of westernization were inherently disingenuous, especially when occurring within a colonial context. Prior to joining the class, most students had already learned to critique western hegemony. Yet, there was little space in these critiques that acknowledged knowledge and cultural production as processes of two-way exchange; power moved in one direction, from West to East. How can we teach gender in Middle East history in ways that employ a critical lens vis-a-vis colonialism without also belittling the multifaceted movements for reform emanating from the region? Moreover, the veil of political climate often weighs heavily on these various discussions. How does one teach gender in a liberal arts context where students have already adopted left-leaning positions on global subject matters? In what ways do student politics or institutional culture inform how we approach gender-related topics in the classroom? How can we make the study of gender and sexuality in Middle East studies an inclusive space for students of differing positions, backgrounds, and orientations? This contribution invites roundtable participants to ponder how we can address these questions and to contemplate how we can honor students' positionalities in the classroom while encouraging genuine conversations rooted in historicism and historical analysis.
  • In 2008, İrvin Cemil Schick published a thought-provoking article in Aeon, entitled “What Ottoman Erotica Teaches us About Sexual Pluralism.” Reflecting on recent scholarship as well as his own collaborative project on sexual terminology in Ottoman literary works, Schick highlights some key findings. First, premodern Ottoman sources treat men, women, and boys as three distinct genders. Second, these sources define sexuality by the acts of penetrating and being penetrated. As an instructor of an upper-division seminar, “Women, Gender, and Sexuality in the Middle East,” at a small-liberal arts college, I have found that students are particularly enamored with these conclusions. Readings from the study of gender and sexuality in the premodern Middle East offer students a rich body of literature to unsettle and challenge what Schick refers to “the unthinking, and pernicious, naturalisation of cisgender identity and heterosexuality.” Scholarship on the premodern Middle East thereby buttresses many of the students' principled commitments to building a pluralistic understanding of gender and sexuality in the present and future. As the seminar transitions to investigating the intersection of gender and sexuality in the modern Middle East, a challenge emerges: many students grow increasingly dissatisfied with the emergence of modern dichotomies, male/female and hetero/homosexual. A series of questions undergirds their analysis: are these (modern) dichotomies inherently western? Does their emergence in urban centers of the region reveal the imposition of western readings of gender and sexuality? My contribution to the roundtable will reflect on these and other questions and explore what to do with students' hunger to equate premodern sexualities and contemporary sexual-political projects and agendas.
  • A survey of the syllabi of “Women, Gender, and Sexuality in the Middle East” courses reveals patterns in the primary source texts used: the writings of US missionaries about needing to “save” their “Moslem sisters,” selections from Qasim Amin’s The Liberation of Women, excerpts from Hoda Sha’arawi’s memoir, a portion of Anbara Salam Khalidi’s memoir, snippets from Fatima Mernissi’s Dreams of Trespass: Tales of Harem Girlhood. Most of the primary sources assigned in these courses are textual and most focus on the region before 1950. A different set of textual primary sources are used for teaching “History of the Modern Middle East” courses. How do the separate standard canons of primary sources for these two courses reinforce internal and external gender stereotypes about the region? In reviewing my syllabi, I realized that in order to address gaps in the availability of translated primary sources from the 1970s and 1980s, I use more visual primary sources—movie clips, war posters, photographs, film advertisements, cartoons, graphic novels, paintings—in my chrono-thematic history course on women, gender, and sexuality in Southwest Asia and North Africa than in my general survey course. Visual sources produced in the region and in diaspora are an excellent teaching tool, especially because our students are primed to analyze images due to the visuality of contemporary media. Furthermore, due to students’ lack of awareness about the history of Southwest Asia, I have found I cannot teach my women, gender, and sexuality course without covering the region’s political and economic history. Reflecting on the different sources I use for my “gender history” and “general history” courses, raises the question: can we move toward a future wherein the gendered experiences of men and women representing a range of religious and sexual orientations are used to teach survey courses of the “History of the Modern Middle East”? What is lost and what is gained from fusing the content and methods of analysis found in so-called general survey courses and those that focus on women, gender, and sexuality?
  • Historical and social analysis about gender and sexuality in the Middle Eastern/Islamic context embodies multiple tasks of grappling with narratives dominating and flattening both histories of sexuality and Middle East/Islam through their portrayal as a set of stereotypes, misconceptions, assumptions, and fantasies. While scholarly research produced for academic publishing provides a room to challenge, intervene, and dismantle these narratives and their legacies for the consumption of a limited scholarly audience; pedagogical translation and adaptation of these scholarship into college classroom teaching suggest multiple challenges. The theme I would like concentrate on this roundtable is related to theoretical and content-wise (in)accessibility of the academic research that we produce as scholars and employing critical research as resources in classroom teaching. To put it simply, in a survey of “Gender, Sexuality, and Social Change in the Middle East,” I ask, how do we communicate the outcomes of our critical research on histories of colonialism, authoritarianism, and other forms of (historically oppressive) power mechanisms in relation to analysis of histories of same-sex desire, racial and gendered segregation, women’s political rights, Islamist feminism, femicide, sexual violence along with the question of veil (compulsory, as in the case of Iran and Afghanistan today, or banned as in the example of France) without contributing to narratives of Islamophobia or reinforcing the assumptions portraying the region as timelessly and simply unfit for democracy, freedom, and liberation movements? How do we bridge critical historical analysis revealing struggles of sexually oppressed groups with contemporary political circumstances shaping feminist and LGBQI+ movements today by overcoming tropes of Orientalism? In a similar vein, what are the strategies we consider communicating commonalities, differences, and intersectional characteristics of Middle Eastern/Islamic vis-à-vis global histories of sexuality and gender by rendering, for example, “Islamist feminism” legible and useful? I would like to invite us to think together about methodologies, tools, and sources to bridge academic scholarship on the history of the sexualities in the Middle East and Islamic world with pedagogical strategies to render growing, rich literature legible to the diverse and ever-changing classroom context considering the generational differences between the students and us, as their mentors who are also in the role of producing the critical scholarship.
  • In my experience teaching both “Gender and Sexuality in the Modern Middle East” and “Global Feminisms,” I have found that emphasizing the specificity of women’s experiences in the Middle East without simultaneously emphasizing their relationship to global structures of domination ends up reinforcing Orientalist conceptions. Furthermore, the exclusive focus on Orientalism has obfuscated the ways in which colonial knowledge about the Eastern Hemisphere intersected with settler colonial knowledge about the Western Hemisphere. Highlighting these intersections enables us to see how racial formation in the Americas shaped Orientalism and vice versa. I therefore frame my courses on gender and feminist history using Maria Lugones’ concept of the modern/colonial gender system and the way it transformed pre-colonial gender systems. Applying a concept from decolonial studies to the Middle East presents an opportunity for both new insights and new challenges. On the one hand, it breaks down area studies boundaries, highlights common modes of domination, and creates space for new forms of feminist solidarity. At the same time, it risks overshadowing specificities and relations of power that could lead to misappropriation. How might scholars of gender and sexuality in Middle East Studies integrate the work of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx feminists in ways that not only highlight relationality but also work to build common cause? And how might we do this in ways that avoid appropriation?