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(Re-)drawing the Margin(s) - Investigating Marginality in Jordan, Lebanon, and North and East Syria

Panel IX-15, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
Feminist and critical scholars have long pointed out the need to “study up” and look from the margin at how power is exercised at the centre (hooks 2015). Feminist standpoint theorists have argued that marginalised voices are epistemologically advantageous because they consider how the different axes of oppression interact with each other (Harding 1986; Hartsock 1998; Hill Collins 1986; Tickner 2005; Zalewski 1993). While this certainly makes sense on paper the question of where the margin is located is often contested. The resulting debates on who gets to speak reveal the multi-layered and entangled relationships between centre(-s) and margin(-s). Subjects from the margins – national liberation movements, women’s organisations, queer activists among others – have articulated their interests using the designation of marginalised to give weight to their demands. These demands include (re-) centring the margins through various trajectories such as knowledge production, political participation, or contesting the political arena by creating alternative spaces. However, such claims have been (co-)constructing new or obscuring existing margins (Mahmood 2005; Moraga & Anzaldùa 2015; Crenshaw 1991). This panel investigates the margins by looking at claims and their absences, asking: What subject positions are produced by (re)drawing the margin(-s)? What tactics are used for speaking up and from what position do we choose to listen? How can such designations result in hiding or scaling existing modes or creating new forms of exclusions? This transdisciplinary dialogue on various forms of approaching and questioning the margins – including decolonial, intersectional, subaltern, queer approaches and their critics – is considered a strategy to build coalitions to go beyond the fetishization of marginality (Lee 2000). These reflections also apply to our ways of conducting research, since we are committed to research practices that approach research as emancipation (Tickner 2005) and therefore, aim to make power relationships transparent. Considering that power is constantly produced among and between persons, including ourselves, as well as institutions and groups of people who navigate their different positionalities to “get what they want”, we reflect on the usefulness of the rather binary concept of margin and centre, suggesting to look at power as multidimensional. Premising that the margin is fluid and can be gerrymandered, we look at ‘complex subordination as a “universal phenomenon,” rather than a problem limited to classes of persons currently excluded from equality discourse’ (Hutchinson 2001, 212). This means to acknowledge that privilege and subordination are not mutually exclusive.
International Relations/Affairs
  • Here, I discuss how claims of Kurdish marginality inform the dominant discourse in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and who benefits from this framing. Feminist standpoint theory privileges marginalised voices as epistemologically advantageous as ‘outsiders from within’ (Hill-Collins 1986). Within the AANES, competing claims of marginality beg the question: Who gets to speak from the margin? How do experiences of subordination lend legitimacy to political projects? What are material consequences of such a discourse? I argue that in the case of the Kurdish-led AANES, a self-understanding by those in power of being marginalised informs practices and institutions thereby (re)producing power relations that result in new inequalities and exclusion. Much of the existing literature praises the AANES as a non-hegemonic, non-statist radical democratic experiment and a solution to inequality and conflict beyond the Middle East (Burç 2020; Dirik 2018, 2022; Graeber 2020). In this understanding, Kurds are located at the margins of an international system, from which Kurdish identity emerged under conditions of colonial domination by bordering nation states who mark them as Other. Contrary to their neighbours, Kurdish identity or culture is presumed to be inherently egalitarian and more conducive to women’s liberation. I will explore how this understanding of Kurdishness gives way to a claim of exceptionality which informs the AANES’ institutions and practices. My findings from six months of ethnographic fieldwork consisting of in-depth interviews and participant observation suggest that a sense of moral superiority informs the AANES’ gender discourse: Kurdish interlocutors implied that their struggle resulted in Kurdish women having more rights than Arab women, who unlike them, have not developed a “fighter personality”. The Kurdish experience is presented as different both from “Capitalist Modernity” and from a backward Islam that is oppressive to women. The material effects of this framework in which (Kurdish) women become the markers of cultural difference are the exclusion of those, mostly Arabs, who as a “culture” are considered to cling to patriarchal customs and traditions. Recognising that privilege and subordination are not mutually exclusive, I hold that those who embody the AANES’ gender discourse enjoy certain social privileges over others despite having previously experienced or still experiencing subordination based on other aspects of their identity (gender, ethnicity, statelessness). Reassessing the claim of Kurdish marginality in the case of the AANES, I argue that practices and institutions informed by a sense of exceptionality potentially (re)inscribe racialised-sexual boundaries.
  • Most of the available historiography of Jabal ‘Amel have long been, almost exclusively, associated to one specific aspect: Twelver Shi’i Islam. However, several works have shown how diverse this space has been. In this diversity, the Jabal ‘Amil area witnessed major upheavals at the beginning of the 20th century as it found itself in a new framework, that of Greater Lebanon and the later Lebanese Republic. By its position, firmly anchored in the heart of the eastern Mediterranean, while being turned towards Arabist projects in Syria and elsewhere in Iraq, the roots of the area’s community take multiple inter-state trajectories. Focusing on history and memory, this paper aims to better understand the processes by which Jabal ‘Amil anchored itself in the new nation-state framework. It does so by crossing various sources, such as the reports of the French mandatory administration in Syria and Lebanon (Nantes Diplomatic Archives), newspapers printed in the Jabal 'Amil region at the beginning of the 20th century (al-'Irfan, Jabal 'Amil), and oral histories. The paper aims to provide a broader understanding of the agency of minority populations – which can also be the “marginals” in the peripheries. It is essential, this paper claims, to understand these minorities’ emergence as political entities historical products in the new framework of the nation-state, which is to explore more thoroughly how and by which dynamics did such communities come to define themselves as “minorities”. By doing so, this paper seeks to write a hybrid Mediterranean space, Jabal ‘Amel, better refered to today as South Lebanon, in the broader history of the Eastern Mediterranean.
  • Engaging with history from the margins – perspectives not in positions of power – necessitates creativity in finding and reading sources. Sources widely used to tell such stories are Sharia Court Records: particularly to discover histories that include women. Unlike in other written historical documents, women are widely represented in court records, even if described by the scribe’s words. The existing literature on social history based on Sharia Court Records that include women’s perspectives shed light on various social topics such as Marriage (Cuno 2015), Family (Agmon 2006; Doumani 2017), and the construction of Gender (Tucker 1998). While women are considered a marginalized group worth studying due to their former absence in history, it remains unclear from their accounts who these “women” are. Through a close reading of Sharia Court Records where women appear as claimants at the Sharia Court in Al-Salt (Jordan) between 1919-1921, this article investigates how marginality is constructed and who is included in the thus designated group. In the context of a disintegrating Ottoman Empire, this article focuses on the former Ottoman periphery at the dawn of the consolidation of the British Mandate and the Nation State. It asks: Who are the women who can go to court at this particular time? What, if at all, do they have in common beyond their legal status as “woman”? What insight do we get into the Salti social fabric if we do not consider “women” as a homogenous group? What other forms of marginality can we discover by unthinking “women” as a homogenous group? What power structures can be unearthed at the court by following the cases closely?