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Affective Labor in the Modern Middle East

Session III-09, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
The panel aims to reveal and connect the genealogies of affective labor in the Modern Middle East, from slavery and sexual commerce to migrant labor and domestic work. The interconnectedness of gendered, racialized, and classed social hierarchies are explored in a range of Modern Middle East sites that can be thought together under what feminists have theorized as affective labor, from the elite social world of the Qajar harem, to early 20th century brothels in Tehran that were defined on the cusp of domestic and commercial spaces, to the kafala system and domestic servitude in contemporary Beirut. The panel thus takes the intimate realm as a politically rich site through which we can examine the gendered foundations of the state and reformulate understandings of agency, subjectivity, and power. Often relegated exclusively to the realm of the private sphere, such sites form the the principal mechanisms though which the complex relationship between sex and labor/sex as labor, gender and violence, and kinship, domesticity and power are navigated. By bringing together research that spans different time and geographical locations, the panel further sheds light on transnational histories and the social worlds of the underclasses of the region.
  • The culture of servitude in the elite space of the late-19th century Qajar harem meant that various classes of servants and members of the royal family shared what Ann Stoler and Karen Strassler have termed “the emotional economy of the everyday”—the various spaces, times, and people within daily life with whom sentiment is displayed, shared, withheld, and demanded. They argued that the everyday domestic life affected sensibilities and sentiments between and amongst various classes of people who shared relations of proximity. Looking at various gendered and racialized classes of servants in the Gulistan harem during Nasir al-Din Shah’s reign, from wet nurses and nannies, to concubines and eunuchs, this paper examines the ways in which laboring bodies leverage differing relations of proximity to gain intimate knowledge of the private affairs of their masters and mistresses, build interdependent bonds, and use them to further their status and place within the harem hierarchy. While such relationships were defined by deeply uneven structures of social status, race, entitlement, and obligation, this paper argues that servants used affective labor to gain various forms of access to wealth and privilege, though this access was negotiated through and limited by the materiality of their class, gender and racial identity.
  • Prior to the economic collapse of 2019, Lebanon was home to upwards of 250,000 female migrant domestic workers of African and Asian origin. Feminist scholarship on domestic labor has long sought to complicate understandings of gender in a context where exploitation is largely perpetrated by women, on women. Work on transnational migrant domestic service has further drawn attention to the “international racial division of reproductive labour”, whereby racialized women from the global South have left their homes to care for the families of wealthy, mostly white women of the global North. Accounts of the kafala system, however, complicate not only divides of North/South, white/racialized, but also the category of femininity that is often presumed to be shared by both migrant domestic workers, and their Lebanese employers. Could it be that “woman” is a gendered subject differentially available across this divide? Drawing on a combination of fieldwork and popular media, I ask how we might start from the social landscape of migrant domestic servitude in order to better understand the intersectional, internally stratified nature of the female subject in Beirut.
  • This paper explores the legal trajectory of women’s labour and mobility between 1890-1910 in Eastern Mediterranean, during a period of successive humanitarian legislation against unfree labour. I will explore how and why international legislation that sought to liberate women from degrading forms of work - domestic slavery and sex trade - did so only by curtailing their right to locomation. Between the Brussels Congress on the Abolition of African Slavery [1890] and the Paris Convention against ‘Traite des Blanches’[1910], the transnational mobility of working class women engendered moral and legal debates so as to the duty to rescue them from the degradations of sex and enslavement. Two patterns of humanitarian rescue emerged in Eastern Mediterranean whereby - African, black, local - women were rehabilitated from domestic slavery and subsumed back into the household as unwaged or undervalued servants, while - European, white, foreign - women were repatriated and prevented entry into a transnational labour market. Humanitarian rescue efforts thus penalised women’s mobility, while advancing the exclusionary and exploitative tenets of racial capitalism. In my presentation I will juxtapose two court cases from French and Ottoman archives, of two women fleeing their respective saviors. I will then proceed to explain how cross-cultural precepts underlying extraterritorial jurisdiction concluded a stalemate in between Ottoman authorities and European consular officers, through which the conditions of domestic and erotic labour remained beyond the purview of international legislation. Instead, the legislation against ‘African Slavery' on one hand, and ‘White Slave Trafficking’ on the other, only served to limit women’s right to locomation in ways that upheld racial reproduction and patriarchal domination on both sides of the 'civilisational divide'. In conclusion, I will argue for a comparative and transnational historiography that goes beyond culturalist frameworks regarding the study of unfree labour.