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A Gender Perspective on Secularization and Modernization

Panel VIII-17, sponsored byAssociation for Middle Eastern Women's Studies, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
Modernization efforts carried on by Middle Eastern leaders have been labeled as “modern day inquisition” to transform hardline conservative countries into open societies that empower citizens, engage the global community, and lure investors. Recent trends in the Middle East and North Africa have shown politicians take on efforts to modernize and secularize legal, educational, and political policies and practices, stripping away their religious groundings and conservative grip. Beyond politics as usual, these trends have produced, in most cases, gender outcomes that impacted women’s lives by expanding their rights and representations. Reactions to, and interactions with, the trends varied. While the international community viewed secularization as a positive step, local reactions ranged from support to resistance. Some women capitalized on these empowering efforts, others felt their safety net and comfort zones were violated, and others were dismayed by the political and economic motivations. Papers on this panel explore the dynamics of secularization and modernization across the region, highlighting the changing power dynamics regarding the social contract that once guaranteed and controlled social rights.
  • Arab American women’s political representation reached a pivotal historical moment when both Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, but the rhetoric surrounding their appointments labeled Tlaib as Arab and Omar as Muslim. The difference? Omar is veiled and Tlaib, Muslim but not veiled. Tlaib claimed center stage and used provocative language in reference to the U.S. President. She shocked America as she pushed back against the stereotype of Arab and Muslim women as victims, submissive, and vulnerable. She also exposed how Arab ethnic and national identity has been conflated with Islamic religious identity, not only by the mainstream political apparatus concerned with foreign politics, and not only by the conservative rights, but also by activists and Arabs themselves. For example, street artist Shepard Fairey, connected to the Women’s March of 2017, is known for his three politically charged Women’s March posters titled “We the People.” One features a Muslim woman, representing a religion, while the other two are of a Latina woman and an African-American woman, representing ethnicities. Historically, Arab American women have been a part of the fabric of U.S. social life but have rarely been recognized for their contributions. Today, young Arab American women are resisting religious labels and engaging in global plights against social injustice. This presentation features Arab American organizers of the U.S. Youth Climate Strike. As Arab American youth continue to find their voices within the political and social life in the U.S., they are also navigating cultural definitions, religious practices, familial structures, social expectations, and gender norms that significantly shape their identities.
  • As of 2023, Saudi women can drive a car, watch a film at a movie theatre, and join a women’s national football team. The Saudi government, that had refrained from granting these rights to women out of consideration for conservatives over the past decade, drastically shifted its policies to empower women. Outsiders have viewed these changes favorably based on the views of those who benefited from and were able to capitalize the opportunities. The Saudi government had to figure out ways to make permissible (halal) what it had previously deemed prohibited by religion (haram). However, it is not clear from the outsiders’ perspective if a wide range of women are open to change. And more importantly, are these transformations religiously acceptable for them? Or are their voices totally muted even in efforts to empower them? This presentation engages gender studies with focuses on consumption and entrepreneurship in Saudi Arabia by employing Foucauldian theory of biopolitics. It attempts to capture Saudi women’s perceptions on the recent social changes based on fieldwork in Riyadh which includes the voices of women of various ages, classes, and educational levels. An international perspective of outside actors is also considered to examine how much of these efforts are due to pull or push effects.
  • The modern school system is one of the most firmly rooted western-imported institutions in the Arab world. In particular, the Gulf countries have been investing heavily in the expansion and development of western-style modern school education system, especially higher education directly related to labor market. As a result, higher education institutions in the Gulf countries are now the most modern places in these countries including facilities, faculties, subjects, and norms. Interestingly, the Arab Gulf women's successes are most pronounced in education. Qatar, in particular, has the largest gap in the tertiary education enrollment rate favoring women over men, with over 63% for women compared to 11% for men, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics 2021. This presentation explores how this modern higher education system was successfully implemented, adapting to Qatari society, and how Qatari people perceive and value higher education. In particular, this paper will use statistical data from Qatar University and the results of questionnaire survey on Qataris perceptions of education. It aims to explore how modernization takes root in this country, using women’s representation in higher education as a lens.
  • Secularization in its traditional meaning can be difficult to achieve in most of the Middle East, especially in countries where religion and politics cannot be apart by anyway, like Iran and Saudi Arabia. This paper discusses how is secularization realized in the Arab world, taking Egypt as an example. I will specifically explore how gender relations play a role in accepting the phenomena. Secularization is not a new concept to Arab thinking. A similar environment existed between the 9th and 13th centuries, as well as in the early 20th century, where everyone had the freedom of speech and opinion, although it is difficult to find this situation nowadays. This presentation will focus on the growing secularization again in the Arab region, especially after Arab uprisings. It will discuss the social changes that happened to change people’s mindsets from dreaming of returning to the Islamic civilization, known as returning to the “correct” Islam, to thinking positively towards secularization. It will also engage the opposing stream that considers secularization as evil and a threat to conservative Arab society. Finally, this presentation will analyze how each side thinks and identify any connection with gender concerning accepting the idea of secularization.