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Gender Studies and Feminism at MESA: Taking Stock of the Field

RoundTable IX-2, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 3:00 pm

RoundTable Description
This proposed roundtable aims to explore the changing field of gender studies in relation to both Middle East Studies more broadly, and MESA specifically, and the role of feminism as both an academic theory and an agenda for social change in driving these changes. The shift from women to gender studies, including attention to intersectionality in both discursive and material approaches, has been widely documented and reflects similar shifts in the field of gender studies and as a result of developments and contestations within feminist theory and activism. Our roundtable will attempt to address the question of how these changes have been articulated and manifested in the context of MESA in terms of content, approaches and structures and to assess the implications for MESA as an institution. Some of the questions that this roundtable will attempt to address, include: How have feminists within MESA managed to move gender studies from an isolated and marginalized strand within MESA to a far more integrated and “mainstreamed” element? How have the beginnings of the field of Women & Gender Studies (WGS) in different geopolitical spaces impacted the development of the discipline? What are the disciplinary gaps that continue to contribute to a persistent gender blindness and ghettoization of gender studies and feminist approaches despite the overall increase of papers, panels and roundtables addressing gender? To what degree have feminists managed to influence the priorities and policies of MESA as an institution? Within Middle East studies, how have gender and sexuality been conceptualized and employed as analytical lenses in the study of social, cultural, political and economic phenomena and processes, such as nationalism, governance, political mobilization, authoritarianism, sectarianism and resistance to name just a few? What are some of the underlying tensions, dynamics as well as opportunities that exist within the field of Middle East gender studies, between scholars of different generations, positionalities and/or epistemological approaches? To what degree are these tensions and dynamics shaped by feminist activism within and beyond the academy? What is the impact of US-centric approaches and the dominance of US institutions like MESA in framing WGS in the region? How can we think about transnational academic research and theorizing in a much more critical way that fosters and supports the development of research agendas by feminists in the region as opposed to on feminists in the region?
  • The field of gender studies has shaped Middle East studies and its approaches and methods, especially through critical feminist reflections on positionality and intersectionality. Yet this theoretical and methodological push still requires attention, as the predominant view in Middle East studies continues to regard gender studies as mostly women’s studies. This symmetry between gender studies and women’s studies marginalizes the analytical questions and frameworks that gender studies offers to understand racial, ethnic, political and economic issues from intersectional and transnational perspectives. Transness and gender nonconformity is marginalized even within the marginalized status of gender studies in Middle East studies. Even though Middle East has a long history and a powerful present of gender nonconformity and transness, except for a few remarkable scholarly intervention, these sites of research have been either treated as exoticized and romanticized forms of gender variance under the category of “third gender” or mostly silenced from broader discussions on violence, war on terror, colonialism, securitization and state-formation in the Middle East. Highlighting transgender approaches to Middle East studies, this presentation will contribute to emerging and/or potential frameworks of critical gender studies to further problematize configurations of racial, ethnic, classed, and colonial relations, as well as contestations and struggles over them in multiple, novel and creative ways. Drawing critical insights from my ethnographic research with trans people in Turkey over longer than a decade now, this presentation advocates for further research on trans lives in relation to racial and ethnic violence, neoliberal capitalism, incarceration, ecology and environment, political movements, addiction and health, arts and creation, and futurity in order to proliferate new visions and imaginaries in studies of gender in the Middle East and beyond.
  • Until recently, the histories of labor, women, and capitalism have been separate terrains of inquiry. Labor history as a core of social history flourished in the 1970s and 1980s, focused on political and economic structures, and paid scant attention to female laborers. Then, social history was eclipsed by cultural history. Cultural history benefited women’s history by underlining the politics of identity and representation. This vibrant cultural undermines how class, as a socioeconomic category, operated in socioeconomic and cultural structures, thus paying scant attention to female industrial workers. My presentation will focus on the distance between labor and gender in Middle East Studies and how the structure of disciplinary departments in American Universities and professional academic organizations, including MESA, have contributed to this distance. I show how recent scholarship has achieved an exciting intervention to bridge the distance between women and labor studies. However, this scholarship has overlooked how gender regimes pertaining to masculinity have operated in labor experiences. Meanwhile, the discipline of history has contributed the least to the study of labor through the gender lens. Although the lack of sources or gaining access to archival collections are real challenge, it can’t provide sufficient explanation. I reflect on how the structure of professional academic organizations has played roles in the distance between gender and labor histories. As a Middle East scholar based in an academic institution that grants Ph.D. degrees in history but has neither Middle East nor international/global studies, I will share my experience of institutional isolation in a scholarly environment that privileges American history and US-based research inquiry in all level including graduate students’ recruitment and funding. At the same time, like most historians of the Middle East, I still find the American History Association unhospitable. No surprise that the MESA annual conference has been the main venue for historians to share their research, thus forming the largest group of participants each year. Meanwhile, until now, the submission to the MESA annual conference does not provide fields such as WGST or interdisciplinary studies as scholarly categories for panels, pushing all presenters to conform with traditional disciplines. I conclude by arguing for restructuring scholarly categories of MESA and a stronger presence of Middle East gender scholars in the National Women Studies Association, which has proven more hospitable to gendering labor studies and the intersection of WGST, race and ethnic studies, and area studies.
  • The development of Women and Gender Studies in the US has been influential globally. Important theoretical approaches such as postcolonial feminism, transnational feminism and intersectionality have impacted the ways in which Women and Gender Studies are taught in universities and debated among activists both in the Global North and in the Global South, including in the Middle East. However, what is commonly called global academia often refers to scholarship written in English in academic journals based in the US or Europe. Moreover, US-academic scholarship often becomes hegemonic and shapes academic disciplines and debates in the Middle East and North Africa. I would like to reflect on this hegemony and what it means for scholars and scholar-activists in the region, especially in a context like Iraq where decades of US military interventions have provoked the collapse of academic and research institutions. What is the impact of US-centric approaches and the dominance of US institutions like MESA in framing Women and Gender Studies in the region? How can we think about transnational academic research and theorizing in a much more critical way that fosters and supports the development of research agendas by feminists in the region as opposed to on feminists in the region? In other words, how can we not only provincialize but also decolonize Women and Gender Studies?
  • Transnational Gender Studies and the Feminisms—Some Ideas from MESA, AMEWS, and Projects in Khartoum, Sudan This presentation is based on participant observation within MESA, AMEWS, and comparable institutions in Khartoum, Sudan, and on ethnographic research. MESA’s inception in 1966 with 51 founding members—no women and mostly white men, in effect summarizes the predicament that MESA has faced with regard to Gender Studies, the feminisms, and transnational studies. By 2022 women members outnumbered men and become a major influence in MESA. This, in part, was a result of the founding in 1985 of the Association for Middle East Women’s Studies—then followed some years later by the foundation of AMEWS’s Journal for Middle East Women’s Studies. However, the mere presence of women does not necessarily lead to the development of feminist ideas, nor to the development of mechanisms for disseminating these ideas transnationally, although the well-received journal was instrumental in the process of transnational influence. Initially AMEWS was influential, but recently the membership has declined. Is it a generational phenomenon; due to the reticence, sometimes, to make political decisions. Is there a problem of not keeping up, as an organization, with what younger members want--the latest theories and methods of Gender Studies and the feminisms which have developed in the States, e.g. intersectionality and transnationalism. I approach some of these questions by using my eight years of fieldwork in Sudan, where I have observed if organizations such as AMEWS, JMEWS, and U.S. gender/feminist theories and forms of activism, in general, have had an impact on Sudanese women’s ideas, on the plethora of women’s NGO’s, and on their activism. Has women’s prominent role in the 2019 Sudan Revolution and post-revolution contained feminist elements that we might trace to certain ideas extant in academic and activist circles in the States? Has AMEWS gained from ideas about the Revolution? How have MESA/AMEWS fared in the development of transnational ideas and activism? Some of the evidence of recent transnational work has been the holding of AMEWS-led international conferences in MENA—e.g. in Beirut and in Khartoum--which may be among the links we in MESA and AMEWS can build upon.
  • Sex, Sexuality, and Feminist Theory in Middle East Gender Studies This presentation will focus on the place of sexuality studies and feminist theory within Middle East Gender Studies, and the place of Middle East Gender Studies within Eurocentric sexuality studies and feminist theory. I will offer a thematic overview of some of the major themes and contributions that Middle East Scholars have made to the interdisciplinary field of US-based Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, focusing on their methodological and theoretical interventions. As a MESA member for over twenty years and as a professor in a US based Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department with a PhD program, I have experienced first-hand some of the impasses between the fields and spaces of Middle East Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies, including between the MESA and NWSA organizations and annual meetings. Although both are interdisciplinary fields that have been shaped by activism and political engagement, they have different genealogies and trajectories, and are differently positioned vis a vis traditional academic disciplines. My presentation will draw from this experience, as well on a decade of original research on sexuality and the state in Lebanon, to reflect on the complex and changing relationship between these fields. Special attention will be paid to the epistemological, geopolitical, methodological and material differences and overlaps between Middle East Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies. What kind of scholarship and graduate training on the Middle East is possible in a Gender and Sexuality Studies department, and what kind of scholarship and graduate training in gender and sexuality studies is possible in a Middle East Studies Department? What effects do cuts to graduate student funding and research grant institutions have on the relationship between these academic fields? I will address these questions and offer some thoughts on how we might reconfigure gender, sexuality, and feminist theory within Middle East Studies, and the Middle East within Gender and Sexuality Studies.