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Patriarchy’s Women: Power, Gender & (Self-) Representation

Session IX-20, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
Scholars of Middle East women’s history have often focused on actors in women’s movements who - although being limited by their male contemporaries within the framework of anti-colonial nationalist movements - sought to push for women’s liberation, rights and universal suffrage. This panel is concerned with women actors and voices ignored in this historiography who, contrary to activists in women’s movements, championed patriarchal institutions and often rejected secular nationalist goals for women. Specifically, the papers explore how women actors in Lebanese high society, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Syriac Orthodox community of the Ottoman East understood themselves as gendered actors in relation to their respective patriarchies. The panel is concerned with their self-representations through the lenses of religion/sect, class and gender, with a particular focus on gendered power dynamics. The papers seek to explore women’s complicity and rethink women’s power in patriarchal institutions: How did some women both promote and/or benefit from such structures? How did they carve out spaces for themselves in structures that sought to disempower them, and how did they legitimize their own visible participation? During times of change in social, political and gendered structures, how did these women contribute to discourses of femininity, ideology and politics? What were the implications of their gendered rhetoric, acts and ideologies for their respective societies, and what were the stakes? Rather than placing women actors in traditional-modern or liberal-conservative binaries, the panel examines complex and shifting gendered power dynamics in specific patriarchies in which the women held powerful roles.
Disciplines
History
Participants
Presentations
  • High society women in newly independent Lebanon followed a tradition of highly visible gendered work in the realm of charity, and often featured in Lebanese magazines as benevolent and fashionable hostesses of fundraisers and other charity events. The scholarship of women in the Middle East discusses the mandate period’s rise of women’s charities in relation to women's movements in the absence of opportunities in formal political roles and offices for women, often describing their work as politically limited due to their gendered restrictions. This paper seeks to challenge the assumption that gendered charity work was less politically significant and to rethink the relationship between gendered work, patriarchy and power in Lebanon from 1943 to 1975. During Lebanon’s so-called “Golden Age,” high society women manning charity committees worked to produce specific and exclusionary versions of Lebanese culture and folklore through a variety of cultural festivals and artisanal organizations. These initiatives sought to define Lebanese cultural authenticity to domestic and foreign audiences, and to “civilize” or erase aspects deemed undesirable. I argue that these high society women reinforced the Lebanese patriarchal order - simultaneously supporting the exclusion of women in formal politics and influencing Lebanese politics themselves - by actively framing themselves as passive, incompetent and politically inept maternal figures. Such rhetoric served as a gendered tool that depoliticized their highly ideological work and rendered it politically unthreatening, despite their considerable influence in defining Lebanon.
  • This paper considers the various laborings that Syriac Orthodox women performed to maintain social and religious community in the 19th century, specifically in the Ottoman East. Scholars of gender and sexuality have shown that women’s participation in patriarchal institutions is complex and not a simple binary of oppression versus agency. Thus, this paper seeks to critically examine how women and their work was represented by (often) male writers, who had certain stakes in presenting their community as virtuous (for the clergymen and monks) or backwards (for the American and English missionaries), during this time period of great change and strife. My goal is to think together of the representations of women with their ritual and subjective experiences of spirituality to better understand their roles in their communities. Examining court records of inheritance cases, church registers of donations, oral histories of genealogies, and travelogues, I argue that women are present in the archive but are ignored for the sake of arguments that erase their presence (e.g. nascent nationalism, inter-ethnic conflicts, Ottoman state-building in the region). In fact, these communities could not have survived without the quotidian labor of maintaining households and holy spaces and the affective work of worship (e.g. preparing for the many fasts throughout the year, fertility pilgrimages, oral traditions of healing and medicine).
  • This research focuses on the ‘Muslim Sisters Section’ (‘Qism El-ʾAkhawat El-Muslimat’), of the ‘Society of Muslim Brothers’ (‘Jamaʿat El-ʾIkhwan El-Muslimin’) in Egypt, that established in 1933 by Hassan El-Banna. Historiographical review of researches that focuses on Political Islam exposes that despite the wealth of literature on the Muslim Brothers, women’s agency in the movement is one of the least explored dimensions of the movement, even though they played a pivotal role in its survival at stages when the movement was subject to extreme repression. My research aims to fill this gap and therefore focuses on analyzing several vital issues: men’s guardianship over women (Qawamat El-Rijal ʿala El-Nisa), veiling, gender separation in the public sphere (Manaʿ El-ʾIkhtilat), education for women, polygamy, inheritance, violence against women, the complexity between a woman’s family and social duties and the status and role of the Muslim Sisters within the Muslim Brotherhood. This study is based on reading and analyzing a wide variety of sources, primarily the interpretation of the Quran (Qurʾanic Tafsir) and diaries of autobiographical memories, written by Muslim Sisters like Zaynab El-Ghazali (1919-2005), ʾAmal El-ʿAshmawy (1916-1995), Fatma ʿAbd El-Hady (1917-2005), Labiba ʾAhmed (1870-1955), Hamida Qutb (1937-2012) and ʾIntisar ʿAbd El-Munʿem (1965). This research aims to shed light on these figures and expand the narrow understanding of feminism that has previously precluded the existence of Islamist activists. Saba Mahmood (Mahmood), in her book, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and The Feminist Subject, argues that Islamist Women’s narrative should be analyzed in terms of the particular field of arguments it has made available to Muslim women and the possibilities for action these arguments have opened and foreclosed for them (Mahmood, 2012: 183). This study attempts to apply Mahmood’s method to understand the doctrinal and religious worldviews that defined Muslim Sisters and expose and contextualize their rhetoric, motivations, and actions. I argue that the precise examination of texts written by Muslim Sisters reveals their independent and unique voice and trace how they and the Muslim Brothers sought to influence and react to gender matters arising within the movement and in the broader socio-political context of Egypt.