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Transformations in Gender Culture

Session IX-19, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
  • From its emergence in late-nineteenth-century Sudan as the prescribed dress for male members of the Mahdist state, to its collection and display in museums around the world, the Mahdist jibba has been and continues to be a recognizable symbol of indigenous empire-building in opposition to Ottoman-Egyptian and British colonial power. Gifted in diplomatic exchanges and looted from battlefields, this dress is synonymous with anti-colonial masculinity and Mahdist Islamic devotional practice, and it is central to the creation and maintenance of lines of authority within this movement during the height of Ottoman and European scrambles for Africa. Yet, for all this garment reveals about male devotion, empire-building, and military masculinity, these frameworks do not answer an important aspect of the politics of this dress: What happens when women and individuals not-identified-as-men take up the Mahdist jibba? What space do these individuals occupy in an indigenous empire intent on maintaining gendered divisions? This paper addresses five case studies where women and individuals not-identified-as-men take up the Mahdist jibba: to protest the leader of the movement, to take up arms and fight for the Mahdist cause, to position themselves as full members of the Mahdist community, and to police those deemed outside of it. These individuals come from elite families in centers of power, non-elites in the Mahdist borderlands, and at least one from enslaved heritage living in the capital, a case that raises questions about the degree to which ideas of gender enter Mahdist politics from non-Islamic Nuba Mountain and southern Sudanese contexts. Therefore, this paper demonstrates ways that women and individuals not-identified-as-men made claims to power and authority by troubling the gendered discourses of the Mahdist empire.
  • This research aims to illuminate the essential role that women play in improving Iran’s social and environmental conditions. Examining the work of several prominent Iranian activists, I will argue that Iranian cities and communities are increasingly shaped by the participation of women in the realm of civil society. Environmental examples in this research include the work of Mahlagha Mallah, Iran’s eldest environmental activist and the founder of the first environmental NGO in the country; Shahindokht Sanati’s transformation of the agricultural fate of Kerman’s Lalehzaar region that replaced poppies with roses and opium with rosewater; Shirin Parsi’s innovations to promote sustainable farming and encourage others to refrain from using chemical pesticides and fertilizers to produce 100% organic rice; as well as the hard work of the ecologist Dr. Hayedeh Shirzadi to put an end to the burial of urban garbage in Iran and her success in making Kermanshah the first city in the country that recycles 100% and turns bio waste into organic fertilizers. Social change examples in this research include the work of Touran Mirhadi, known as the preeminent architect of childhood institution and the mother of modern education in Iran, who founded the Farhad School, the Children's Book Council, and the Encyclopedia for Young People and believed that peace must be cultivated at childhood; the life-saving work of Saideh Ghods, the founder of Mahak, Iran's most highly functioning and trusted charity, who also established a fully equipped hospital in Tehran that specializes in treating children with cancer; as well as the tireless work of the internationally acclaimed women’s rights activist, Nasrin Sotoudeh, who continues to strive for gender equality even as a political prisoner. Particularly focusing on the role of these activists in establishing and sustaining recent transformations in Iranian society, this paper illuminates the impactful and lasting work of women change-makers. Ultimately, I will argue that sustainable social and environmental change in Iran is best accomplished through bottom-up activism cultivated by women who have historically held a prominent position as teachers and promoters of ideas in Iranian culture.
  • Today, women equestrians are fighting a quiet gender battle on the tbourida field in North Africa. Less than 60 women ride among thousands of men in Morocco’s gunpowder games–the dangerous, traditional equestrian sport of tbourida, also known as fantasia. For a brief period between 2005-2010, all-female teams could compete for the national tbourida trophy. The class, however, was abruptly eliminated in 2011. This paper explores women’s participation in traditional sport and the impact of the proposed 2019 addition of tbourida to the UNESCO intangible world heritage list and subsequent acceptance in 2021. I will expand on the debate surrounding the UNESCO designation, the impact it has on gender equality and popular cultural heritage in the future, while also talking about the collaboration and marketing put forward in the proposal. I address how the application for UNESCO designation as intangible world heritage has shaped the fate of women riders in tbourida, and the role of gender in preserving popular cultural heritage. Based on 5 years of fieldwork, this paper discusses the role of intangible cultural heritage on identity formation specifically how the designation may lead to more openness to allowing female riders and reinstituting women’s competition classes in the more structure competitions as well as in the rural, local festivals.
  • The 1979 Iranian Revolution enabled conservative women previously limited in mobility to partake in building a Shi’i revolutionary state by expanding access to the women’s seminaries unparalleled in the history of Shi’i Islam. I lived in Iran for 15 months to explore what the consequences have been for some of them. Of the eight women I did my research with, five of them were either on reserve or actively involved with one of the six branches of the Basij. Over 21 of the howzevi I interacted with were active in the University Basij. Fatemeh and Hoda come from a family of martyrs and war survivors. Fatemeh and Hoda were students of Agha-ye Sharifi at Howzeh-ye Kowsar. And, like many of Agha-ye Sharifi’s students, the two sisters were both howzevi and members of the University Basij and Jahadi Sazandegi (they referred to as Jahadi Basij), the Reconstruction Corps. By virtue of their association with the Islamic government, they remain faceless and unworthy of consideration. In this presentation, I draw on their ethnography as students of Howze-ye Kowsar and as daughters of a martyr, who saw themselves as vanguards of a state with the maxim to derail western political domination in the Middle East. I pose an alternative look at their lives, moving analysis away from a dehumanizing narrative and into one that focuses on how they experience belonging in their polities of practice. This work is part of a recently completed book project entitled, “Shirini: The Work of Howzevi (Seminarian) Women in Iran.” It is positioned at the intersection of state, Islamic education, and the Iranian women’s movement, currently characterized by women’s work to undermine patriarchal state policies.
  • The four parts of Kurdistan have been the site of profound shifts in terms of processes of ‘quasi’-state building, struggles for self-determination, military conflicts, women’s movements and cultural production. Kurdistan’s division between four nation states has also led to the emergence of at least four visions of what a free and independent Kurdistan might look like: from ‘Democratic Confederalism’ in Eastern Turkey and Northeast Syria (NES), to an independent nation state in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). Women’s mobilisation for gender-based equality and justice and the youth’s demands for transparency, access to resources and public space have been key drivers behind these struggles (Al-Ali & Pratt 2011; Jongerden 2019; Kaya 2017; Mohammad 2021). Amidst ongoing conflicts and insecurities in the KRI, a new generation of young artists and activists have emerged who are no longer organised in party ranks or convinced by the agenda of established women’s organisations, both of whom they consider to be deeply corrupt and ineffective. In their work they problematise issues around gender and sex-based violence (GSBV), religious conservatism and corruption, finding a powerful visual and literary language to address patriarchy, misogyny, the onslaught of ISIS, and how their interconnections impact women’s understanding and sense of space, identity, sexuality and body politics (Mahmoud 2021). Drawing on transnational and post-colonial feminist literature on gender and war (Sjoberg 2014, Cockburn 2004; Al-Ali 2009; Shepherd 2019), and on art and conflict (Salih & Richter-Devroe 2014; Tripp 2016), this paper portrays the main actors behind these emerging dynamics in the KRI and asks how social and political change are imagined and enacted by feminist and youth activists and artists. Based on ethnographic research in Sulaymaniyah, Erbil and Duhok, this paper puts forward the argument that these new initiatives in the post-ISIS KRI have developed alternative discourses and practices, which have the potential to create more gender equal and transparent political spaces that challenge conservative gender norms and relations and go beyond prevailing party politics and regional rivalries.