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SWANA Contributions to Feminist Theory

RoundTable VIII-4, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 11:00 am

RoundTable Description
The Gender Dictionary produced by Lebanon Support in 2016, includes an entry on “intersectionality,” a trendy feminist theory buzzword that has gained traction outside of the academy. The author of the entry brings attention to the limitations of the framework, especially its “overreliance on seemingly ‘stable’ analytical categories (race, gender, class) which has the potential of missing other forms of intersecting oppressions that do not fall into such clearly-defined axes, but rather are shaped by conditions such as time and space.” (40) This roundtable seeks to demonstrate the ways that feminists in and scholars writing alongside feminists in Southwest Asia, especially Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, and Iran, contribute to feminist theory, not just by identifying the limitations of existing feminist theories, but through the creation of feminist theories that take into account the experiences of living under occupation, imperialism, and neoliberalism and of fighting against limiting patriarchal beliefs about women’s capacities held locally and abroad. Each participant on this trans-disciplinary (History, Sociology, Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies) roundtable raises questions that emerge from recent and forthcoming scholarship that contribute to feminist theory. What would it mean to insert the analytical category of tarbiya (the rearing of children) into intersectional feminist analyses around the world? How does accounting for affect transform scholarship of transnational feminist alliances and on local feminist networks? What can working-class feminist perspectives from SWANA contribute to labor feminist praxis in other world regions affected by the confluence of neoliberalism, authoritarianism, and empire? How does studying activists from the interwar Eastern Mediterranean compel reconceptualizations of the mechanics of transnational feminist alliances? How do we respond to feminist possibilities or political imaginaries that emerge in classroom discussion? How do we write histories that account for absences? How does studying the politics of mobility nuance feminist notions of justice? The answers to these questions, and others raised by our panelists, contribute to feminist knowledge production around the world.
  • Recent scholarship emphasizes that successful transnational feminist networks are either goal-dependent or identity-based. This paper introduces affective transnationalism, or using a shared emotional state to try to build an activist community across international borders, as an analytical category. Focusing on the attempts of women from Syria and Lebanon to build community with women in other world regions in the interwar period demonstrates the central importance of affective connections in establishing successful transnational activist communities. Emphasizing the importance of a shared goal, Women and Gender Studies theorist Chandra Talpade Mohanty argues that one of the conditions of contemporary transnational feminism is that it is anticapitalist. In the first half of the twentieth century, a central condition of transnational feminism was that it was anticolonial. Philosopher Sergio Gallegos notes that the “goal” versus “identity” bifurcation is artificial, arguing “both the existence of common goals (such as the struggle for labor rights) and the development of shared identities by feminists across borders must be recognized as central elements that are complementary and mutually reinforcing.” Syro-Lebanese activists’ call for sisterhood and belonging with the feminist activists from the North Atlantic had a goal-based layer (improving the status of women), an identity-based layer (elite, educated women engaging in social reforms), and an emotional-layer (indignation at Arab women’s exclusion from the international women’s movement; frustration at the injustice of colonialism; and contained an element of hope). Studying Syro-Lebanese women’s efforts to build community with women in other countries reveals shared goals, identities, and feelings are at the core of successful social movements, an insight which will contribute to feminist knowledge production about transnational organizing based in other world regions.
  • In 2013, Chandra Mohanty argued that a feminist organization can only be “transnational” if women working across borders attempt to “reform or dismantle power structures, such as colonialism or neoliberalism.” How did Egyptian and Turkish feminist activists work “transnationally” within the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in the 1920s and 1930s? From its establishment in 1904 up to the Second World War, the Alliance was decidedly not transnational; instead much of its leadership were often North Atlantic imperialist apologists and supporters. My book project, Suffrage Mediterranean Style, interrogates how Mediterranean women, whether from predominantly Muslim or Roman Catholic countries, collaborated with the Alliance despite being frequently Othered by its Protestant members. How do we define and interrogate Egyptian and Turkish activists’ own definitions and intentions for working beyond the boundaries of the nation-state? Why did these SWANA feminists decide to work with the Alliance throughout the 1920s and 1930s? How did they resist the Alliance’s marginalization, promote their own agendas, and reframe solidarities during the interwar period? In many ways, Egyptian and Turkish feminist activists complicate Mohanty’s conceptualization of “transnational” through their engagement with the Alliance. I argue that in the face of anti-feminist and suffrage-hesitant regimes in power in Egypt and Turkey, the Egyptian Feminist Union and Turkish Women’s Union turned to the Alliance to gain support and sought to put external geopolitical power on their national governments.
  • This roundtable contribution introduces pedagogy to our collective endeavor to theorize feminist praxis, including the notion of intersectionality. It argues that our act of teaching, the practices and actions involved in shaping, conveying, and receiving knowledge, cannot be excluded from the ways in which feminist knowledge production (broadly conceived) is understood and theorized in academic and other spaces. Bringing nearly a decade of teaching Middle East women and gender studies *in* the Middle East, this presenter will discuss the range of ways in which students who are from and live in the region generate, understand, and transform notions of feminism, empowerment, and activism by drawing upon their daily lived experiences and incorporating genealogies of colonialism, family trauma, political ideology, class, and religion. They do so in ways that often reject the terms and trends they are taught in the classroom, or just as often that deeply complicate what Middle East gender scholars think they 'know'. As such, these students can and should be seen as co-producers of knowledge -- co-theorists, if you will. To broaden the focus, I want to use these examples to ask larger questions about what we must ask about our pedagogical practices, and how integrating teaching with theorizing can not only deeply enrich both but perhaps even generate new kinds of feminist theoretical practice and knowledge production.
  • In my roundtable remarks, I explore the emergence of a working-class feminist perspective in the contemporary Iranian freedom struggle. I examine linkages that labor and feminist organizers made between the Iranian women’s and labor movements in the 2000s and 2010s and contextualize these within the Islamic Republic of Iran’s neoliberalizing economy during this period. Women have had a low participation rate in Iran’s labor market relative to men due to a variety of reasons which can be tied to domestic and global crises of capitalism, right-wing state policies and ideologies which have limited their right to enter the labor market outright, and the impact of US sanctions. Still, millions of women do work in Iran and the organizers I center have elevated their demands within the labor movement which remains male-dominated. The weakening of labor protections in Iran, in line with free market ideologies of profit over people throughout the world, has exacerbated the marginalization of these women workers, while also pushing increasing numbers of women into precarious informal economies. These developments pushed a growing number of grassroots organizers in the 2000s and 2010s to form linkages between the labor and women’s movements. I focus on the experiences of women teachers and garment workers in particular, as well as the ways in which a segment of labor organizers consistently raised consciousness within the labor movement about working-class women’s struggles. The conditions under which these organizers resisted were a confluence of Iran’s authoritarianism with domestic capitalism, the global neoliberal turn, and the imperialisms of the United States and other global powers. I show that while these overlapping forces claimed to liberate Iranian women, a segment of feminist labor organizers showed through their actions that these forces together, on the contrary, produced working-class women’s hardships. I place particular focus on the teachers’ movement, where women make up a majority of the workforce and yet where men predominate in the leadership of their labor unions. I explore oral histories I conducted with teacher activists and argue that this movement was the only labor struggle during this period in which a powerful, if still not dominant, working-class feminist perspective emerged. This perspective has the potential to help build Iran’s ongoing revolutionary movement for “Woman, Life, Freedom.” It also interlocks with transnational feminist theorizing and activism in the SWANA region in resistance to regional and global patriarchal structures of neoliberalism, authoritarianism, and empire.
  • Between 1850 and 1939, writers working in Arabic spilled gallons of ink on the subject of tarbiya, or the raising of children, in the pages of the Arabic private press. This fascination was particularly apparent in journals written and edited by women. In this presentation, I'll draw on that material to argue that tarbiya could be a useful concept for feminist theory. I’ll show that tarbiya, as theorized by Arab women, brings together two sets of feminist questions that are often considered in isolation. The first set revolves around what later theorists would call social reproduction, or how to value and account for the work of raising children and keeping adults fed, clothed, and socialized to be productive members of a laboring society. Arab writers like Labiba Hashim turned to tarbiya to insist that reproduction was not the “hidden abode” that later feminist theorists would find undertheorized in Marx, but a central domain of worldmaking and therefore of political contestation. Arab women, in other words, used discussions of breastfeeding and childrearing to highlight central contradictions in the understandings of labor and the body that undergirded the rise of capitalist society. Bodies, they suggested, could not be sovereign and self-owning all the way down. More broadly, thinking through their concept of tarbiya can help us to see how women and reproduction have been central to reconfiguring labor, capital, and social order in many places around the world, long before women in the US, Canada, and Italy called for wages for housework in the 1970s. Thinking through tarbiya, however, also highlights a second problem: the problem of political reproduction, or the making of moral, free, trustworthy subjects for popular sovereignty and representative politics. Scholars like Carole Pateman and Joan Scott have pointed to the exclusion of women from early experiments in representative governance. What has gone underemphasized in these critiques is why liberal political regimes have relied so heavily on gender difference to draw the boundaries of equality and citizenship. Tarbiya suggests that the answer to this question lies in the feminization of political as well as social reproduction, i.e., the work of making not just bodies for labor, but trustworthy subjects for democratic life. As theorists of tarbiya recognized, the fantasy of the self-owning liberal subject free enough to make his own choices, but governable enough to be trusted with self-governance, has long relied on the feminization of political-reproductive work.
  • Over the course of my research in Palestine and her diaspora, I have encountered Absences and Vanishings. Critical refugee studies scholar Yen Le Espiritu asks us to consider how we look for and write about Absences in feminist writing: “How do we compel others to look for the things that are seemingly not there? How do we imagine beyond the limits of what is already stated to be understandable?” (2005: xx). In my case, the whisperings emerging from these ghostly traces seemed to hover around the Palestinian olive tree; it carried the story of our identity in its branches, our attachment to the land in its roots, and our memories in its fruits. For this roundtable, I reflect on the process of research and writing for my project Olive Skins. Using the olive as material and symbol, this book-in-progress examines global circulations of fair trade olive oil from Palestine as well as the ways in which Palestinians continue to imbue the olive with Indigenous life and meaning in the context of a vanishing landscape eschewed by settler colonialism. I read the olive as an historically situated optic that exposes the processes of Vanishment—the simultaneity of erasure and neoliberal forms of recognition that Indigenous peoples face today. Reflecting on the writing process, I consider the words of Sara Ahmad: “A feminist history is affective; we pick up those feelings that are not supposed to be felt because they get in the way of an expectation of who we are and what life should be” (2017: 65). For this roundtable, I consider what writing means for feminist critique, the role of affect in storytelling, and the ways in which we make space for Absences.