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Women’s Work in the Middle East and Beyond: Critical Junctures

Panel III-30, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
This proposed interdisciplinary (sociology, anthropology, history, literature) panel explores women’s work within Middle Eastern communities both in the region and abroad; showing local, regional, and transnational connections that shape their experiences. It brings to the fore analytical categories and theoretical approaches that center women’s agency and creative powers in navigating, negotiating, and challenging oppressive structures, power relations, and (capitalist) systems of production. The different papers explore such topics as motherhood, home-based income-generating projects, material culture, and women’s ways of circumventing and/or negotiating the oppressive systems in which they exist. Together they shed light on the different ways women’s work contributes to and affects culture, history, and politics. The first paper explores the work of women embroiderers in Palestine and the diaspora to understand cultural making and cultural continuity as a form of social reproduction and embodiment of Indigenous sovereignty beyond borders and governments. The second paper reveals how housewives and working-class women in Egypt, who create digital content on YouTube about their everyday lives to economically sustain their families, create communities and partake in a transnational digital labor system. The third paper further develops the literature on the ethics of care, using a working-class neighborhood in Cairo as its case study, and argues that class and gender are inseparable analytical categories. The fourth paper focuses on the Palestinian community–in particular mothers–in Toronto and its attempts to negotiate the local school district’s implementation of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism and weaponization of child protective services to that end. The final paper explores the history of women’s work during the 1930s in nation-building efforts and the creation of a national heritage in Lebanon with a focus on arts and crafts. Together, the different papers on this panel represent critical cultural, political, and labor work women have done and continue to do and how this work circumvents oppressive systems.
  • In this paper, I work to understand the articulation and embodiment of sovereignty by way of social reproduction for those living under settler colonialism and military occupation in Palestine. The current scholarship on social reproduction focuses on women’s roles regarding childbearing and caring for children and/or the community. However, a different means by which social reproduction influences life and politics is through cultural continuity/preservation in the face of dispossession and erasure. In this paper, I look at the ways in which women, through their everyday practices of survival, create a politics of life, through social reproduction. Anthropologist Didier Fassin was first to coin the term “politics of life” to refer to an understanding of politics not from the outside (i.e. the state or institutions), but from the inside and “in the flesh of the everyday experience[s]” (Fassin, 2009, 57). Recently, anthropologist Ilana Feldman expanded on Fassin’s work by using humanitarianism as a site since most of its actors claim to act outside of formal politics (2018). In this paper, I expand on Fassin and Feldman’s work by focusing on social reproduction as a gendered politics of life, a politics that seeks to understand how ordinary women operate within their everyday lives and unintentionally “act politically” (Feldman, 2018, 4). I argue that this politics of life is an embodiment of a sovereignty not bound by borders and governments. Furthermore, that women’s work with Palestinian embroidery is a gendered politics of life and an articulation and embodiment of indigenous Palestinian sovereignty. I use ethnographic research and interviews of Palestinian women who currently embroider and sell their products in historic Palestine and abroad. I have discovered that these women are embroidering the very cultural materials that hold up a nation and a fragmented people and it is in this way that they articulate sovereignty. The women who embroider the pieces that carry Palestine all over the world would not be considered politically active since they are unseen, their work is done in silence and at home, but their work is the backbone of Palestinian culture and heritage. Embroidery serves as material expression of Palestinian experience, history, and identity. Embroidery serves multiple purposes: a source of economic self-sustenance, creates an invisible (ironically through vibrant and colorful materials) historical and cultural connection shared by Palestinians across the world, and enables cultural preservation and cultural continuity in the face of erasure, fragmentation, and dispossession.
  • My paper explores the work of women and women’s organizations in salvaging traditional crafts in the context of industrialization, expanding capitalist economy, and French colonialism in early-20th century Lebanon. Particularly, it examines how patrons of arts and crafts engaged in projects of discovery, documentation, and design in the process of constructing a Lebanese heritage in the 1930s. Their activities included travels across Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria to collect and document both historical and contemporary costumes; visualizations of a Lebanese heritage inspired by the latest Western-led archaeological excavations and museum collections; and the setting up of venues to exhibit ancient garments and sell newly designed ones. In other words, I attempt to historicize Lebanese heritage by highlighting the inclusion of some Western sources, regional repertoires, and modern methods that women’s associations used in their effort to bridge the passing of a “traditional” society with the ushering in of “modernity.” Mostly known as a leading Arab feminist and a Lebanese nationalist, Evelyne Tueni Bustros (1878-1971), scioness of the Greek orthodox aristocracy in Beirut, played a central role in these cultural and material enterprises nourishing wider nation-building efforts. Using the archival collection of Bustros at the American University of Beirut, along with the Arabic, French, and English periodicals of the time, ephemera and official documents, I shed light on this hitherto little-known aspect of Bustros’s work and its significance for the reconstruction of the material history of modern Lebanon. While the intertwining of Bustros’s biography and the making of Lebanese heritage informs us of the urban notables’ role in the nation-building process under French mandate authorities, it also reveals the overlapping absences of women’s work and material culture in the post-colonial national archives. Ultimately, this research hopes to contribute to the understanding of nation-building from the perspective of women’s history and the history of crafts in colonial contexts, with particular attention to the construction of heritage in discursive and material terms.
  • I argue that gendered and racial childism reveals settler colonial political anxieties wherein degrees of self-knowledge are applied differentially across race and gender categories. I argue that anti-Palestinian childism is distinct in that it mobilizes white motherhood/maternal/pedagogical aptitudes as superior to racial motherhoods by operating as a benevolent process of saving Palestinian children from their families and themselves. Simultaneously, white mothers fragment Palestinian children from their embodied knowledges through “cultural gaslighting" (Ruiz). Black and feminized Palestinian students are targeted in different ways than Palestinian boys and their allies in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), in accordance with social and cultural phenomenon such as rape culture, gendered discourses of peace and dialogue practices, as well as imperial white feminist discourses. My paper explores a case study wherein, following the proposed inclusion of the IHRA definition of antisemitism into the Toronto District School Board’s child abuse and neglect policy in the Fall of 2022, the Palestinian community learned that educators with leadership roles in the TDSB were proposing to involve child protective services in reinforcing this definition. These measures are justified as protecting the Palestinian children. I argue that there is an incongruent application of agency to children based on imperial and settler colonial political anxieties and distinctions. This pattern is in distinct congruence with the longstanding Canadian legacy of weaponizing white motherhood and the settler colonial project of the fragmentation of indigenous families and their cultural-political transmissions.
  • “The ethics of care” has been coined by feminists to account for the often unrecognized and unappreciated time and energy women invest in caring for their families and communities. This notion has been an important correction to the devaluing of work done outside the cash economy and to the marginalization of the care needed for the survival of families and the reproduction of communities. Over the past two decades, the notion of the ethics of care has become the focus of a rich body of literature, which is debated in different disciplines, including psychology, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and political science. Drawing critically on this literature and on long-term ethnographic research in a low-income neighborhood in northern Cairo, this paper looks at the care work that women are increasingly burdened with under neoliberal policies. In particular, women have to reckon with a weakened state commitment to provide basic health and educational services and with the growing emphasis on individual responsibility as key to survival and wellbeing. The precarious economic conditions that Egypt has been experiencing the past several years, especially the dramatic increase in living costs without any matching increase in incomes, generates new challenges for women as they strive to find new ways to meet the needs of their families with less resources. From looking after children, cleaning, shopping for affordable products, making food, and managing the budget to finding tutors, organizing private lessons, helping sons and daughters with schoolwork, and attending to the sick, the work of women is essential to daily life. Most women choose these care practices over laboring in backbreaking and low-paying jobs because they are keenly aware of its importance to the wellbeing of their loved ones. The paper pays special attention to the “connections of care” (such as visiting neighbors and friends, exchanging foods and gifts, and helping when a neighbor or relative gives birth or has a special occasion) that women create and how these connections are key to their making as gendered and classed subjects. Rather than the strong emphasis on gender, this paper brings class to the foreground and argues that the ethics of care loses part of its analytical purchase when not simultaneously including a deep analysis of class and how it is inseparable from gender in daily life.