MESA Banner
Rethinking Women's Empowerment in the MENA

Session II-19, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, December 1 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
Women's empowerment in the MENA region is often based on the Eurocentric notion that empowerment unfolds along a single, universal pathway, with formal education leading to paid employment and financial independence as prerequisites. If women's lives don't follow these narrowly defined pathways, they are frequently considered by the development community to be 'disempowered.' This panel seeks to include papers around the theme of women's empowerment that focus on women's lived experiences in the MENA region, taking a more holistic and qualitative approach to thinking about women's empowerment, disempowerment and empowerment pathways. It is hoped that papers in this panel will add qualitative, micro-level data about women’s lives in the MENA, that not only broadens, but also complicates our understanding of modern-traditional dichotomies, as well as challenging notions of the ‘Third World’ woman as victim, receiver of aid and lacking agency, instead showing how women in the MENA play an active role in shaping their own lives.
  • Education is viewed as the development panacea and most important factor in women’s empowerment, which in turn is seen as an essential precondition for the elimination of world poverty. Educated girls are expected to get married later, obtain paid employment, and become ‘empowered women’ who will ‘lift the developing world out of poverty.’ My paper and PhD research departs from a puzzle, where girls’ education doesn’t seem to be leading to this expected outcome. In 2019, I lived and worked within the nationwide network of boarding houses (dar taliba) which allow girls from remote villages in Morocco to access education by providing free accommodation close to local schools. Across the houses, girls achieved an average pass rate of 90%, compared to the national average of 53%. Despite this, few go on to achieve the goals advertised by the development world of further study and paid employment. In fact, many girls obtain their diploma and return to their village to get married, where on the surface, their lives are not dissimilar from uneducated girls. Traditional measures of women’s empowerment would therefore consider girls’ boarding houses in Morocco a development failure. Through my ethnographic fieldwork, I problematise the education-equals-empowerment equation and argue that we need to rethink Eurocentric notions that empowerment unfolds along a single, linear pathway, with paid employment and financial independence as prerequisites. I explore ‘alternative empowerment pathways’ linked to education that are overlooked by dominant development metrics, such as education’s impact on self-confidence, agency, and girls’ ability to articulate their aspirations and make decisions about their own lives. I focus on exploring informal and less overt forms of empowerment including girls’ mobility, household bargaining power, self-confidence and self-esteem and gender dynamics within marital relationships. My paper is based on my experiences of working in girls’ boarding houses in 2019, in addition to subsequent research trips and fieldwork that I will undertake from July – November 2022. In my paper, I will explore issues including: - Girls’ education as the development panacea - Is education empowering rural girls within the traditional empowerment framework? - Why is education failing to empower girls? Is education disempowering? - Preliminary findings on empowerment pathways which challenge Western concepts of empowerment
  • In my paper, I will be analyzing the dispossessing nature of contemporary neoliberal (semi-) authoritarian regimes embodied in the notion of al-hogra in Morocco, which Hsain Ilahiane defined as “contempt” to refer “to various daily micropractices of injustice and indignation visited upon the vulnerable and the powerless of society by dominant groups.” This concept has been used by North African protesters to describe the maltreatment of popular masses by the countries’ political and business elites. Thus far, the literature has only used it for an analysis of masculine spaces of protest and power as well as to talk about migration of men; however, women too, experience and speak of daily occurrences of humiliation as a result of their gender, class, marital status, lack of formal education, and sometimes ethnicity. Though many illuminating studies have theorized the links between politics, economy, and society, what is missing are people’s own narratives of life under oppressive regimes. This paper is informed by the life-stories of Moroccan low-income women to challenge master narratives, which put the blame for lack of one’s own and the country’s development on poor and illiterate people. Such myths are perpetrated by ‘talking at’ rather than ‘with’ the socially, politically, economically, and legally marginalized women and hence misrepresent not only their lives but also solutions to their plight. The counter-stories of my research participants-married, divorced, single, unwed mothers, orphans, and sex workers -which challenge the master narratives, demonstrate how a neoliberal self-help strategy to socio-economic and political disenfranchisement is deceptive.Instead, women’s narratives of life illustrate poignantly how al-hogra locks people into material poverty and social deprivation. As women who are defined by their class, marital standing, gender, and often ethnicity they are incredibly well positioned to critique the neoliberal model pursued by Moroccan elites, while their experiences explain much about the current state of politics and development in Morocco, and most possibly also other similar contexts within the MENA region. Their experiences are a pressing reminder how the neoliberal authoritarian post-colonial state managed to fracture society not only along class, gender, race, and regional lines but also break it psychologically and erode social solidarity.
  • This research examines the ways which shame ideology is used as a tool to promote empowerment among generations of Palestinian women. Shame is a phenomenon that permeates the realities of Palestinian women’s lives: women constantly negotiate the parameters of shame ideologies within the larger framework of their culture and, ultimately, within themselves (Baxter 2007). Shame (eib) ideology is self-regulating, meaning that an individual will monitor their behaviors and thoughts to reflect larger societal beliefs about morality (Abu-Lughod 1986; Elias 1989; Mahmood 2001). Self-monitoring, as well as communal monitoring, are perceived as modes of enforcement of shame ideology and behaviors. This paper takes an anthropological approach to understanding how the phenomenon of shame in the lives of West Bank Palestinian women is being used to promote generational empowerment. Realities surrounding shame are often enforced and perpetuated through female lineages, leading to women’s generational interpretations of gendered roles, subjectivity, and ideology. Kinship, in this regard, is an entity that both creates and reacts to socioeconomic and political changes. Drawing on fieldwork in Ramallah in 2019, this paper aims to uncover how shame ideologies have shifted across generations of Palestinian women and how those shifts have created new modes of empowerment which stem from Palestinian women themselves. References Abu-Lughod, Lila. 1986. Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. Oakland, CA: University of California Press. Baxter, Diane. 2007. “Honor Thy Sister: Selfhood, Gender, and Agency in Palestinian Culture.” Anthropology Quarterly 80 (3): 737-775. Elias, Norbert. 1989. “Shame and Repugnance.” In Social Theory Roots and Branches, edited by Peter Kivisto, 414-419. New York: Oxford University Press. Mahmood, Saba. 2001. “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival.” Cultural Anthropology 16(2): 202-236.
  • My research uncovers the everyday experiences of Iranian women gamers in online gaming by tracing the history of internet, social media, and the game industry in Iran. While gaming is an ordinary phenomenon around the world, Iranian women must find ways to engage in online worlds despite punitive foreign sanctions and local censorship laws in addition to navigating a highly masculinized space in game culture. Reconceptualizing questions of gender, rights to access, and labor in the context of gaming by investigating how Iranian women gamers use their labor for monetary or social capital, I build on the work of scholars who analyze emotion and social space through intensity of attachments and historical memory (Behrouzan 2016; Amrute 2016; Ahmed 2004). Because of their sociopolitical reality, Iranian women become affectively entangled in virtual spaces that lead to new constructions and expressions of the self. I aim to conceptualize how these gamers as embodied subjects negotiate their social and material subjectivity within online worlds due to their online and offline conditions of cyber oppression and toxic masculinity. In doing so, the paper offers narrative sketches of Iranian lives through participant observation, interviews, as well as historical frameworks to elucidate the ethnographic palimpsest that I have conducted across gaming and social media platforms.