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Disability Studies in the Middle East and North Africa: Past, Present, Future

Session VI-02, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 4:00 pm

RoundTable Description
In the United States, disability studies emerged as a field in the 1980s, largely as a result of the disability rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. It rejected the then-prevalent “medical model” that regarded disability as merely an individual pathology requiring the intervention of medical experts. Instead, disability studies espoused a “social model” that viewed disability as a social, civil, and human rights issue and that was centered on the experience of people with physical and mental impairments and on the physical and societal barriers that disabled them. Disability studies has grown enormously since the 1980s and today it is a firmly established, interdisciplinary, and vibrant field of academic inquiry. But it has one major shortcoming: the paucity of studies of disability in regions of the world other than Western Europe, the United States, and Canada. The unavoidable result is the distinct Euro-American centrism of disability studies, which is especially problematic considering that an estimated 80% of the world’s disabled people do not live in Europe or North America but in the so-called “Global South.” The MENA region is a case in point. Although millions of its inhabitants live with disabilities caused by poverty, war, environmental pollution, and diseases, until recently very little scholarship has focused on disabled people themselves. This multidisciplinary roundtable brings together for the first time a group of scholars and activists of disability from disciplines that include history, anthropology, literature, film studies, trauma studies, and Qur’anic studies. As detailed in their individual roundtable statements, each participant will share brief examples of how disability studies informs their own research and their discipline more broadly. Ultimately, this roundtable hopes to provide an open space to address two fundamental questions: What can disability studies contribute to Middle East studies? And what can Middle East studies contribute to disability studies?
  • Although several scholars have noted the pervasiveness of representations of different bodies in the Qur'an (Richardson, 2012; Ibrahim, 2020), to date embodiment in the Muslim scripture has not been examined systematically. To address this lacuna, my research brings together Qur’anic and Disability Studies. I adopt methods applied by scholars of the Qur’an, namely Angelika Neuwirth, and I engage the frameworks established by disability theorists, such as Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s concept of the “normate” (Garland-Thomson, 1997). Drawing on David T. Mitchell’s and Susan L. Snyder’s book, Narrative Prosthesis, I suggest that the Qur’anic composition, in parallel with the discourses identified by the authors, is written on the body. Mitchell and Snyder demonstrate the ubiquity of disability in Western literature, arguing that narratives frequently employ disability as though it were a “prosthetic” (Mitchell and Snyder, 2001). Similarly, to make its abstract theological arguments more “accessible” to its 7th century audience, the Qur’an regularly invokes specific socio-physical experiences, such as those related to the senses, that were either idealized or stigmatized. The Qur'ān, for example, regularly analogizes the idols to a disabled figure, as a stigmatizing strategy against “deviant” religious beliefs (Attallah, forthcoming). My current research considers the Qur’anic treatment of (in)fertility in the annunciation stories, associated with Abraham (Q 11, 15, and 51), Mary, and Zachariah (Q 3 and 19). These accounts narrate the miraculous birth of a son to bodies imagined as non-reproductive: barren (ʿaqīm or ʿāqir) and/or old (ʿajūz) wives, unwed and chaste women, and old husbands. Like a “prosthetic,” these socio-physical experiences support the Qur’anic narratives, bringing its theological arguments about monotheism into relief. And while it is unclear whether the Qur'ān conceptualizes infertility as a disability or as an impairment, a Disability Studies lens allows for a more complex analysis of the various embodied experiences that are associated with (non)reproductive bodies—such as gender, age, and sexuality—without collapsing them into a singular idea. Infertility, like disability, is a contextually dependent phenomenon, determined socially and not medically, especially in the premodern context (Moss and Baden, 2015). Accordingly, I analyze the parallels and differences suggested by the Qur’an’s usage of the terms signifying (in)fertility. One of my findings is that although “barren” female bodies appear to be the object of stigma, associated with death and retribution, other reproductive experiences—including pregnancy and motherhood—are also posited as fraught experiences, compromising one’s physical abilities and social status.
  • One longstanding concern that scholars who study disability have grappled with is the relationship that it holds with deafness. The fields of disability studies and deaf studies have long had a tenuous relationship, the subject of a 2010 edited volume by Susan Burch and Alison Kafer. Historically, in resisting the pathologization of hearing loss, many deaf communities and activists have rejected the term “disabled” and claimed the label of an ethnic or linguistic minority instead—although in recent years the ways in which this strategy is problematic has been acknowledged (e.g. Bauman & Murray 2014:xxi) and some deaf activists have moved away from it. Furthermore, this tension between deaf and disabled activists has been well documented in Europe and North America, but the extent to which such tensions exist remains relatively unexplored in the Middle East (but see Kisch 2008) and, more broadly, the Global South (cf. Friedner and Zoanni 2019, Friedner 2017). In this roundtable, I draw upon ethnographic data to examine how deaf Jordanians engaged with the larger disability community in Jordan and the disability label (’i‘aqa) as a whole. In recent decades, Jordan has been at the forefront of championing disability rights in the Middle East (Rutherford 2007, Sargent 2021), most recently passing a law ensuring the rights of disabled citizens in 2017. This move is in line with a broader shift across the globe towards promoting disability rights, particularly as enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). In Jordan, the Higher Council for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (al-majlis al-‘ala li-huquq al-’ashkhas dhawi al-’i‘aqa) is the primary body responsible for implementing this law, and includes deaf people under its purview, for example, administering the sign language interpretation accreditation test for potential interpreters. Despite this institutional arrangement, whether or not deaf Jordanians identify with this label and see the Higher Council as the primary purveyor of their rights remains unclear. Alongside new discourses about disability that emerge from state institutions, many deaf Jordanians are also embedded in transnational networks of deaf communities that hold varying degrees of affiliation with the term “disability” that may not align with the position promulgated by the state. This research hopes to demonstrate how, rather than being marginal to the discipline, disability in the Middle East might shed new light on thorny issues in disability studies while contributing more broadly to Middle East studies.
  • In my contribution to this roundtable, I highlight theoretical and political resources for fostering an anthropology attuned to the worlds co-created by disabled and nondisabled kin. In doing so, I mobilize disability scholar Julie Avril Minich’s provocation to engage disability studies as a "methodology rather than a subject” (2016). Minich’s framing is especially productive for scholars and practitioners who work outside the Global North. Distinctly EuroAmerican formations of identity and political subjectivity inform even the most radical and critical conversations in disability studies, potentially misaligning with the priorities and realities faced by the world’s majority disabled populations living in the Global South. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork with families raising children with Down syndrome in urban Jordan, I highlight the tensions that emerged as parents and siblings calibrated their children’s capacities around normative expectations of marriage and familial care. Dislodging individualist orientations towards identity and voice, I triangulate between feminist Middle East Studies, the anthropology of kinship, and critical disability studies to offer a snapshot of how Down syndrome emerges through social and material relations. Focusing on interdependencies of care that unfold - and unravel - between kin over time allows me to embrace Minich’s provocation while also decentering global-North perspectives that remain overrepresented in interdisciplinary conversations on disability. Relationalities and materialities of care, I argue, offer Middle East Studies a set of analytics and methodologies for taking disability seriously in our scholarly and engaged activities. In turn, this allows us to more adequately account for the almost banal reality that disability is everywhere. It also better equips us to account for the brutal convergences of war, (neo)colonial austerity politics, authoritarianism, violence, and disease (including Covid-19) that continue to intensify disabling conditions across the MENA. At the same time, a care-ful len invites us to recognize that these urgent circumstances cannot fully account for disability, which is a form of human diversity that appears across time and space.
  • Though I trained formally as a historian, I found myself drawn to interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research and teaching because of the topic I chose to research in graduate school: mental illness and treatment in Syria and Lebanon. Working with literature and film as well as medical records and oral history inspired me to start thinking of the ways that trauma studies and disability studies could enrich my work in medical and cultural history. Now that I have worked with hundreds of undergraduates and served on several graduate student committees, I have also begun to see the ways that disability resources for students dovetail with a pedagogy of empathy. Through my growing recognition of the way our learning environments and our teaching and research are inflected by who we are and what we have access to, I now look to theoretical contributions in mad studies and queer studies to look for the fruitful directions Middle East, global, and comparative research projects can take when we open ourselves up to the possibility of seeing one another as human beings worthy of connection with one another and worthy of preserving well-being while also challenging former narratives that seek to marginalize multiple views for a veneer of a unified understanding of the past and present. I will speak a bit about my research process when I approached and wrote my first book on war, trauma, and psychiatric and vernacular healing in Syria and Lebanon and conclude with some remarks about my current book project on Palestinian and Israeli societies that have wounded the very bodies their political movements sought to heal through nation-making.
  • My research program is located in contradictions among Transnational Women’s and Disability Rights frameworks and Peace Education “efforts” in the context of global and regional imperialism(s) in the Middle East (ME) region. My most recent book project concerns traumatized Yazidi refugee women in diaspora and their disability- and feminist-consciousness as survivors of genocide and ethnic cleansing, the mental health of Iranian and Kurdish refugees in the US who are the survivors of state violence, Iranian women survivors of acid attack and their disability- and feminist-consciousness, and punitive limb amputation in Saudi Arabia and Iran. Following Marx’s Consciousness Theory, I investigate if, and how, the embodied experiences of violence (especially state-sanctioned, ableist, and gender-based violence) could become a point of departure for the survivors to develop political consciousness and transform themselves, and society, as public pedagogues. Specifically, I attend to embodied experience of disability/injury as radical possibilities rather than “limiting tragedies” that need to be “fixed” by medicalization and psychiatrization. I engage with intersectional paradigms for exploring injury’s meanings in relation to the material conditions, under which people are forced to function in the global south (especially in the ME) as well as the global north. A historian of Iran, Kashani-Sabet (2010), argues, “disability studies can shed light on discourses of power and nation-building which have shaped modern Middle Eastern communities and dominated their scholarship” (p. 1). To contribute to both Disability Studies and Middle Eastern Studies, this roundtable asks two fundamental questions: What can disability studies contribute to Middle East studies? And what can Middle East studies contribute to disability studies? As a potential member of this collective, I seek to theorize how people become and remain injured/ill/disabled due to the violence of dispossession, state violence, incarceration, and/or displacement, and how they comprehend what happens to them as politically-conscious agents and actors (not just as subjects).
  • Mrs. Zeina Daccache
    I will discuss my work as a practicing drama therapist, filmmaker and activist whose advocacy for mental health law and prison reform in Lebanon seeks to improve the current situation of mentally ill offenders in Lebanon. The Lebanese penal code stipulates that incarcerated “Mad” and “Possessed” offenders should stay in prison until evidence of “being cured,” which has meant, in part because of lack of effective treatment to manage their medical and mental health, that many people are serving a life sentence. The Lebanese government’s approach of imprisoning mentally ill people “until cured” is the worst manifestation of the medical model of disability. Ongoing stigma and isolation have led to people not seeking care when they most needed it. Drama therapy in prisons that includes acting exercises for prisoners who are not diagnosed with mental illness playing the prisoners diagnosed with mental illness is giving ordinary Lebanese people a new window into the tragedy of the current Lebanese prison and mental healthcare systems. While the drama therapy is focused on working with prisoners, as a filmmaker and playwright I also bring these activities to the cinema and theater for the general public both in Lebanon and overseas to raise awareness of, and engender discussion about, the prison and healthcare crises in Lebanon that are often overshadowed by the political crises that render the most vulnerable populations nearly invisible. Particularly since many of the offenders have been imprisoned since the Lebanese Civil War for actions during the war, their ongoing suffering and lack of effective treatment in prison, while the government and social stigma renders them incapable of freedom, is a mirror of the ongoing lack of closure with the civil war and with trauma in Lebanese society. Using evidence such as history schoolbooks that do not address the civil war at all, a draft law for building a more supportive mental healthcare system, and results from a first-time prevalence study of serious and persistent mental illness among Lebanese inmates, I will address how the government’s purposeful historical amnesia at the level of education and imprisonment of people diagnosed with mental illness puts personal and national narratives of survival at odds.