Editor’s Note: An online discussion based in part on this commentary, titled “Feminist and Gender Studies in the Arab World: Challenges and Opportunities,” took place on October 27, 2020. Readers may view a video recording of the discussion, in Arabic, on the Arab Political Science Network’s Facebook page.
Introduction by Nermin Allam, assistant professor of political science and women’s studies, Rutgers University
What are some of the challenges to and potential for institutionalizing the study of gender in Middle Eastern universities? Here we offer answers from four scholars of gender and women’s studies. Their reflections illuminate the challenges and opportunities of teaching gender politics in the Middle East and North Africa.
Within the MENA region, the process of building gender and women’s studies programs has often encountered significant challenges, with few pioneering programs in Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, and Sudan. Margot Badran, a scholar of women, gender and feminism in the Middle East, traces the calls for institutionalizing women’s studies in the region to the mid-twentieth century, when Zahiyya Dughan, a Lebanese delegate to the 1944 Arab Women’s Conference in Cairo, called upon Arab universities to create chairs for the study of women’s writing. Fast forward seventy years, Middle East women’s and—now—gender studies have expanded tremendously.
Notwithstanding these positive developments in the field, the number of gender and women’s studies programs and courses in the region continue to lag behind. A 2019 report from the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut identified a number of factors that hinder efforts to mainstream gender studies in the region’s academic institutions, namely: limited resources, colonial legacies, adverse social and political environments, and institutional inequalities.
In this commentary, we asked four regional scholars of gender and women’s studies to provide their reflections on the challenges of teaching gender politics in the Arab world. The roundtable features contributions by Dina El Khawaga, of the American University of Beirut; Islah Jad, of Birzeit University, in Palestine; Hanane Darhour, of Ibn Zohr University, Morocco;and Dalal Alfares, of Kuwait University. Their reflections illuminate the institutional, social, political, and pedagogical challenges facing scholars studying and teaching gender in the region.
Dina El Khawaga, director of the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship, American University of Beirut
The institutionalization of gender studies in some Middle East and North African universities paints an optimistic view of the place of gender in academia and in the broader society. A close survey of these efforts, however, reveals their limitations. The majority of gender programs in the Middle East primarily serve to advance the ranking of universities without advancing the study of gender. The programs pay lip service to removing the patriarchal system—and all its various manifestations—from the study of humanities and social sciences.