Teaching Gender and Women’s Studies in the Middle East

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.

For example, gender and women’s studies research centers at the Universities of Baghdad and Sana’a, as well as at Ahfad University in Sudan, traditionally provide limited contributions to the study of international, regional and local feminist movements.

“Some of these research centers often resort to depoliticizing the study of gender and linking it to issues acceptable by the regime in power to mitigate adverse political contexts.”

Dina El Khawaga

Some of these research centers often resort to depoliticizing the study of gender and linking it to issues acceptable by the regime in power to mitigate adverse political contexts. For example, the gender studies program at the University of Balamand, in Lebanon, narrowly addresses the question of women’s rights in the Islamic and Christian heritage. At the American University of Beirut and the University of Tunis, gender and women’s studies programs tend to focus on the influence of modernization and Enlightenment discourses on expanding the role of women in the public space and the centrality of these projects in modern processes of nation building. Gender studies programs at the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University and the Lebanese American University investigate only the role of women in social protection programs, armed conflicts, and peace-building processes. At the American University in Dubai, the depoliticization is achieved through only teaching feminist models located in the West or in Southeast Asia and overlooking national women’s movements.

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Notwithstanding the limitations of these initiatives, they are a step towards advancing the field of gender and women’s studies in the region, especially when compared to other institutions with a. further constricted climate. For example, at some universities in Lebanon, Bahrain, and Algeria, the idea of developing an institutional framework for gender and women’s studies is completely prohibited. The above survey thus underscores the difficulty of transforming feminist movements in the region into fully legitimate research and teaching programs in Arab universities.

Islah Jad, associate professor of political science, Cultural Studies Department and the Institute of Women’s Studies, Birzeit University, Palestine

As one of the founders of the first women’s and gender studies academic program in the Arab world, I witnessed first-hand how gender studies and women’s issues are always in flux. They reflect the context within which they operate and how this context is shaped by what women do in their daily lives.

Given how gender and gender relations are context specific, the challenges faced in teaching gender studies in a colonial context—where dealing with gender could be seen as an integral part of the de-colonization process—differs from teaching it in a different context, where gender as a concept is contested and rejected. Mainstream concepts in gender and women’s studies should thus be reconsidered and reconstructed in their own specific contexts across the region.

“To better understand the status of gender and women’s studies in the Middle East, we need to problematize the mainstream wisdom that deals with gender and women’s studies in the Arab world from a universal convention angle.”

Islah Jad 

To better understand the status of gender and women’s studies in the Middle East, we need to problematize the mainstream wisdom that deals with gender and women’s studies in the Arab world from a universal convention angle. A universal convention angle focuses on issues such as women’s rights, gender violence, Islam and conservatism but fails to contextualize these issues in their respective context.

In Occupied Palestine, for example, feminist nongovernmental organizations and activists, who are driven by the universal conventions on women’s rights, are losing their power and popular bases in favor of Islamists because of the de-politicization of their gender agenda and the discarding of the colonial context. An understanding of these diverse and shifting contexts is a must to advance the field of gender studies in the region. Thus, understanding and teaching the many layers of oppression whether stemming from colonialism, patriarchy, class, race, color, disability, age, is a must to face all challenges in spreading gender studies.

Hanane Darhour, associate professor in the Faculty of Languages, Arts and Human Sciences, Ibn Zohr University, Morocco

A focus on the history of women’s and gender studies programs, beginnings, objectives and achievements is significant to understanding the actual state of affairs of women’s and gender studies programs in higher education in Morocco and the institutional and pedagogical challenges that these programs face. Women’s studies has emerged and developed since its beginning as a field of knowledge marked by international connections and disconnections with an objective to deconstruct the traditional male-dominated curriculum. The field first started in America in 1969, then spread to the Anglo-Saxon world and then to North of Europe because of the historical and cultural ties between the three geo-political areas. After the 1980s the concept gained more prominence in the less privileged and developing countries by making the concept more embracive of cultural and religious diversities.

In the late 20th century, scholars from the Arab region and developing world in general started to challenge the Eurocentric perspective of white feminism. As a result, home-grown versions of feminism have largely underpinned the scholarship by the MENA region intellectuals and gender and women’s studies programs, especially in higher education. Despite these developments, there is still a long way to go before women’s and gender studies programs gain full academic and ethical trust by the larger public.

Dalal Alfares, assistant professor, Department of English Language and Literature, Kuwait University

Gender studies is like therapy, nobody wants to do it, but everyone would benefit from it–especially in the Middle East. I teach gender and women’s studies in a public university in a Gulf country that is known for its wealth and reliance on petro-economy and its conservative Islamic society. When introducing “gender and sexuality” to my students, I stress the importance of the above identity markers in constituting discourses on gender and feminism in the Gulf. Therefore, one of the most needed frameworks in teaching gender and women’s studies in the Gulf is spending some time with intersectional theories of oppression where students can engage in deconstructing their privileges and positionalities. However, I have taken careful attention to (a) give credit to its radical black feminist revolutionary roots, and (b) translate the matrix of privilege and oppression to better contextualize it within a Khaleeji context that emphasizes histories of citizenship (vs. statelessness/bidoun), class (vs. tribe), sect, and migrant working status under global neoliberalism. It is not only a moral and feminist imperative to discuss the intersections of these identities, but also a pedagogical necessity as it truly helps students comprehend the multiple constructions of discourses on gender and feminism.

Another challenge that is necessary to overcome is the difficulty of teaching issues of embodiment and regulation from secular/non-Islamic perspectives. While students will consistently resist and refer to hegemonic Islamic texts when faced with anything critiquing Muslim hetero-patriarchies, gender and women’s studies classes could approach regulations of gendered bodies from perspectives that take into account hegemonic masculinities stemming from queer theory and disability studies. I believe that these frameworks would help students understand how much of our understanding of gender is influenced by disability and vice versa. It will also help students analyze the multidimensions of intersectional normalizations of gender in their communities from different perspectives


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