Feminism and Theory in the Arab World

International Exploratory Workshop, 17-19 March 2016, Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies.

A cooperation with the URPP Asia and Europe, and the Swiss Society for Gender Studies (SGGF).

Supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF).

Convenors: Yasmine Berriane and Bettina Dennerlein.

Participants: Hoda Elsadda, Amel Grami, Marnia Lazreg, Raja Rhouni, Fatima Sadiqi, Zeina Zaatari.

FeminismandTheory_PROGRAM.pdf (PDF, 567 KB)

FeminismandTheory_FLYER.pdf (PDF, 297 KB)


Workshop report (by Yasmine Berriane)

The main aim of this workshop was to create an intensive and productive space of discussion and debate that would enable junior and senior researchers based in Europe, the United States and the MENA Region to go beyond common categorizations of Arab feminisms and to explore theoretical frameworks that can contribute towards a better understanding of current debates and evolutions together. In their presentations, six invited guests reflected on the present situation of feminism in the Arab World.

On the first day, Marnia Lazreg’s contribution focused on the theoretical implications of academic feminism in the Arab World. She started by situating the development of current feminist movements in the region at the intersection of three main categories: women’s movements that developed since the UN Decade for Women, movements of decolonization that brought to power secular states, and Islamic movements. After criticizing the “cultural relativist turn” that is currently overshadowing feminist thought in the region, she called for an approach that goes beyond antagonistic perspectives. She argues that in order to achieve this objective, a theorization of what she calls the “Median Space” is needed; an approach that involves re-thinking and reorienting feminist thought in a way that bridges the local/universal divide. She illustrated her idea in the last part through examples from Algeria. Fatima Sadiqi introduced what she calls the “center”, defining it as an ideological middle ground space between the increasingly antagonistic paradigms of secularism and Islamism. As argued by Sadiqi, advocating in favor of the emergence of such a “center” is a much needed step to move from a patriarchal to a more egalitarian system. She illustrated her approach through the Moroccan case, by showing how secular and Islamist feminists joined forces, during the Arab Spring protests. 

Later that day, Amel Grami presented her ongoing research on the role played by pro-feminist men in Tunisia, mapping the thought patterns and motivations behind their support for women’s claims. In doing so she described two main generations of pro-feminist men: the older generation of men whose aim is to protect their daughters involved in the revolution, and new-feminist men who support women’s claims through campaigns that transgress dominant gender roles. Using examples from Lebanon, Zeina Zaatari presented four main waves of feminism in the Arab World that have developed since the end of the 19th century. She emphasized on the fourth wave (that coincides with the neoliberal era) in which great emphasis is put on the body both by the State and by activists; as bodies are increasingly disciplined and policed by state authorities while being, at the same time, used by women to disrupt the social and political status quo and claim for change. 

On the second day of the workshop, Hoda Elsadda’s presentation problematized the anti-imperialist claims against women’s rights discourses as either arms of western imperialism, or as simply well-intentioned but uncritical implementers of a neo-liberal world order. Using her own experience as a feminist activist involved in the reform of the Egyptian Constitution post-revolution, she argued that in certain contexts, the language of rights can be a powerful tool to negotiate in favor of women’s rights and called for an approach to theory that acknowledges its ability to travel and to adapt to different contexts that are not the ones it initially emerged from. In the last presentation of the workshop, Raja Rhouni focused more particularly on Fatema Mernissi, describing two main “moments” in her intellectual work: a first – and not so well known - phase in which she critically addressed the impact of capitalism on subaltern women, and a second phase in which she focused on Islam and women’s rights. Drawing lessons from Mernissi’s work, she reflected more specifically on Islamic feminism and on “post-Islamic feminism”, in which – today - the reformist project of Islamic feminism still matters, yet is not the central focus of feminist writings and activism in the Arab world.

Among the many general topics that came out of these presentations and the following debates and discussions, one can point out the following three main ideas:

Contextualization as a core analytical and critical tool of analysis that enables us to draw links between changing political constellations and historical forms of feminism. Yet, the notion of “context” should not be envisaged as a fixed and pre-given cultural setting that is to be “fetishized” but as the result of constellations of power relations that are changing over time. Feminism is in fact a dynamic and heterogeneous field and feminist movements are the result of dynamic and growingly polarizing relations of power that can differ from one context to the other. Unpacking these changing political forces, which Arab feminist movements are reacting to, and connecting different scales of analysis should therefore be a central focus of investigation for the study of feminism in the Arab World. 

Bridging the local and the universal, as both an epistemological tool and a political necessity as fetishizing the “local” and the “cultural” can undermine feminist claims.  In a context of increased radicalization and reinforced antagonisms, it seems vital to avoid both culturalism and universalism and to find ways that go beyond what Marnia Lazreg calls the “blackmail of either or” (local/cultural specificities versus universal norms). In this light, notions such as the “median space”, the “center”, or “travelling norms” appeared to be promising tools to be further developed and investigated. 

The issue of knowledge production and translation: both the production of norms and of knowledge about these norms are in fact the result of power dynamics that have to be kept in mind while analyzing feminisms in the Arab World (and beyond). This point opens up a series of open questions: Who produces “universalist principles” and in whose name? Who speaks in the name of women and in what language? What languages dominate the production of research and knowledge about Arab feminism? How are terms translated, appropriated and transformed in the process of knowledge and norm transfer?