Unsettling Normative Modernities: Gender and the Re-making of Sexual Difference in the MENA

International Workshop

Date: June 25 to 27, 2020
Venue: Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies, University of Zurich
Convenors: Bettina Dennerlein, Helena Rust

Workshop Description

In many instances of contemporary public as well as academic debates, the issue of gender inequality linked to religion continues to have high currency. In spite of a growing number of critical inquiries into secularism’s historically incorrect claim to liberate women and help their emancipation, more often than not religion is still constructed as secularism’s other with respect to gender equality. Especially when it comes to the MENA region, its allegedly backward, oppressive, misogynist, as well as homophobic culture is habitually positioned against the rise of gender if not sexual democracy in the West.

While postcolonial feminist and queer critiques have contributed in important ways to dismantling the logic of conservative politics of sexuality in the US and Western Europe and their selective co-optation of feminist and homosexual agendas, critical research on and from the MENA region on the politics and discourses of sex and gender is still much less visible and much less theorized.

The workshop builds on recent comparative studies on secularism as discourse shaped by differently structured and shifting configurations of religion, culture and politics that have opened new ways of inquiry into the role played by gender in processes of change over the last two centuries. Focusing on discourses and politics of modernity, it foregrounds sexual difference as a matrix and a passing point of different forms of social, political and epistemic transformations linked to the emergence of modern statehood in the colonial and post-colonial period. The workshop takes the diverse usages of the ubiquitous term of ‘modernity’ – differently rendered in Arabic over time and according to the respective ideological leanings of scholars and intellectuals – as analytical lenses to study processes of (re-)making sexual difference cutting across conventional distinctions between movements and strands of thought. We critically engage with the renewed interest in intellectual developments in the MENA region to better understand how politics and discourses of modernity simultaneously draw from competing ideologies as well as from religion and / or from contemporary science in (re-)interpreting and (re-)configuring sexual difference as a core device of social organization both on the symbolic and the structural level.

The workshop will bring together papers from a broad range of disciplines from the humanities and the social sciences such as history, cultural studies, anthropology, sociology, and area studies. Among the thematic fields to be addressed are the following: law and legal discourses, the family and reproductive politics, knowledge production as well as processes of institutional and social change.

The workshop follows up on a previous one organized in Zurich in June 2017 on the topic of The Making of Sexuality. Entangled Histories of Regulation, Intelligibility, and Subjectivation. It seeks synergies with a current project headed by the Chair of Gender Studies and Islamic Studies entitled Promoting Gender Equality and Diversity through Shared Knowledge Production.