May 22, 2013
Women in the Middle East: Past and Present
Posted on Nov 30, 2006
Editor’s note: The following is the introduction to “Women in the Middle East: Past and Present” (Princeton University Press, 2006) by UCLA professor emerita Nikkie Keddie.
The book can be purchased here.
Apart from the book-length history, the volume includes a selected group of my articles, comprising those that I considered most relevant to the study and analysis of Middle Eastern women. I have not included all the articles and introductions I have authored or coauthored regarding Middle Eastern women, but only those that seemed of most general interest and most relevant to the current book. At the suggestion of my Princeton University Press editor I have retitled some articles to clarify their place in this book, but give the original titles in full references. The region defined as the Middle East in this book goes from Morocco in the West to Afghanistan in the East, comprising lands in which the predominant languages are Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Pushtu, although not all regions are equally covered in all essays. I do not attempt to cover central Asia to the north or African countries to the south of Morocco or Egypt except when they constitute parts of larger Middle Eastern empires.
Book One consists of the book-length “Women in the Middle East: A History,” which utilizes many studies about women past and present that have appeared in recent decades to synthesize an analytic history of the subject from pre-Islamic times to the present. Among its special features is individual coverage of women in most of the many Middle Eastern countries that have come into existence since 1945, most of which have not been the subject of individual narrative historical books or articles. Such individual coverage, however problematic some of the sources still are, is needed, as individual governments differ in laws, in educational, health, and labor policies, and in many cultural and political characteristics. This history also tries to incorporate the best-documented conclusions that result from the many recent studies on a variety of relevant subjects, including analyses of views regarding women in the early Islamic period, assessments of the role of Turks and Mongols, analyses of Ottoman court records, studies of women’s rights movements, and works that analyze both favorable factors and obstacles to women’s achievement of equality. It also recognizes the scarcity of sources for many periods or questions, and discusses some of the different interpretations of the same materials. The chapter divisions are chronological and, like all chronological divisions, are in some ways arbitrary and do not mean that there was always a major change in all regions of the Middle East after the date of the chapter break. Such factors as the creation of a new religion, massive invasions, and important wars, which mark most of the chapter breaks, do often initiate changes in society, including the position of women, however.
Book Two, “Approaches to the Study of Middle Eastern Women,” consists of five parts that provide some of the background, context, and scholarly basis for Book One. They discuss some of the writings on which Book One is based and also present in greater detail the theoretical and historiographical ideas and controversies that underlie it.
Part 1 provides a brief historical overview of women in Middle Eastern society. This overview, “Shifting Boundaries in Sex and Gender,” emphasizes the changing social position of women from pre-Islamic times to the present, stressing large trends more than individual cases. It also includes brief critical analyses of some of the views about Middle Eastern women that have been expressed in both the West and the Muslim world. It provides an overall analytic approach to the longer and more detailed history that precedes it. The essay was previously published in 1991, and a few of its statements about the current situation reflect that date.
Part 2, “Scholarship, Relativism, and Universalism,” summarizes some of the major trends and works regarding Middle Eastern women, emphasizing their different approaches to women’s history and current status. It discusses problems of exaggerated attitudes toward the position of these women, hostile on one side and apologetic on the other, and analyzes the opposite relativist and universalist approaches now found in discussions of the subject. It suggests that there may be a dialectical way that would contextualize historically evolved features now considered positive or negative without appearing to play down or defend practices that are, in today’s context, generally seen as unfavorable to women.
Part 3, “Women in the Limelight: Recent Books on Middle Eastern Women’s History since 1800,” covers a large number of books written on modern Middle Eastern women in the period since 1990, when books on Middle Eastern women’s history and society began to be written in significant numbers. The approach is country by country, and reflects the fact that Iran and Egypt have seen the largest number of significant works, with only Iran having an overall narrative history, by Parvin Paidar. The essay emphasizes those fields that have had extensive serious treatment, including the history of women’s movements and intellectual activities, and historical works informed by social science considerations and methods. Among them are demography used effectively by Alan Duben and Cem Behar for Istanbul, and sociological consideration of the important conservative influence of tribal and lineage power, by Mounira Charrad and Suad Joseph. The essay also gives brief consideration to social science works not explicitly tied to history, which nonetheless have important information and implications for historians.
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