May 25, 2013
Women in the Middle East: Past and Present
Posted on Nov 30, 2006
Although this essay was written too soon to mention some major book prizes in the field, it is worthy of note that, although Middle Eastern women’s studies is a field that has developed only recently, it has now been recognized in other fields as having created books of outstanding quality. Two of the books featured in Part 3 have each won major multiple “best book of the year” prizes not limited to Middle East or women’s studies: Elizabeth Thompson’s Colonial Citizens: Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege, and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon and Mounira Charrad’s States and Women’s Rights. Other works featured in the essay are equally outstanding. There have also been outstanding works written since this essay was published, several of which are cited in Book One.
Part 4, “Problems in the Study of Middle Eastern Women,” was first published in 1979. I decided to publish it unchanged after rereading it and seeing, on the one hand, to what a surprising extent the problems it discusses remain problems, and, on the other hand, how some of its evaluations of the scholarly situation are so changed as to provide a reminder of how much important work has been done in the past quarter century. As this essay requires updating to indicate its current relevance, I give here more detailed treatment than I do for any other section. The most obvious current change would be to its statement that “almost no serious scholarly historical work has been done” on Middle Eastern women. Regarding the following five suggestions for historians—more use of anthropology, archaeology, traditional written sources, the arts, and sources on slaves—some important work has been done, but scholars could do more with such sources and approaches. This is especially true of what might be called comparative anthropology—including the suggestion that when similar practices are found among nomads, agriculturalists, or urban dwellers over a huge area from North Africa to Iran, it is reasonable to assume that these practices go back in time (except for those that are clearly tied to modernization). It would be important for scholars to integrate the results of scholarly sociological and anthropological studies into more general books and articles, which could shed analytic light on popular-class urban, rural, and tribal women who are most often absent from historical sources.
My next point, that scholars have preferred “ideal” sources, is still partially valid, but scholarship has also become more complex and sophisticated. In recent years scholars have made increasing use of material, literary, and statistical evidence about economic and social life. Certain scholars since this essay was written have emphasized the impossibility of knowing reality from any written or oral sources. While this view is a corrective to the literal acceptance of what is recorded in ideal sources, it can be exaggerated. In all fields of history it is the job of the historian, based on a weighing of different sources and knowledge of human history, to judge the probable relation of sources to reality. We certainly know that the historically documented great wars and battles occurred, and we know much of what happened; we are on less certain ground in women’s history, but increased documentary evidence means increased certitude or high probability. This point is relevant to Book One, where scant documentary evidence means that we are unsure about points that come largely from relatively few and usually “ideal” documents. With time, however, far more evidence, revision of our views, and greater certainty regarding some points will emerge.
The growth of interest in women’s and gender history has already brought a substantial increase in documentation and convincing analysis of documents, as well as contemporary social science studies that are themselves documents for historians. This can be seen in the recent acceleration of publication in an area named in Part 4, “Problems in the Study of Middle Eastern Women,” as “sex,” which would today be called “sexuality.” Enough research has recently been done for me to include some points about sexuality in my book-length history, although the limited historical research and documentation thus far deal mainly with men and with restricted elites and their male and female slaves. There are, however, implications for women’s history in recent studies showing that at least these groups did not respect a number of Quranic and legal rules concerning gender and sexuality, including condemnations of homosexuality and of gender cross-dressing. Scholars have recently undertaken research about past female sexuality, and also studies covering contemporary female sexuality, based largely on interviews of numbers of women or on personal experiences.
Part 5, “Sexuality and Shi’i Social Protest in Iran,” was coauthored with the late and profoundly missed scholar of Iranian women Parvin Paidar, who was then using the pseudonym Nahid Yeganeh. The sections written by each author are clearly noted. The article presents some of the special history of Shi’i law and practice regarding women, and analyzes the relations of contemporary Iranian Shi’ism to women and sexuality.
The final Book, “Autobiographical Recollections,” includes previously published interviews by Nancy Gallagher and Farzaneh Milani, edited in a book by Nancy Gallagher, supplemented by a brief personal essay noting some dramatic incidents involving my political and gendered past. My recollections tell of my changing attitudes toward, and involvement in, women’s studies, and also give some details about my scholarly, political, and personal life that those who have heard or read them have found interesting and relevant. It is, among other things, an indication that certain problems for women are not unique to women in the Muslim world. At the end is a bibliography of my works since I last published one in 1995.
While it is unusual to combine a book-length manuscript with surrounding articles, I hope that the interconnections of these items, which shed additional light on one another, make it a worthwhile endeavor.
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