A Nuanced Presentation of Gender in the Middle East

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Until recently, little work has been done to sufficiently address the extensive history of women in the Middle East. Much of this shortcoming arises from the inherent difficulties of finding documentation and sources to trace the history of a marginalized group. As women in the Middle East have traditionally been confined to roles in the home, little is known about their unique history. Middle Eastern history in general is problematic because of the lack of written documentation until around the third Islamic century (tenth century C.E.).[1] Nikki Keddie’s book Women in the Middle East Past and Present serves to correct the faults of recent histories by bringing pieces of this complex puzzle together and attempting to create a broad overview of the field. To accomplish this daunting task, Keddie’s work attempts to take current work pertaining to Middle Eastern women’s history and compiles them into a singular narrative history ranging from pre-Islamic times to the present.

In the introduction to her work, Keddie lays the groundwork for her analysis, engaging with the reader and discussing her arguments and choices in compiling this history. Within the book, she divides her discussions of women’s histories largely by country. Although she does acknowledge that the borders in the Middle East are largely arbitrary, Keddie uses them as an appropriate means of analysis given that different nations have adopted different legal policies on gender. Though she deliberately engages in country division within chapters, she states that her divisions between chapters are fairly random as she traces this history.

Engaging with so many different sources also lends itself to a variety of interpretations. Within this work, Keddie attempts to capture the different viewpoints and stances that people take on various historical artifacts. She makes this choice because historians decide to spin sources uniquely. Historically, Western interpretations have heavily focused on the negative side of the treatment of women, while in fact many of these documents contain nuanced takes on gender relations. However, until recently sources have been limited to elite men writing about upper class women, and thus there has been a lack of information on the life of the “everyday” woman in the Middle East.

Keddie later addresses the issue of Islam and its link to women’s subjugation. She writes, “it is impossible to escape an emphasis on early Islam and the Quran, as these have been central themes of local discourse about women over the centuries and to a degree remain so today” (10). It is important to recognize that in the Middle East much of women’s subjugation has come about as a result of Qur’anic interpretation and judicial rulings rather than the actual text itself. Too often, the West tends to intricately link Islam to the oppression of women when in fact the Quran proves to be a fairly gender-egalitarian text for the time it was written in. Furthermore, Keddie points out that gender relations in Middle Eastern countries were often more egalitarian in practice than texts would suggest. Women for centuries have been finding ways within existing structures to find agency and empowerment in subtle, subversive ways.

Keddie bases her analysis not just on other people’s work, but also explores legal and official state documents from Middle Eastern empires. Furthermore, she uses information from present-day Middle Eastern states to inform her analysis of more recent history. She opens the book by examining gender roles in pre-Islamic times, demonstrating the differences that existed in a decentralized society. Essentially, gender roles arose out of the necessity to protect male honor. Keddie talks about how, historically, female virginity and chastity have been primary components of the preservation of male honor (17). Because of this emphasis on male honor, wealthier urban families tended to isolate their women in the home and veil them. Conversely, nomadic tribes could not afford to do the same because the women were central to everyday life in their societies. Keddie writes, “nomadic tribes had far less economic surplus and hence less social and gender stratification, as everyone had to do various physical tasks” (16). Keddie’s next section of the book focuses on the solidification of gender stratification in Middle Eastern society after the rise of Islam. Islam led to the collective unification of much of the Middle East, and as a result much of society settled in towns or villages and nomadic tribes ceased to be prevalent. During this time period, legal rulings and precedent solidified gender roles in Islamic nations for hundreds of years to follow. Keddie asserts, “the writings of the strict ulama (men with Islamic education and functions) stressed the importance of clear definition and separation of male and female, with no cross-dressing or homosexuality permitted” (31). Thus, Islamic jurisprudence played a central role in dividing men and women and creating a divided, heteronormative society. For the rest of the book, Keddie divides her discussion into specific time periods, including the invasion of the Mongols in the Middle Ages, the 19th century, the start of World War I to the end of World War II, and then all the way up to the present. Within each of these periods, she examines the changes that occurred in Middle Eastern civilization in different countries, specifically looking at them through the lens of gender relations. Her discussion is too broad to examine in detail, thus I will be looking at some specific examples discussing Egypt from each of her sections to demonstrate how she paints this broad picture.

During Mamluk rule in medieval Egypt, women found ways to circumvent social codes or avoid them altogether. Indeed, one scholar was extremely distraught at all of the activities that women were partaking in. Keddie writes, “these included women’s going out in several ways that allowed their being in contact with men, including shopping, … , partying and picnicking with their families in public parks, and even receiving unrelated men in their homes” (52). Even though women were restricted, they worked around the rules to take control and agency over their circumstances. Dissent towards legal discourse tended to be dispersed until mainstream discussion and writing arose in the late nineteenth century. Qasim Amin, a notable Egyptian writer, voiced loud dissent in The Liberation of Women (1899). Keddie writes, “Amin advocated Western ways and strongly criticized Egyptian ones, especially the ulama’s ideas. Amin used Islamic modernist arguments to oppose patriarchal oppression” (71). Later as time went on women became more influential in mainstream discussion and discourse, “their role is often ignored in discussions of Middle Eastern intellectual history. Their writings on scientific domesticity included much practical advice on homemaking and child rearing, including health, hygiene, and child care at a time when infant and child mortality was high” (92). Finally, modern day discussions about feminism and modernity often concern the imposition of Western culture. Keddie elaborates, “Egypt, like several Arab countries, has also seen growing concern about ‘authenticity,’ both Islamic and national, in part against feminisms that are tainted as being Western” (126-127). This idea has been a major hindrance towards the advancement of women’s rights in Egypt and the Middle East in general.

I would argue that the major strength of Keddie’s book comes from her effective synthesis of vast swaths of information. She tackles a large mountain of information and delivers it in a digestible manner. She successfully takes hundreds of years of history and packs it into 150 pages of valuable information and analysis. Furthermore, taking a narrative approach allows the history to unfold like a story. While her synthesis is powerful, Keddie’s narrative plays into the weaknesses of previous narratives and focuses largely on the experiences of the elite, creating a narrow viewpoint of class. Though this weakness comes as a result of the nature of the sources she works with, she does little to address different classes given the opportunity in her chapter addressing modern times. Ultimately, Keddie’s overview comes at the cost of painting too broad of a picture that groups diverse Middle Eastern women together.

Keddie seeks to offer a general overview of the field in as simple a way as possible. She was extremely qualified to write this book based on her past academic work. For decades, Keddie has been one of the foremost academics in the field of Middle Eastern studies. Within this field, her specialty has always been women’s issues. By tracing this history she creates a more comprehensive narrative than ever before created. Overall, it presents a good starting point for further comprehensive work on the subject of Middle Eastern women’s history.

[1] Nikki R. Keddie, Women in the Middle East Past and Present, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 9.