Turan Kayaoglu, Associate Professor of International Relations, PPPA
On March 18, 2016, I chaired a side-event panel in New York during CSW60—the 60th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. The panel’s title was “Women’s Social Lives and Changing Values in the Middle East: Beyond the Framework of Religion, Culture, and Tradition.” Organized by the Tokyo-based Turkey-Japan Cultural Dialog Society and the New York-based Peace Islands Institute, the panel featured three ethnically Japanese scholars affiliated with Japanese universities. These scholars had much insight to offer about the Middle East; they also had many astute observations about the process of studying the Middle East.
The dominant view in the US public sphere is that, grounded in Islam, Middle Eastern values are fairly stable and uniformly hostile on the subject of women’s lives and rights. This view both neglects how the socio-economic and politics status of Middle Eastern women has experienced dramatic changes and ignores the voice and agency of women in these changes. Focusing on women’s voices and agency, the panelists discussed examples from three issue areas and countries across the Middle East: religious reinterpretation in Egypt, reconstruction of the notion of honor (namus) in Turkey, and political participation during and after the Arab Spring in Tunisia.
In “Reading Discourses on the Roles of Women: The Case of 20th-Century Egypt,” Emi Goto, an Associate Professor from the University of Tokyo, examined two important 20th century Egyptian Islamist intellectuals and their—often in a self-contradictory—reinterpretation of the woman’s place in society.
As discussed by Dr. Goto, in her writing, Zainab al-Ghazali (1917-2005) emphasized women’s domestic roles as wives and mothers. Yet, her own intellectual and activist roles took her away from the home life she preached to other women. Her first marriage ended in divorce; the prenuptial agreement for her second marriage stated that her public duties should take priority over her domestic ones. While what she wrote limited the role of women to the private sphere, what she practiced made her an example of an intellectual and activist in the public sphere.
The early writings of the second scholar under discussion, Muhammad al-Ghazali (1917-1996; not related to Zainab al-Ghazali), agreed with Zainab al-Ghazali on the primacy of women’s domestic roles: he saw women unfit for public roles as legislators, judges, and leaders. Yet, later he radically changed his views and offered a progressive reinterpretation of the Quran and Sunnah on women’s rights and supported public roles for women. Using these two cases, Dr. Goto argued that far from being static, Islamist views on women showed fluidity and were marked by major disagreements and contradictions.
In her talk, “The Changing Meaning of Protecting Women and Reconfiguring Sense of Belonging Among the Urban Poor in Turkey,” Kaoru Murakami, a senior researcher from the Institute of Developing Economies, discussed the notion of namus (honor, specifically protecting the honor of women) in Turkey. Murakami argued how this patriarchal idea has to do not only with the control over women’s sexuality in a narrow sense but with various issues including economic protection.
Murakami elaborated on how in this new understanding, if a male family member is unable to protect the women in his family economically by providing for the family’s increasing material expectations, the male-kin might appeal to namus to deny women the socio-economic opportunities become untenable. Using fieldwork among women in Istanbul’s Sultanbeyli district (populated by mostly religious households and the urban poor), Murakamu showed how women challenge the men in their lives—mostly husbands, but also fathers and brothers—either to provide for them economically or not to use namus as to prevent them from participating in the labor market.
In “Women’s Role in the Tunisian Revolution and the Democratic Transition: From State Feminism to Civil Feminism,” Keiko Takaki, a Professor of Anthropology at J.F. Oberlin University in Japan, discussed the role of women activists in making Tunisia the first democratic Arab country (as categorized by the Freedom House in its 2015 report). Not only did women participate in great numbers in the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia, but after the revolution they also lobbied for electoral reforms that required the political parties to nominate equal numbers of men and women in parliamentary elections. Women activists in Tunisia also mobilized and prevented the Islamist Nadha party from including references to sharī’a in the new constitution. These activists successfully pushed for the constitutional equality of women and men. Additionally, women’s organizations increasingly became a leading part of civil society and were able to lobby the government to withdraw all Tunisian reservations to The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
Professor Takaki stressed that women activists are very diverse and pursue very different goals. For example, some women activists challenged the salafist’s attempt to replace the Tunisian flag with an ISIS flag, while others, influenced by FEMEN, shocked the society by sharing topless photos of themselves on social media in a bid to controltheir bodies and sexuality. Likewise, while some women have traveled to Syria for Jihad-al-Nikah, marrying ISIS fighters, some others have organized to rehabilitate the returned the ISIS brides reintegrate them back into society. Based on these varied instances of activism and the diversity of Muslim women who engage in this type of grassroots activism, Professor Takaki concludes that Tunisian women are creating a form of civil feminism, different from the state feminism promoted by the Tunisian secular establishment.
I appreciated the substance of the talks. The panelists did an excellent job in bringing the voice and agency of Middle Eastern women as explanations for the religious, socio-economic, and political changes in the societies they examined.
I also pondered the way in which these Japanese academics’ discussed Middle Eastern women. It was striking that—unlike most North American and European academics who take their ability to study, understand, and present on Muslim women in the Middle East for granted—the Japanese scholars repetitively felt the need to justify why and how they can talk about Middle Eastern women. This was especially striking given that these scholars are Middle East experts, lived in the Middle East for extended periods of time, and know Middle Eastern languages. This contrast made me think about who is entitled to produce knowledge about populations within those societies. What is the basis of that sense of entitlement?
It was also intriguing to see the reluctance of the Japanese scholars to offer strong conclusions and predictions. In addition to balanced, measured, and insightful discussions, they showed a high degree of epistemic humility. This was a refreshing contrast to some Middle Eastern scholars whose arguments and predictions consistently miss the mark, yet they continue present arguments and predictions with unflinching conviction and confidence.
I also reflected on the process of studying Islam, Muslims, and the Middle East as a scholar in Japan as opposed to as a scholar in the US where the polarized political discourse concerning Islam, Muslims, and Middle East in American domestic and foreign policy has made it increasingly difficult to have a nuanced debate on these issues. This environment has taken its toll on academics who constantly need to fight against claims that their work is either tainted by Islamophobia or orientalism (the view that Islam is inherently violent and Muslims are uniformly, at least potentially, dangerous) or by Islamophilia (the view that Islam in inherently peaceful and apart from the politically motivated violent minority Muslims are good people). Some scholars simply stop trying to make detailed, reasonable arguments and resort to writing pieces that fit the expectations of editors and readers. political distance of Japan seems to allow Japanese scholars to keep a healthy distance from their subject matter. This means that they can be critical without being labeled as an Islamophobe or an orientalist and appreciative without being characterized as an Islamophile. I felt envious of my Japanese colleagues.