The Harem Syndrome: Moving Beyond Anthropology’s Discursive Colonization of Gender in the Middle East

Paul Vieille
Paul Vieille

by Paul Vieille


The primary focus of this paper is to elucidate the nature of anthropology’s discursive construction of gender in the Arab world. An historical overview is provided on the evolution of the anthropological discourse on gender in the Middle East in order to illustrate the process of discursive colonization. Harem theory, the intellectual progeny of the anti-Orientalist debate, is seen as the culmination of the evolution of anthropological discourse on gender in the Middle East, and is shown to be inadequate. Moreover, its reincarnation into “postcolonial feminism”, however appropriate in some instances, seems overdetermined by imported theoretical preoccupations than by internal social struggles. The paper highlights a new context characterized by the emergence of an uncritical Islamic discourse on gender in the Arab Middle East. Accordingly, it argues that the discursive site of struggle over gender has shifted from one straddling the borders of East and West, and which focused on undermining Western stereotypes of Middle Eastern women, to a site located within the Middle East, and which calls for combating the discursive dispossession of women by the Islamist narrative of emancipation. Finally, the paper briefly outlines steps toward an alternative approach.


The Discursive Production of Gender in the Arab World

The urgent need to redirect the debate on gender in the Middle East has led one commentator to suggest that “Facile assumptions about the monolithic role ‘Islam’ or Arab culture plays in the seclusion, disempowerment, and oppression of women no longer pass as the accepted academic discourse on the topic.”[i]  This valiant declaration, which sought to establish the proprieties of discourse on gender in the Arab world, may have succeeded in banishing facile assumptions. As the latter seemed to have been replaced by assumptions informed by a sense of the complex relationality between Islam and the construction of gender in the Arab world. Nevertheless, historical legacies, in terms of the persistence of certain idioms and their deployment as part of the discursive currency about the Middle Eastern region cannot be wished away by well-meaning declarations. One such idiom is what I call the Harem Syndrome, which is a complex ensemble of ideas and of nearly indelible images that have constituted a kind of doxology that informs the discourse on gender in the Middle East as a whole. This ensemble of ideas include the cult of domesticity of women, which certain verses of the Quran seem to have sanctioned, and whose near-incarceration into the elaborate gynaecea (i.e., Harem) of the great houses during the era of the Islamic empire was common practice, but is now associated with women’s relative exclusion from the public’s sphere and seclusion in the more modest abodes of present day Muslim societies. This is coupled with the perception of women as the custodians of Islamic tradition, values and cultural authenticity as well as of men’s honor. The latter role seemed to have justified the elaboration of a “code of modesty” as a mean of social control aimed at preventing women from betraying men’s honor!  In sum, this has led to the widespread and persistent view of women in the Middle East as the quintessential victims of Arab society and Islamic culture.

Moreover, the Harem Syndrome is part of a continuing clash of perceptions – however circumscribed by considerations of discursive proprieties and of political correctness – between protagonists of the European West through a (neo-)Orientalist prism and the antagonists from the Arab East through an Occidentalist optic, in which assertions and counter-assertions regarding the positional superiority of women’s status becomes the discursive currency in a debate about the relative benevolence of the respective patriarchal systems of control under and against which women, across this ‘civilizational’ divide, endure and/or resist. As Malti-Douglas puts it, “The image of women languishing under the yoke of Islam titillates the Western observer and permits him [or her] to place himself [or herself] in the superior position. Women and their role become a stick with which the West can beat the East.”[ii] In this context, the Arab East is essentialized into an Islam that is emblematic of reactive anti-modernizers, purveyors of the social blight afflicting women in the forms of seclusion, veiling and polygyny, not to mention the cult of virginity, the practice of clitoridectomy and the availability to men of instantaneous divorce by mere repudiation.  Nader explains this stereotyping by stating that, “The grid through which we [the West] rank the humanity of the area [the Middle East] is based on how we perceive their treatment of women-folk. The way in which we construct the place of Arab women is one of the keys to the control of others… The West is more civilized by the status and rights of its women.”[iii] She further suggests that this is part of the historical competition between East and West as cultural contestants, in which the Eastern woman is seen as the weak link or the recalcitrant obstacle to the West’s pursuit of universal cultural hegemony.


In contrast, the European West is caricatured into a paternalist (maternalist?) modernizer, who, it is argued, is in effect a mere neo-colonial agent of cultural imperialism, ignorant of the egalitarian ethos of Islam, and insufficiently appreciative of the multiplex ways in which women have used their seclusion and veils as means to enhance their power and freedom. One example of this type of argument is offered by Nelson: “Segregated social worlds are not so much the seclusion of women as much as they are the exclusion of men, as they provide an opportunity to establish exclusive solidarity groups through which social control (both public and private) is exercised.”[iv]


What seems to be at work here is a kind of politics of identity construction based on a logic of opposition, partly generated by the rejection of the ‘discursive colonization’ represented by the Orientalist prism. As one commentator suggests, “Women’s status has been determined largely by the confrontation between the changing images of a hegemonic West and a defensive Islam.[v]  In the case of anthropology, Abu-Lughod confirms that, “Nearly every anthropological study of Arab women is intended, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, to undermine stereotypes of the Middle Eastern women.”[vi]


A brief review of some of the sources that have contributed –some unwittingly- to the discursive production of stereotypical representations of gender in the Middle East follows. In the case of fellow “Western” feminists, it cannot be taken as a forgone conclusion that the noble aim of the feminist project of “conceiving difference without binary opposition” not only between men and women but also between “Western” women and their Others, has been achieved. The rude awakening dished out by the likes of Chandra Mohanty, who firmly reminded “Western” feminists that their suffocating embrace –or more aptly their imperious analytical subsumption- of their non-Western sisters’s cause was not very different from the condescending gaze of their men folk; and were advised that perhaps they should allow the “organic intellectuals” among Third World women to speak for themselves. This call was heeded by most but not all. One commentator concerned with the Middle East still finds it necessary to complain that “The common denominator of victimization that certain feminists have ascribed cross-culturally erases the complexities, pluralities, and historical specificities of different cultures; its monolithic assumptions are therefore akin to those of Orientalism.”[vii]


In the case of “gendered” anthropologists, the problem seems to be an intrinsic feature of their discipline, namely that of understanding the difference between an imagined “us” and a created “them.” This leads to a kind of professional deformation in its practitioners in the form of an obsession to find, if not create, those differences and as well as a predisposition to indulge in idiosyncratic interpretations. Moreover, their attempts at interpreting the socio-cultural realities of Third World natives, regardless of gender, seem more preoccupied with addressing theoretical problematics that only fellow cosmopolitan academics will find of redeeming value. Consequently, their ethnographies may be infused with a mere theoretical, not a practical, concern with jettisoning stereotypes or enhancing women’s resistance against hegemonic masculinity in its institutional and socio-political manifestations. Johannes Fabian captures what seems to be the underpinning factor, in a particularly candid confession about the fundamental motivations of all ethnographic writings, and more generally of the anthropological profession, when he says, “They are attempts to formulate insights in response to concrete, practical demands- such as teaching, lecturing, publishing, and making a living in academic institutions- while trying to stay in the presence of the Other.”[viii] Clearly these ‘practical demands’ have nothing to do with the Others studied, as they are reduced to an effigy-like “presence” employed at will to meet the exigencies of academia and its scholastic ethos. This represents a thorny dilemma for the politically committed academic ethnographer, for whom the call to move from participant observation to partisan observer may not offer much relief as her endeavor would already be circumscribed, and thus undermined, by these “practical demands.” A situation that is evocative of the Sissiphusian vagaries of a tragic vocation, perhaps.


More importantly, perhaps, are the ripple effects or continuing tremors in the post-Orientalist phase of Edward Said’s[ix] seismic denunciations of what passes for knowledge of the Middle East, either in its historical-philological guise or of the ethnographic-anthropological sort. The result was the undermining of the legitimacy of the former, and the questioning of the extent to which the intellectual practices of the latter have move sufficiently beyond its colonialist moorings. More importantly, given the focus of this paper, is that in the case of Middle Eastern anthropology, Said’s critique led to a situation where “Middle Eastern ethnographers tended to become increasingly and sometimes cripplingly self-conscious about their work… [s]eeking to avoid essentialism and typologizing, [while] hoping to give positive properties to the people they worked among.”[x]  Given Said’s silence on the gender implication of the Orientalist discourse, women anthropologists working in the region seemed to have made it their prime task to draw out those implications. That is, to deconstruct the Orientalized woman and to literally reconstruct the Arab or Middle Eastern women in a more favorable light, in order to set the record straight on the “real” nature of the social conditions of Middle Eastern women. One of the consequences of this particular emphasis is to fall into the trap of “reverse Orientalism” which is an attempt at reversing the power relationship as well as its concomitant imaginary by seeking to valorize for the self what colonialism or its sponsor imperialism had devalued as other, thereby producing essentialized caricatures of the self.


The focus, then, on the legacies of Orientalism while it seems an ineluctable intellectual chore for those working on any issue related to the Middle East, it also contributes to the persistence of this battle of caricatural essentializations in this “civilizational” dialogue de sourds. It is perhaps an indelible feature of the relationship between two competitive cultural contestants. In terms of its implication for the construction of gender in the Middle East, it merely perpetuates a perverse dialectical process concerned with making sense of the difference between a gendered ‘us’ and a gendered ‘them’. In the process of deconstructing the Orientalization of the East one simultaneously partakes in the Occidentalization of the West. As James Carrier has explained, “Orientalism is a process of definition by opposition. It is not merely a Western imposition of a reified identity on some alien set of people. It is also the imposition of an identity created in dialectical opposition to another identity… equally reified, that of the West.”[xi] The problem with the persistence of a phenomenon such as the Harem Syndrome is that it is the by-product of Western scholars’ problematic relationship with their society of origin. In the case of anthropologists, who contribute their fair share of essentializations, Carrier suggests that the problem is that “Most [Western] anthropologists have a fairly naïve and commonsensical understanding of Western societies.”[xii] This implies that a more sustained intellectual engagement with their own societies would improve matters. Perhaps, but only to a limited extent, given the larger problem of the ethnocentricity and androcentricity of analytical categories, which seem to constitute an intrinsic, if not indelible, part of anthropological discourse. Fortunately, however, alternative constructions of gender need not obligatorily go through the Orientalist-Occidentalist gauntlet of caricatural essentializations. In the Arab world, the emergent narrative of women’s emancipation that requires contestation is shifting the discursive site of struggle over gender matters to an intra-cultural and intra-regional context.  As Geneive Abdo referring to the situation in Egypt puts it, “there is a widespread feeling that the cause of society’s malaise stems primarily from a betrayal from within, rather than a domineering force from without.”[xiii]


The point of the above discussion was to identify the larger problematique, characterized by the prevalence of caricatural essentializations and the dilemmas associated with seeking their demise, which encompasses the deployment of the concept of gender in the anthropological discourse on the Middle East. The primary focus of this paper is to elucidate the nature of anthropology’s discursive construction of gender in the Arab world. Moreover, it highlights a new context characterized by the emergence of an uncritical Islamic discourse on gender in the Arab Middle East. Also, it observes that while Orientalism, as an analytical framework, remains a kind of intellectual rite de passage for those concerned with the Middle East, it does not now offer the necessary tools to answer the Islamist challenge. Furthermore, it is shown that the discursive site of struggle over gender has shifted from one straddling the borders of East and West, and which focused on undermining Western stereotypes of Middle Eastern women, to a site located within the Middle East, and which calls for combating the discursive dispossession of women by the Islamist narrative of emancipation. The next part of this paper will review the ways in which gender is constructed within the Arab Middle Eastern context, in terms of the prevailing issues and theoretical frameworks on gender.


Beyond Harem Theory:
In Search of Emancipation from Discursive Colonization


It is no exaggeration –although a politically improper analogy, perhaps- to suggest that women constitute the sixth pillar of Islam, given their centrality on the agenda of Middle Eastern governments, non-governmental entities, and international organizations concerned with the region. Interestingly, woman is the embodiment par excellence of the “Other” in the Arab world, and is, at the current conjuncture, posing with a heightened sense of urgency the problem of “otherness” and the modality of its accommodation and integration into mainstream Arab society and culture. As Suad Joseph puts it, “Central to any [Middle Eastern] society’s organization and conception of itself, women have become symbolic in the contests over nationality, cultural authenticity, development, reform, state-construction, social consciousness and the like.”[xiv] Moreover, according to Mary Hegland, “Governments and religious groups in Muslim countries and societies have recently intensified their focus on women’s appearance, segregation, behavior and family life as the primary signs of Muslim identity, power and resistance to the West.”[xv] Thereby making gender the major site of contention in Middle Eastern Islam. The contentiousness of the gender issue seems to be inscribed in the desire to rectify a historical wrong, which is expressed in the view that “The social status of women constitutes one of the terrains on which the invasion of Western references has disturbed the dynamic of the internal normative evolution of the universe of Islam.”[xvi]


Moreover, this is part of a battle over what set of ideas should prevail in shaping the future of a modern society in the Middle East. It appears that in the tripartite division of Islamic thought and of Muslim groups into liberal, conservative and fundamentalist, that

= the liberal version has been discredited by the failure of the developmentalist state to deliver the goods. Its nationalist secularist model of women emancipation, and its liberal economic agenda are seen as the main reasons for its failure and have led to a growing resentment toward imported Western modernity.[xvii]

= In its stead, what is emerging is a “native discourse” in the form of a peculiar synthesis of modern postulates and neo-traditional ideas – a kind of opportunistic combination of conservative and fundamentalist interpretations of Islam- as part of a strategy of either constructing alternative modernities or recuperating authentic traditions. In effect, this emergent, if not already prevalent, Islamic discourse could be characterized as a form of lumpen neo-traditionalism, as it is primarily aimed at the hordes of marginals locked out of these half-made societies, which are seeking their completion through a Western-inspired development process that seems to have permanently postponed the fulfillment of its promises.  Indeed, from the popular point of view, this discourse represents the pre-eminent source of a counter-hegemonic resistance to the West, which seeks to present itself as an indigenous model of emancipation for the masses and for women in particular. And according to which “The modern Islamist woman is the embodiment of the Islamic nation and the reproduction of its culture.”[xviii] In this context, not only women but also language and religion have become symbolically charged realms of authenticity and identity, against which Western transgression and its spread of a debilitating identity confusion and corrosive cultural doubt is to be fiercely resisted.

= Indeed, as Anouar Majid has observed, “It is rather tragic that the emergence of the status of women as an issue of major social concern [is becoming] ensnared by the reigning discourses of modernity and its antithetical defensive Islamic response.”[xix] According to Majid, this is a by-product of the process of Western hegemony that stimulated reactionary tendencies and drove women’s emancipation into the clutches of clerical Islam. The discursive site of struggle over gender issues in the Middle East is situated beyond the interstitial space between two equally unattractive discursive modes seeking to maintain women in an inferior status: On the one hand, there is the problem of discursive colonization posed by the substantively exhausted androcentric paradigms of Western social thought, riding the waves of globalization and their reductionist or fantasist interpretations of Middle Eastern women and societies; and on the other, there is the threat of discursive appropriation or dispossession of women by an uncritical Islamic ideology of resistance which is becoming, if it has not already, the “symbolic capital” of those marginalized by the developmentalist state. It is in light of the challenge posed by this new context that a brief genealogy is provided below of the anthropological discourse on gender in the Middle East.

Such a genealogy illustrates the process of discursive colonization whereby an intellectual dependency on the cosmopolitan center is established and sustained, in terms of the theoretical frameworks, the conceptual categories, and the thematic foci, which dictate how gender is studied in the region. Also, Harem theory, the intellectual progeny of the anti-Orientalist debate, is seen as the culmination of the evolution of anthropological discourse on gender in the Middle East, and is shown to be inadequate to elucidate the current situation of women in the region. Subsequently, the attempt to update Harem theory through its reconceptualization as “postcolonial feminism” seemed, to paraphrase Appadurai,[xx] not to reflect something significant about the Middle East, but was more revelatory of a rather arbitrary imposition of the whims of anthropological fashion in vogue in the metropolitan academy.

It has been taken as axiomatic that trends in anthropological scholarship about Arab women are determined by the changing contexts of the relationship between the West and the Third World as these are reflected in the paradigms of social science. Cynthia Nelson has attempted an overview of the evolution of the interaction between a particular historical period and its defining features and corresponding themes or subject of study in the anthropology of women in the Middle East, in the form of a four-phase model from the 1950’s to the 1980’s.[xxi]

= The first period is one of “awakening” in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the relative invisibility of women as a focus of scholarly research was brought to an end, due to their active participation in nationalist movements. Indeed nationalism was the midwife for feminism in the Middle East. Women became the subject of the modernization paradigm, and their changing social status became the barometer of change for the modernizing Middle Eastern societies. It was a period characterized by the wholesale transfer of an external social vision and of its accompanying secular thought system and societal organizational scheme, and of their uncritical acceptance by the politico-cultural elite of those societies.

= The second period introduced an “empirical gaze” on the social realities of Middle Eastern women. That is, while the theoretical concerns and the analytical categories were of Western provenance, they paid closer attention –through empirical investigation- to the actual conditions of existence of these women, especially their social status, and roles. The first ethnographies on women were published. The conceptual repertoire emphasized role, status and position of women in terms of the ideology of honour and shame, the code of modesty and the role of Islam in gender organization.  All of these factors were deployed in the exploration of the traditional, gender segregated social structure of Middle Eastern societies. This social structure was reified into the bifurcation of the public realm as that of men and described as political, broad and expansive versus the private world of women characterized by domesticity, narrowness and restriction. Such a construction was later criticized in the following terms: “What becomes defined as the public and private spheres, however, are less the categorizations of the world by the actors living in these societies than they are the metaphors of the observers who are recording the actions of men and women in these societies.”[xxii] Indeed, during this period the basic repertoire of concepts and analytical categories were laid down and was to provide the source of theoretical debates and ethnographic themes in subsequent periods. In effect, the paradigm for the anthropological study of gender in the Middle East was set. It is a paradigm, to paraphrase Said, in which the difference between men and women has been essentialized, culturized and textualized.

= The third period heralded a “critical response”, as the initial rumblings of an emergent political consciousness in the field of anthropology became manifest, and the advocates of the postcolonial moment and the bicultural members of that profession began to assert themselves in a nascent, collective enterprise aimed at burying the euro/androcentric intellectual legacies of imperialism. This took the form of the emergence of a critical reflexivity vis-à-vis the nature of the conceptual categories being deployed and the forms of knowledge they allowed to be constructed. The deployment of concepts such as power, patriarchy, and production enabled the contestation of the taken for granted depiction of women as passive victims, enduring their subordination, and the devaluation of women’s contribution to the household economy. The aim was to demonstrate how women manipulated the existing socio-structural arrangements in order to harness their own power and agency. The institutional articulation of patriarchy was subjected to intense scrutiny, in terms of the dialectics of male dominance and women subordination that included the following dimensions: The cultural practices and conservative attitudes, which perpetuated the relational and power asymmetry, the sexual segregation and the notions of women’s sexuality that it entailed, and the accommodating resistance on the part of women to these practices were highlighted. A theme that has proved to be excessively enduring in the anthropology of the Middle East is that of the private/public dichotomy between the social world of men and that of women, and its accompanying code of modesty for women and that of honor for men. Its acceptance in the previous period as a fait accompli, reflecting a kind of accommodation to an Islamic tradition and thus a pre-ordained organizing principle of Middle Eastern society was challenged. The nature of the social relations implied by this binarism came to serve as the cheval de bataille for some women anthropologists studying the region, and who turned it, unwittingly perhaps, into a justification for a kind of “ethno-Orientalism,” that is a form of essentialist renderings of the social realities of natives in a given society by members of that society. Finally, the ontological status of anthropological fact was questioned in light of the interaction between gender, the self (i.e., the subject position of the ethnographer), and the construction of knowledge. In the case of anthropology the impetus to entertain such considerations was provided by feminism’s increasing radicalization and institutionalization as an alternative intellectual paradigm.

= The last period noted by Nelson is the “indigenous quest” of the 1980’s that was in response to a “new wind of cultural decolonization blowing through the Middle East which is having a profound impact on the lives of women.” This “wind” was occasioned by the debate over women’s status as it encompassed religion and politics in the symbolism of the veil. According to Nelson, this was a moment, which necessitated the emergence of a new type of scholarship, not only to understand but to change the situation as well. Unfortunately, the example of the new type of scholarship needed, as evidenced through her selection of two scholars as exemplars, seems premature. In the first example provided by Nelson, the scholar in question is Al-Torki, and the work referred to is Women in Saudi Arabia: Ideology Among the Elite. It is interesting to note the comments of a reviewer of this book: The book “reads like a pre-1960 ethnography that focuses on kinship and marriage in a community perceived as relatively isolated. Greater attention to the kinds of historical and political economic issues that are now engaging many scholars of the Middle East and elsewhere would have significantly increased the book’s impact.”[xxiii] In the second case, Abu-Lughod’s 1985 article  “A Community of Secrets: The Separate World of Bedouin Women” is supposed to exemplify this new scholarship. However, the article amounts to a celebratory exploration and apologetic justification of women’s resourcefulness in humanizing and socially enriching their segregated world. She rationalizes their situation as follows: “Sexual segregation is not inherently bad for women… Women enthusiastically [!] support the segregation that allows them to carve out significant fields for autonomous action in their unsupervised and egalitarian world.”[xxiv] Could this not be, then, a case of the metaphors of the observer and not the categorizations of the actors observed, as Nelson argued in her earlier article referred to above? There are two problems with this approach: One, as Jane Atkinson has pointed out, it presumes “that women’s influence in one context cancels out their degradation in another.”[xxv] The other, according to Elizabeth Fernea, is that this segregationist paradigm “was constructed by male social scientists who banned from studying the private or family sphere, simply discounted the private sphere as unimportant to the world of politics, commerce and religion, and therefore not worthy of study.”[xxvi] Its adoption by women anthropologists with such uncritical zeal would suggest a kind of accommodation, however unwittingly, to a discursive construct of androcentric progeny, and thus susceptible to intellectually compromised interpretations. Clearly then, instead of a new type of scholarship in which committed feminist anthropologists engaged in “localized struggles over the search for a non-Eurocentric framework from which Arab women may search for indigenous identities and [to] gain[..] economic and legal rights within their societies,”[xxvii] one is presented with a scholarship that is evocative of an ethno-Orientalist intellectual defensiveness. The latter has unwittingly led to the reification of the perception of the Arab world as composed of homosocial societies characterized by a corporate orientation and the prevalence of familism, which practice the segregation of sexes, and has contributed to the naturalization of gender differences and their institutionalization into social structuring processes. It is this intellectual attitude that has to be abandoned  if this indigenous quest is to be realized.


The historical overview outlined above, which went beyond Nelson’s, has sought to provide a periodic contextualization of anthropology’s discursive construction of gender in the Middle East as well as to point out the existence of analytical strategies, deploying a rather impoverished conceptual repertoire, that have led to a theoretical cul de sac while pretending to have carved a path out of it. One such term from this conceptual repertoire is Harem theory, which Abu-Lughod privileges because it simultaneously   “denotes… women’s world and women’s activities and connote[s] an older, Orientalist, imaginative world of Middle Eastern women, which… shapes anthropological discourse by providing a negative foil.”[xxviii] Moreover, Harem theory constitutes an encompassing term, which includes feminist theorizing that shows “how analysis that takes account of gender alters the understanding of the social world being described and the way social worlds must be understood.”[xxix] In other words, Harem theory refers to the Orientalist trope of women’s subordination and veiled seclusion, while simultaneously constituting a deconstructive analytical framework for the socio-cultural practices associated with such subordination –e.g., the sexual division of labor, the segregation of the sexes and their ramifications in terms of power allocation, agency, and relevance of women’s activities as they are carried out in women’s social world. Moreover, the framework seeks to critically uncover the androcentric origin as well as the culture-boundedness of the conceptual categories employed in certain analytical schemes. Finally, it seeks to reveal the complexities of the interrelationship in those social worlds and to dispel the oversimplifying assumptions entertained about such world.


However constructive were the objectives of Harem theory, they were overwhelmingly circumscribed by domestic concerns as they fetishise the public/private dichotomy and focus on getting women’s world right! Admittedly, this brought a necessary corrective, but its research agenda as well as its analytical focus seem inadequate given the nature of the challenge   presented by the discursive colonization of global capitalism and its army of local and foreign discursive agents, and the discursive dispossession of women by the fundamentalist narrative of emancipation. In this light, one ought to ask how would a feminist anthropology conceived in terms of Harem theory take on “the monumental task of contesting both orthodoxies simultaneously and dialectically?”[xxx]  That is, to carve out an alternative path to the current attempts at co-opting the feminist agenda in the region between a neo-liberal state feminism and a radical Islamist one. If the most recent work of Abu-Lughod[xxxi], to cite one example, is an indication, then one can assert rather emphatically that Harem theory is not up to the task. As her claim to undo the old Middle Eastern anthropological categories is translated into an entrenchment into the discourse of emotion, the poetics of veiled sentiments and the politics of domestic relations and an obsession with the anthropology of the self. This is evident in the concept of “halfie ethnography”[xxxii], which represents an extreme reification of the notion of self-as-instrument of research. The latter is conceived in terms of an essentialist confession evoking a reductionist self-description encompassing gender, nationality, bicultural progeny etc.  Here the self is fractionalized in order, so it seems, to negotiate its entry into the established hierarchy in which the identities of ethnographers are ranked according to the archetypal field worker as the euro-American, white, middle-class male. In effect, such self-categorization only leads to an accommodationist posturing to racial and other exclusionary practices. Notwithstanding, as Kandiyoti has observed, “the crippling effects of having to seek authority for one’s authorial voice with reference to one’s personality, who one is, rather than the analytic rigor or credibility of the arguments being elaborated.”[xxxiii] Perhaps we need to heed the advice of Amin Maalouf that “identity does not compartmentalize itself, it does not allocate itself neither in halves nor quarters, nor is cloistered into selectively chosen parts.”[xxxiv]


Moreover, the undoing of old categories is to be pursued through the deployment of an “ethnography of the particular” consisting of the exploration of “wonderfully complex stories of individuals … that might challenge the capacity of anthropological generalizations to render lives… adequately.” This statement epitomizes what Knauft has described as the danger of neo-empiricism: A reactionary refuge into the presentation of more and more specifics as if their significance were self-evident and precluded larger analysis. It fails to provide a comprehensible theoretical context. As such it is a kind of descriptivism that is theoretically at-sea.[xxxv] Also, it seems to reflect the internal disciplinary preoccupations of a professional caste, deeply insulated by the ethos of academic scholasticism[xxxvi] and thus oblivious to the larger concerns of those whose lives they (i.e., anthropologists) are dependent upon for their livelihood. For what is being challenged are “anthropological generalizations” not the constraints on the emancipatory aspirations of those being studied. Indeed, such preoccupations betray a form of intellectual practice that is unilaterally extractive and thus devoid of any reciprocity, in that it takes from informants and offers nothing in return. What are these informants going to do with “wonderfully complex stories” produced in a language they cannot understand? The end-result is the pursuit of ethnography as aimless conviviality with the natives and dedicated solely to the “recounting of petits recits of localizable collectivities”[xxxvii] for the exclusive consumption of a mass audience in the metropolitan center. Unfortunately, this packaging of anthropological knowledge for consumption by a primarily metropolitan audience closely resonates with Said’s notion of Orientalism as a hegemonic conceptual framework through which the Middle East was rendered intelligible to an audience external to it. As such, it confirms McGrane’s observation that “the Other’s empirical presence as the field and subject matter of anthropological discourse is grounded upon his [or her] theoretical absence as interlocutor, as dialogical colleague, as audience.”[xxxviii]


= It would be premature to conclude at this point this schematic genealogical overview of the anthropological discourse on gender in the Middle East, given the more recent attempts at the dawn of the 21st century to update Harem Theory. The latter has metamorphosed into a version of “post-colonial feminism”, which resonates with the intellectual preoccupations of the post-Writing Culture era. It is an era that heralded the emergence of a generation of anthropologists as a cohort of novelists manqués or mere literary critics practicing a kind of meta-ethnography with an escapist posterior gaze cloaked in the guise of history and imbued with a necrophilic fervor, or perhaps an acute bout of signifier fetishism, given that their primary locus of activity are the library archives of dead Euro-Anglo founding mothers and fathers of the discipline, and the mimic women and men in the South or East who were leaders in the nationalist/anti-colonial era. Hence, this generation’s defining preoccupation is with the post-colonial problematique, namely: the invasive ramifications of the colonial encounter and the transformation of native populations, especially women, of southern societies into conscripts of western modernity through the reformation of their subjectivities and the reorganization of their social fields.[xxxix]   In keeping with this discussion in term of phases, this particular moment could be described as the “conjunctural phase”.[xl] It is characterized by an avoidance of anything having to do with the “indigenous” as it smacks of essentialism, and thus replaced by the cosmopolitan, since modernity in the east, it is claimed, is a western import. This phase represents the confluence of traveling theories from multiple regional provenances and of their imbrications in the social landscape of the Middle East. It is primarily a discursive practice that encompasses an intertextuality mediated by a plurality of perspectival prisms, namely feminism, post-modernity and post-coloniality, and an inter-contextuality with transnational dimensions in which experiences from different places, regions, and classes are liberally poached in order to make sense of the conditions of women, in this case, the Middle East.


Three among the main tenets of this discursive practice are worth highlighting:

* The first is the wholesale acceptance of the defining motto of post-modernism, namely: “There are no truths, but only competing his/her stories.” This has the practical effect, as already noted above, of turning anthropologists into “wannabe literary artists”.

* The second is the adoption of a diffusionist rhetoric, however inadvertently, in which only the West can claim authenticity, while the Rest can only resort to parody. Thus, local contexts, however unwittingly, are denied their historicity and “natives” are deprived of their agency, notwithstanding the deployment of an impressive arsenal of dissimulative tropes.

* The third is the positionality of, at least, some of the protagonists, which informs their analyses of gender in the Middle East. It is one based on unresolved dilemmas about social commitment and about accountability to whom (colleagues in the academy or those studied) as well as a crisis about cultural belongingness induced by their diasporic, or more aptly, hyphenated, status. This situation is further complicated by the intellectual priorities and political sensibilities inculcated during their long residence, or by their current institutional location, inside the Western Leviathan, and the identity and gender politics that prevail therein. Indeed, it is a positionality that is conducive to an ontological anxiety or intellectual predicament, which is evocative of what I would call the V. S. Naipaul complex: A condition characterized by a repressed longing for the aborted mission civilisatrice of European colonialism coupled with a deep anger at the failure of the anti-colonial/nationalist project and its legacy of half-made societies and the deformed subjectivities of their people (e.g., the subalterns who cannot speak for themselves).


To illustrate the above points, one exemplar could be offered. It is Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East.[xli] This book is discussed here because it positions itself at the confluence of the most significant of earlier texts on the conditions of women in the Middle East. It does not claim to be a summation of earlier discussions, at least not directly, but rather to take the discussion of the “woman question” into new research sites and thematic domains made possible by these precursor texts, namely: the politics of modernity and the ambiguous outcome of the projects it has spawned, East/West relations as mediated through the colonial experience, and the role of class among the historical protagonists in the debates over women’s emancipation.  As such, it is a representative sample that illustrates, indeed epitomizes, the emergent collectivizing hegemony of the conjunctural discursive mode, and its privileging the path of least resistance in terms of the adoption of antiseptic field research venues, such as the library, the text (especially the diary, the autobiography, the novel, but not the political-economy treatises), and the popular media; and the deployment of writing strategies that emphasize the poetics at the expense of the politics, thus escaping any connection with collective action for change. The book is a retrospective reading of the intentions behind and the designs of the nation-building and women-emancipating projects inspired by the colonial encounter and advocated by Middle Eastern politico-cultural elites imbued with an imitative urge for European modernity. Indeed, it is a return to the period of the “awakening” described earlier, and made academically opportune by the availability of the theoretical grid provided by postcolonial discourse and its repertoire of tropes, which enables the (post)colonizing search for new places and spaces for the performative reimagining of gender relations. The book is made up of a number of chapters focusing on particular projects and the driving personalities behind them, and written by scholars of various disciplinary background; yet the book epitomizes the “blurring of genres”, the emergent intellectual style announced long ago and which has now crystallized into what I described above as the collectivizing hegemony of the conjunctural discursive mode. In an introduction to the book, flirtingly entitled “Feminist Longings and Postcolonial Conditions” the editor, Lila Abu-Lughod, sought to carefully delimit the discursive context of her stable of contributors into a kind of above-the-fray discursive space, by steering clear of the sharply drawn positional divide between those in the East, the Islamists who reject feminism as a Western imposition, and those in the West, the Euro-American social scientists, or more aptly, conjunctural bricoleurs, who think Middle Eastern feminism is an impossibility, given its formulation within an Islamic moral framework. Instead, she opts for an historical examination of the “processes of entanglement” between East and West initiated by the colonial encounter. History then becomes an escape hatch from the front line of the discursive site of struggle within Middle Eastern societies. Indeed, as Abu-Lughod observes in another contribution in the book, “As analysts, we need to stand outside these struggles.”[xlii] Thereby betraying a commitment to the politics of the refusal of engagement and the adoption of a spectatorial gaze.


In keeping with this desire to avoid political controversy, an inclusive, indeed, populist definition of feminism is adopted, as the framing vista for the different interventions: “The wide range of projects that have or had as an explicit goal or necessary foundation the remaking of women. We consider such projects whether initiated by men or women and whether expressed in practical projects (like starting schools) or in debates and calls to action in the press, books, speeches, sermons on cassette, or television soap operas.”[xliii] This definitional potpourri and its focus on mostly surface forms of public contestations fit perfectly with the analytical strategy of the contributors, which is the textual exegesis of the “colonial feminism” advocated by the book writing minority of the bourgeois class in some Middle Eastern societies. The end-result is a kind of class amalgamation, where the elite is posited as the surrogate for highly stratified societies with a bewildering social heterogeneity and multiple social struggles. These elites’ attempt at justifying or consolidating their class hegemony as well as engaging in self-promotion within their egocentric bourgeois circles, are made to represent the concerns and aspirations of the nation as a whole. This kind of analytical insouciance vis-à-vis class is perhaps a reflection of scholars’ affinal identification with the literate class or of postcolonial theorists’ assumption that subalterns, or the lower classes, can only be spoken for. Interestingly, as the socialscapes of local contexts become too complex for anthropology’s traditional production of locality, the more easily accessible reductionist vision of the upper classes becomes the refuge of analysts. Indeed, as Deniz Kandiyoti has observed in a critical afterword that cast serious doubt on the assumptions underlying the book, “there is little critical reflection on how the everyday landscape of modernity in the Middle East (including, tastes, styles, mores, and consumption patterns) was shaped through relations among different classes and communal groups (Muslims, Levantines, Armenians, Jews, and Copts, to name just a few).”[xliv]


The book’s treatment of feminist modernist projects is framed within the traditional analytic binaries:

* The first is the inescapable domination – ubiquitous subversion dichotomy, devoid of exit strategy. As Abu-Lughod explains, “The chapters in this book show that the forms of feminism in the Middle East tied to modernity ushered in new forms of gendered subjection (in the double sense of subject-positions for women and forms of domination) as well as new experiences and possibilities.”[xlv] These new experiences and possibilities remained unexplored, however.

* The other is the perdurable public-domestic dichotomy, which constitutes the matrix within which the ramifications of the colonial encounter and its modernization projects are explored. The main conclusion seems to be that this encounter and the modernity that it spawned contributed to the gendering of disempowerment. This is so, especially in the ambiguous construction in Middle East societies of a heterosocial space in which women and men were supposed to contribute equally to nation-building, but which turned out to be a re-engineering of the public-private spheres into a more effective incarceration of women into a scientifically managed cult of domesticity –that is the remaking of women into more efficient “ministers of the interior” of the emergent nation’s families. This anticlimactic conclusion, a kind of apolitical contestatory gesture, is in keeping with the equally banal assertion of the book’s intended contribution, captured on the dust jacket, as it projects upon its audience a simplistic equation that no minimally aware person would assume to be the case: “Indeed, Remaking Women is a radical challenge to any easy equation of modernity with progress, emancipation, and the empowerment of women.” However, this banal assertion is not necessarily reflective of the quality and relative utility of the retrospective look of the individual contributions in the book but paradoxically it trivializes them while simultaneously capturing their cardinal orientation. Perhaps the book is addressed, after all, to the progeny of the upper classes in the region and their governmental clerks who might still be under the sway of the delusion that emancipation –whether through the colonial encounter or its twin the development encounter- is a Western import. In contrast to the “process of entanglement” that privileges the encounter with European colonialism called for by Abu-Lughod, Kandiyoti is proposing a process of disentanglement of the social heterogeneity of Middle Eastern societies that emphasizes the power and ideological struggles between local groups as the catalyst of the internal debate over modernity.  In this way local contexts regain their historicity and local actors of all classes are reinvested with their active agency.


Clearly then the indigenous quest remains an unfinished project worthy of pursuit.  Indeed, a return to it would help undermine the perception, unwittingly conveyed above, of Middle Eastern’ social formations and their cultural by-products as the “transculturated residue” of colonialism’s forced cultural assimilation and which constitutes the loam of current as well as future cultural production.[xlvi]


Elements of an Exit Strategy

The discussion above has highlighted three shortcomings:

* First, the process of discursive colonization has not been abandoned; hence there is a continuing intellectual dependency on the cosmopolitan center, which not only reifies anthropological discourse in a sterile East versus West debate but also undermines its effectiveness in addressing the challenge of the fundamentalist narrative of emancipation.

* Second, the search for an exit strategy from the Occidentalist-Orientalist gauntlet cannot be confined to a mere debate between = the assumed virtues of ‘ethnographic particularism’ and its celebration of the daily realities of the common folk, and

= the imperial conceit of the ‘ethnographic holism’ of anthropology’s classical era and its hegemonic conception of culture as embodying homogeneity, coherence and timelessness.

In effect, opposing the “storicized” localism of the ethnography of the particular to the contrived universalism of social scientific generalizations seems as just another binarism, which does not promised a new start but instead heralds a form of intellectual recidivism trapped in the logic of received dichotomies of the dominant discourses.

* Third, postcolonial thought, which was inaugurated by an insurrectionist élan against the dominant Western episteme, at least in its historiographical moment, has, since its elopement with poststructuralism and its dissemination to other terrains, embarked upon an ambiguous adventure in which it is no longer certain about its initial desire to decolonize itself and seems to be dissipating the liberating potential of its intellectual capital into an egotistical aestheticism or apolitical textualism. It seems that there has been a reversal of the call for the decentering of Western knowledge associated with such a thought. Indeed, in the case of postcolonial feminism in the Middle East it has led to a recentering of that knowledge through the catalytic role exclusively ascribed to European colonialism, and the knowledge it authorized, in the East’s entry into modernity. The result is to make the present of the Middle East subservient to a European past.


As Mohanty has reminded us, achieving the indigenous quest entails a “struggle to assert knowledge that is outside the parameters of the dominant discourse[s].”[xlvii] Moreover, the context in which the indigenous quest is to be pursued in the current conjuncture has changed since the demise of the Soviet communist alternative and the emergence of the arrogant triumphalism of the neo-liberal model, flouting its aspiration to world hegemony through the arrogation and deployment of a globalization mandate with its perceived culturally homogenizing implications. It is the latter that has generated counter-hegemonic reactions in the form of fundamentalist discourses. It is in this light that the question can be posed: What then would an anthropology-based indigenous quest entail in the context of the Arabo-Islamic discourse on gender in the Middle East?


* An obligatory first step, perhaps problematic depending on one’s adherence to a particular notion of rationality or modernity, is to acknowledge that religion provides the foundational premise which suffuses the socio-cultural dynamics of Islamic societies. As Gellner has explained, the “secularization thesis, which holds that the growth of science and technology and its spread in society leads to a gradual decline of the role of faith… and the demise of religion in the societal scheme of things” do not apply to Islamic countries.[xlviii] Therefore, as Majid has asserted, no emancipatory social movement in the Arab world can be pursued without the invocation of the Quran and the Hadith as ultimate guides. As the Islamic culture is one in which “human agency is constantly negotiating its boundaries with those of the Revelation, in which accommodation to divine intent is a fundamental principle.”[xlix] One implication, in terms of the question raised above, is for Islam to constitute the prism through which the ethnographer understands what her people are up to. And to approach it, as Asad has suggested, as a discursive tradition that informs the constitution of moral selves, the shaping of the knowledge and worldview held by the community or group studied, and its deployment in acts of resistance or accommodation to social transformation.[l] However, to deploy this approach is to enter into a realm embroiled in a contest, characterized by Hefner rather caricaturally, between “corporatist Islamists” and “civic pluralists” over the interpretation of symbols and the control of institutions that produce and sustain them. Each side is clamoring for a particular model of the institutionalization of Islam. = The “corporatist Islamists” insist on a state-imposed organic union between religion and the state, thereby enforcing a unitary profession of faith. = The “civic pluralists” prefer a marketplace model of denominational competition, thus encouraging a counter-resurgence of pluralized expressions of faith.[li] This is the context in which gender issues are being debated and the fate of women being decided, and thus should constitute the obligatory site of intervention for anthropologists.


However, for those who may be symbolically dominated by the specter of secularism, and who remain skeptical regarding the redeeming value of a religion-bound society, they should consider Richard Rorty’s assertion, who, according to some, is the postmodern Socrates, that the best, in terms of the good society, that can be expected from Western bourgeois liberal democracy, is only a perennial state of positive nihilism: “where we no longer worship anything, where we treat nothing as a quasi divinity, where we treat everything –our language, our conscience, our community- as a product of time and chance.”[lii] It is a vision that Cornell West has described as an “ethnocentric posthumanism” heralding a disenchanted utopia as the meager reward of the presumed superiority of freedom in the West. This reference to Rorty’s version of the good society is meant to highlight the incommensurable paradigms of the good society that can be envisioned and the kind of radical otherness that can be constituted in different cultures. Hence the need to seek to comprehend and perhaps appreciate as opposed to prejudge and reject.


Furthermore, the state’s rise as a significant nexus and main theater for the acting out of gender politics and the arbitration of the demands of multiple and opposing constituencies has led to the phenomenon of state feminism, as part of an accommodationist or oppositional strategy to modernist socio-political and economic exigencies associated with the adoption or imposition of the development narrative. As Kandiyoti[liii] has observed, the post-independence trajectories of modern Third World states, and the variations in their deployment of Islam in relation to their different strategies of nationalism and corresponding state ideologies on gender and the oppositional movements generated in reaction to these various factors, are of central importance to an understanding of the condition of women. The suggestion that state feminism is in demise is an exaggeration, perhaps partly induced by post-colonial thought’s aversion to the nation-state as the brainchild of the colonialist imaginary. What has happened in most Middle Eastern states is that the hegemonic role of its institutions was decentered through increased competition from civil society actors with external support (e.g., NGOs, politically active independent feminist personalities, and Islamist organizations). The state’s institutions (e.g., regional and national commissions for women and state-sponsored NGOs for women) still represent one, still important, actor among others. Indeed, it is principally, but not exclusively, through these state institutions that the UN and western governments’ bilateral agencies work when addressing conditions of women. Their effectiveness might be doubted, but not their presence and continued potential for nuisance –especially in arrogating the right to speak on behalf of the nation’s women in intergovernmental global fora.


Indeed, the deployment of Islam is part of the Middle Eastern states’s attempt, as Tarek Masoud has suggested, to make up for what they lack in democratic legitimacy by wrapping themselves in the mantle of Islamic legitimacy; thereby trying to harmonize the worldly exigencies of modern statecraft and the otherworldly requirements of faith. This attempt at grafting a coexistence between these two sets of demands is generative of all sorts of policy inconsistencies, legal-administrative dilemmas and contradictions, and political expediencies. It is within the interstices of this coexistence imperative and the intertwining of these inconsistencies, contradictions and expediencies that the locus of power is constituted and in turn generates the politics of gender in the Middle East. Surely, what is call for in such a context is the deployment of an anthropology of policy[liv], which entails the examination of how politico-religious, legal-administrative and policy discourses work to control societal agendas and the complex ways in which such discourses construct their subjects as objects of power. Such an approach could elucidate the legal-political strategies best suited to disentangling the web of hegemonic masculinity, as opposed to the “ethnography of the particular” with its apolitical focus, aesthetic priorities and it obliviousness to the plays of power, at least in their macro-institutional manifestations. Moreover, in the present conjuncture, this deployment of Islam is now threatened into a process of reformation partly induced by the transmutating effects of the spread of western power. One potential casualty is Gellner’s notion of “Muslim exceptionalism”: That is, the view of Islam as having a unique ability to withstand the temptations of secularization. This would entail the corollary demise of the unitarian view of Islam and politics: That is, the non-existence, or the non-allowance, in Islam of a separation of social spheres between the political and the religious. It is in this emergent space that the hope for a “civil Islam” is taking roots. It is an Islam that renounces state-enforced standardization of the practice of faith[lv], and which would have enormous ramifications for gender-related issues. It is the consideration of such macro dimensions encompassing the constitution of life-worlds, entailed by the global-local dialectic, which will have to become an integral part of the ethnographic-anthropological enterprise.


However, for this pursuit to have any relevance to the issues discussed in this paper, the anthropological imagination must transgress the boundaries of its cognitive insularity, characterized by its eurocentric epistemological and ontological cordon ombilical, and prove false defeatist assertions such as ‘it seems impossible to imagine an anthropology without a Western epistemological link.’[lvi] I should comment that this assertion is perhaps correct only retrospectively but not prospectively. The approving reference to it could only be indicative of a failure of imagination. Given the fount of possibilities for the reconstitution of cultures represented by globalization if viewed, as a dialectic of indigenization and cosmopolitanism. It is also indicative of a fear of escaping from Foucault’s “carceral archipelago” constituted by a discipline-bounded discourse and its corollary practice of academic scholasticism. It would seem more productive to accept Hastrup’ suggestion that “The greatest challenge to anthropology is not to read other cultures correctly but to recover disappearing [and to valorize alternative] epistemologies.”[lvii] One such challenge in the context of the Middle East could be the ethnographic exploration in everyday cultural practices of the playing out of the dialectics between sets of antinomies, which “modernity” has outmoded elsewhere but which continue to animate the social imaginary as well as constitute epistemological fault lines in societies that insist on the primacy of religion as the sole basis for their social structuring framework: theodicy/theory – cosmology/history – religious speculation/ secular reflection.  Indeed, the thesis about the impossibility of re-appropriating anthropology on the basis of alternative epistemologies may well be a function of the induced intellectual indolence through a mantra-like invocation of the discipline’s rhetoric of self-justification and promotion, and impelled by institutional inertia, as an inescapably Western enterprise[lviii], and thus the unattractiveness of this liminal project of re-appropriation. Even the marginalist re-appropriation project proposed by Chakrabarty, in a different yet related disciplinary and political context, would be better than intellectual resignation to a state of perennial sub-alternity as an ontological fatality for the southern half of the globe. Such a project entails the realization that, as he explains, “European thought is at once indispensable and inadequate in helping us to think through the experiences of political modernity in non-Western nations, and provincializing Europe becomes the task of exploring how this thought… may be renewed from and for the margins.”[lix] Chakrabarty’s project, however reasonable in principle, betrays in practice a kind of infatuation with such a thought where its indispensability is privileged while its inadequacy is obliviated. This situation is evocative of the pitfalls of post-colonial consciousness, where intellectuals of non-Western provenance in the Western academy seemed to have assumed the role of indentured intellectual workers[lx], or less stridently court jesters, whose freedom, if it is ever achieved, depends on displaying allegiance to the dominant intellectual culture through parody. As if cowed by the deconstructionist specter and its postulate about the impossibility of escaping the juggernaut of Western reason. Threatening to deprive those who try to escape of their sense of ontological security. This leads to a form of “discursive cloning”, which seems to be a widespread temptation, if not already an affliction, among, at least some, self-described post-colonial anthropologists and other disciplinary craftspersons.  For them, the colonial encounter was the heraldic evenement or the catalytic birth pang that generated ontologically constitutive ramifications. Perhaps to avoid the impression of biological determinacy that the notion of discursive cloning conveys, I should use instead intellectual sycophancy since it emphasizes the political choice made by those who advocate the tabula rasa theory of the inscription of modernity in the East. The symptoms associated with either term are epistemological surrender, discursive mimicry, and intellectual recidivism. This practice is dissimulated behind, as Knauft explains, “what seems to be opposition against power or authority is often just a superficial reshuffling of terms or allegiances at the level of content.”[lxi] To illustrate briefly the potential for travesty that the imbalanced equation between indispensability and inadequacy could lead to, I cite a case that is external, yet pertinent, to anthropological discourse. It is that of Ajiz Ahmad’s[lxii] dismissive critique of Said’s book on orientalism and the questioning of his intellectual credentials because he was not a boilerplate Marxist and did not pursue with impeccable mimicry Foucault’s analytical strategy; but chose instead to assert his prerogative to intellectual innovation. Ahmad –for whom genuflexive allegiance to the oracular pronouncements from the eminences grises of the Western intellectual pantheon is such a natural, if not obligatory, act- seemed to have felt that Said’s transgressive discursive move was an unpardonable affront, especially coming from a subaltern who was making an unauthorized claim to emancipation from an ascribed indentured status.


Indeed, it was with a view to providing an antidote to this affliction that Said suggested the adoption of a broader intellectual culture in which the re-appropriation project would be a part, when addressing his Arab, and other, colleagues he says: “What we really need is a critical language and a full-scale critical culture… Our purpose is to assess and critique power in the Arab world. Not according to grandiose schemas imported from Hegel and Stalin and… of methodological instruments or Orientalist models from abroad having no relation to our life. We must ingeniously and imaginatively develop composite or hybrids models…[lxiii]


Finally, we need to say, paraphrasing Benita Parry, two cheers to the indigenous quest, oblivious to the epistemological queasiness of those imbued with a self-serving anti-essentialist sensibility. For the initial, and still valid, objective of such a quest, namely to understand and change not just women’s condition but gender relations generally, remains to be achieved. Its ultimate success however, would require the resolution of the dilemma concerning the fusion of the roles of scholar and activist, which is an article of faith in feminist studies but not in anthropology. The relevance of the coupling of feminism and anthropology in the ethnography of gender and Islam in the Middle East is based on the fact that the measuring rod of feminist scholarship, as Strathern puts it, is “the practical contribution… that it makes to the solution or dissolution of the problem of women.”[lxiv] Moreover, there is a need to reconnect with the two radicalism[lxv] that underpinned the initial practice of feminism, namely: a radical politics concerned with changing conditions of women and a radical scholarship dedicated to questioning the grounds of identity construction. Prevailing discursive practices suggest that there is and unacknowledged disavowal of the inter-relatedness between the two and a privileging of radical scholarship through experiment with writing styles at the expense of radical politics. In the continued absence of a (re)merger between these two radicalism, the problem noted in the introduction to this paper, namely the reduction of the Other’s reality to the fulfillment of the academic exigencies of the professional anthropologist would persist.[lxvi] This (re)merger would perhaps enable the deployment of a critical ethnography conceived as a praxiology of emancipation that enables the recovery and reconstitution of subjectivities deformed by the processes of empire and the delusions of development. However, this fusion of roles and coupling of disciplines suggested here, are antithetical to the advocacy of separate-sphere feminism as well as to the version of post-colonial feminism, which constructs gender, primarily if not solely, as an artifact of Western power mediated through colonialism and cultural imperialism, and where the politico-cultural elites of formerly colonized societies are the midwives of an imported modernity, however hybridized. Thereby marginalizing the equally determining agency of heterogeneous local social forces.


Also, a more genuine political commitment has to underpin the frequent deployment of the concept of resistance, which is now a pervasive refrain in the anthropological literature. In most instances, such deployment seems merely to be an opportunistic use of an attractively thematized strategy of textual incorporation, which seeks to update the discursive categories of the discipline’s conceptual repertoire (e.g., Abu-Lughod’s “undoing the old categories”), and is neither a genuine nor effective expression of solidarity with, and is devoid as well of any “material effectiveness” on, the emancipatory struggle of those being studied.   In this context, it is worth recalling Asad’s advice that “We do not advance matters much if we simply repeat slogans about conflict and resistance in place of older slogans about repression and domination.”[lxvii] The relevance and productive implications of Asad’s point, underlined by Scott[lxviii], is that it calls for going beyond studies of resistance, conceived as the reactions of particularly positioned agents to situations of domination, to encompass the very conditions of possibility created by Western power in non-Western spaces, which partly define the context, if not dictate sometimes the outlets, in which such resistance takes place. What this entails is first the abandonment of the epistemic conservatism veiled under an anti-essentialist cosmopolitanism that denies the deep attachment of locals to their symbolic universe, and its practice of encompassing a politically charged conceptual repertoire by a neutralizing scholasticism driven by career-making considerations at the expense of those being studied. And second, the deployment of the ethnographic gaze on the macro-exogenous as well as the micro-endogenous dimensions of, for example, Islam as a discursive tradition and its divergent interpretive schemes and the effects of their mediation – in terms of the emancipatory potential as well as the constraining ramifications for gender dynamics- on the social condition of women, on the complicity of state policies in this process, and on community-based endeavors or social movements in search of exit strategies from the political-cultural disenchantment of the social universe constituted by the transmutating effects of Western power in the postcolonial present; while acknowledging and demonstrating that such effects are partly structured by the social heterogeneity of Middle Eastern societies.


In light of the above, it follows that if anthropology is to contribute to the indigenous quest it will have to assist in the emergence of “a new independence that allows cultures to renegotiate their destinies in their own vocabularies… [and thus] capable of articulating liberating possibilities without surrendering their memories and faiths.”[lxix] In this context, concerned anthropologists (native and foreign) must endeavor to demonstrate that the question raised by Said can be answered in the affirmative: “Whether it is now possible for anthropology as anthropology to be different, that is, to forget itself to become something else as a way of responding to the gauntlet thrown down by imperialism and its antagonists?”[lxx]  This question has acquired greater urgency now that this imperialism is now threatening to return to its gun-slinging era of gunboat diplomacy in the Middle East and beyond, with all the coercive arbitrariness that this entails both for its internal clients or beneficiaries and external aggresses; both of which are now becoming its indiscriminate victims. In such a context, where thinking has become more than ever a “moral act,” as Geertz[lxxi] alerted us, the epistemological conundrum, which transforms the intellectual labor of anthropologists –whether of the post-colonial, hyphenated, non-Western, and especially Western variety- into artifices of the imagination at the service of power must be faced squarely.

[i][i] Judith Tucker,  (ed.), Arab Women: Old Boundaries, New Frontiers,  (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993), p. viii.


[ii] Fedwa Malti-Douglas, Woman’s Body, Woman’s World: Gender and Discourse in Arabo-Islamic Writing. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 3.


[iii] L. Nader, “Orientalism, Occidentalism and the Control of Women,” Cultural Dynamics( 2, 1989), p.333.


[iv] C. Nelson, “Public and Private Politics: Women in the Middle Eastern World,” American Ethnologist (1,3, 1974), p. 559.


[v]A. Majid, “The Politics of Feminism in Islam,” Signs (23, 2, 1998), p. 339.


[vi] L. Abu-Lughod,  “Zones of Theory in the Anthropology of the Arab World,” American Anthropologist (18,1989), pp. 289-90.


[vii] Majid op. cit., p. 354.


[viii] J. Fabian, “Presence and Representation: The Other and Anthropological Writing,” Critical Inquiry (16, 1990), p. 770.


[ix] Edward Said, Orientalism. (New York: Vintage Press, 1978).


[x] C. Lindholm, “The New Middle Eastern Ethnography,” J. Royal Anthropological Institute (1, 4, 1995), p. 808.


[xi] J. Carrier, “Occidentalism: The World Turned Upside-Down,” American Ethnologist (19, 1992), p. 197.


[xii] Ibid., p. 205.


[xiii] Geneive Abdo, No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).


[xiv] S. Joseph, “Study of Middle Eastern Women: Investments, Passions, and Problems,” International J. Middle East Studies (18, 1989), p. 509.


[xv] Mary Hegland, “Gender and Religion in the Middle East and South Asia: Women’s Voices Rising’, in M.  Meriwether and Judith Tucker, eds., Social History of Women and Gender in the Modern Middle East ( Boulder: Westview Press, 1999), p. 198.


[xvi] Majid op. cit., p. 322 quoting Francois Burgat.


[xvii] G. Abdo op. cit.,  provides a journalistic account of the emergence of a moderate Islam in pursuit of the establishment of an Islamic society by peaceful means, and which does not espouse a rejectionist attitude vis-à-vis the West nor the liberal-developmental state, and whose members include the upper class and is not restricted to the marginalized. The struggle remains multi-stranded. However, it is not clear if the fate of women will be much improved under this moderate version. As she explains, “the contemporary Islamic fervor emphasizes family values, traditional sexual mores, and cultural authenticity.” This is an agenda that is equally shared by the radical Islamists.


[xviii] Hegland op. cit., p. 201.


[xix] Majid op. cit., p. 337.


[xx] A. Appadurai, “Theory in Anthropology: Center and Periphery.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 28 (1986) p. 358.


[xxi] C. Nelson, “Old Wine, New Bottles: Reflections and Projections Concerning Research on Women in Middle Eastern Studies’”, in E. Sullivan and J. Ismael, eds., The Contemporary Study of the Arab World (Alberta: Alberta U. Press, 1991), p. 127-52.D. Kandiyoti [“Contemporary Feminist Scholarship and Middle East Studies,” in Deniz Kandiyoti, ed., Gendering the Middle East (London: Tauris, 1996)] has also proposed a periodization of feminist scholarship in and on the Middle East, which covers similar ground and offers a four-phase overview of a series of ‘formative moments.’ Her focus, however, is multidisciplinary, while Nelson’s is exclusively on anthropology.


[xxii] Nelson (1974) op. cit., p.552. It should be noted that Nelson is not contesting this bifurcation of the social world of Middle Eastern societies, but the interpretations of some observers, male ones especially.


[xxiii] S. Morsy et. al., “Anthropology and the Call for Indigenization of Social Science in the Arab World,” in E Sullivan and J. Ismael (1991) op. cit., p. 95.


[xxiv] Quoted in Nelson (1991) op. cit., p. 144 emphasis added.


[xxv] J. Atkinson, “Anthropology: Review Essay,” Signs (82, 2, 1982), p. 245.


[xxvi] E. Fernea, “The challenges for Middle Eastern Women in the 21st Century,” Middle East Journal (54, 2, 2000), p.186.


[xxvii] T. Saliba, “Arab Feminism at the Millennium,” Signs (25, 4, 2000), p.  1088.


[xxviii] Abu-Lughod (1989) op. cit., p. 288.


[xxix] Ibid., p. 294.


[xxx] Majid  op. cit., p.324.


[xxxi] Lila Abu-Lughod, Writing Women’s World: Bedouin Stories, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993).


[xxxii] Lila Abu-Lughod, “Writing Against Culture,” in Richard Fox, ed., Recapturing Anthropology (Santa Fe, NM: SARP, 1991), p. 137.


[xxxiii] Deniz Kandiyoti , “Contemporary Feminist Scholarship and Middle East Studies,” in D.eniz Kandiyoti, ed., Gendering the Middle East (London: I. B. Tauris, 1996), p.16.


[xxxiv] Amin Maaloouf, Les Identites Meurtrieres (Paris: Grasset, 1998), p. 8.


[xxxv] B. Knauft, Genealogies for the Present in Cultural Anthropology. (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 36.


[xxxvi] It is worth noting the three premises of academic scholasticism: the never questioning of the discipline’s fundamentals, the emulation of the founding fathers or mothers, and an emphasis on the problems of the discipline as opposed to the problems of human beings.


[xxxvii] Ingram being quoted in A. Kuper, “Culture, Identity and the Project of a Cosmopolitan Anthropology,” Man (29, 1994), p. 541.


[xxxviii] Bernard McGrane,  Beyond Anthropology: Society and the Other (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), pp. 127-8.


[xxxix] T. Asad, “Conscripts of Western Civilization.” In C. Gailey (ed.) Dialectical Anthropology. (Gainsville: Florida U. Press, 1992)


[xl] This is taken from J. Clifford, Predicament of Culture. (Harvard U. Press, 1996). This phase will hopefully be a short lasting one, as the distractive angst it generated in feminists to respond to the diversionary, androcentric provocations emanating from the epistemological ennui of the white male editors of the inaugural text, Writing Culture, will eventually exhaust itself.


[xli] L. Abu-Lughod, (ed.) Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton U. Press, 1998).


[xlii] L. Abu-Lughod, “The Marriage of Feminism and Islamism in Egypt: Selective Repudiation as a Dynamic of Postcolonial Cultural Politics.” In L. Abu-Lughod (1998) op.cit., p. 264.


[xliii] Abu-Lughod, (1998) op.cit., p. 23.


[xliv] D. Kandiyoti, “Some Awkward Questions on Women and Modernity in Turkey.” In L. Abu-Lughod (ed.) Remaking Women.  Op.cit. (1998) p. 276.


[xlv] Abu-Lughod, (1998) op.cit., p.13.


[xlvi] P. Barker et al. 1994:6.


[xlvii]Chandra T.  Mohanty, “Cartographies of Struggle: Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism,” in Chandra T. Mohanty, et. al. eds., Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism ( Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991), p. 39.


[xlviii] E. Gellner, “Inroduction,” in A. Ahmed and H. Donnan, eds., Islam: Globalization & Postmodernity ( London: Routledge, 1994), p. xi..


[xlix] Majid (1998) op. cit., p. 340. This seemingly casual notion “negotiating its boundaries” conceals a critical concept in Islam, namely ijtihad (the exercise of personal judgment in the determination of one’s practice of one’s faith), which undermines the legitimacy of any imposed hegemonic interpretation of Islam as envisioned by the fundamentalist discourse. Indeed, such a discourse seeks to deny the individual Muslim’s right to ijtihad as well as to foreclose hermeneutical possibilities.


[l] Talal Asad, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam (Wash. DC: Georgetown University, 1986).


[li] R. Hefner, “Multiple Modernities: Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism in a Globalizing Age,” Annual Review of Anthropology (27, 1998), pp. 83-104.


[lii] Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 1989), p. 22.


[liii] Deniz Kandiyoti, ed., Women, Islam and the State (Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 1991), pp. 2-3.


[liv] Chris Shore and  Susan Wright, eds., Anthropology of Policy (London: Routledge, 1997), p. xiii.


[lv] For a succinct discussion of these issues see R. Hefner, op. cit., especially pp. 89-92.


[lvi] V. Y. Mudimbe being quoted by Abu-Lughod (1991) op. cit., p. 159.


[lvii] K. Hastrup, A Passage to Anthropology. (New York: Routledge, 1995) p. 44. However, this modified quotation is as far as I would go in agreeing with her. Her book is an unapologetic, almost supercilious, reassertion of the claim that anthropology is the preserve of the Eurocentric zone, where are to be found exclusively, what she calls the “theoretical cultures”. The latter imbued with a “charity principle” would come to the interpretive rescue of the “atheoretical cultures” in their “miserable situation” through a revamped imperial imagination armed with “transcultural insights” as an antidote to the “blind ethnocentrism” presumed to be the exclusive property of these “atheoretical cultures.” This two-culture dichotomy, which is evocative of Levy-Strauss’ earlier distinction between “cold” and “hot” societies, suggests that what the Comaroffs have called the “malignancy of primitivism” remains a festering tumor (or is it a terminal cancer?) in anthropology’s episteme.


[lviii] Two recent restatements of this view have already been cited here: Hastrup 1995, and Knauft 1996. The first, as already noted in the preceding endnote, is about the new ground for a renewed intra-tribal conversation within the Euro-Anglo tribal confederation with a passing gesture of discursive philanthropy as to how the natives on the outside ought to be dealt with. The second is aware and concerned about the persistent problem of anthropology as the bounded reflexivity of a eurocentrically constituted conversational community, imbued with an anti-relativist and anti-essentialist obsession, in which knowledge of the world –especially of the southern and eastern parts of it- is accessible only in a form already inscripted with the logos and telos of the Occident. The solution he proposes is the deployment of a “critical humanist sensibility, which entails an appreciation of diversity, and a critique of inequality and domination. It extends an invitation to “subaltern authors” and their “indigenous commentaries” to a dialogue across the “intersubjective divide” in the pursuit of “intersubjective understanding” –of course on its own ground.  Helas, the intrinsic limitations of the contrived magnanimity of the liberal-humanist credo!


[lix] D. Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe. (New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 16. Emphasis added.


[lx] This is not a polemical point, but a misrecognized phenomenon, which is a by-product of the inexorable negotiation process of the non-Western or non-European intellectuals’ integration in the institutions of the dominant culture. This status is partly assumed in other to maintain good relations with one’s network of colleagues upon whom one must rely for the necessary accolade which reinforces the “illusio” that Bourdieu spoke of –that is, the desire for rewards and recognition that motivated one’s participation in that world in the first place. This “indentured status” in academia is the equivalent of the “glass ceiling” in the business world for women and minorities. Furthermore, the avoidance syndrome that the term “essentialism” has induced, and which is regarded as the intellectual equivalent of racism and sexism, is in large measure responsible for the veiled and timid invocation of one’s ethnic provenance and the emphasis place on one’s nomadic ontological constitution, where cultural markers are opportunistically relinquished through discursively reconstituted identities and allegiance to the powers that be. Rabinow’s (1991) vignette about the hiring of a minority academic, and the steeplechase course that must be negotiated to gain entrance in prestigious academic institutions, aptly illustrates my point. Finally, the Comaroffs’ article “Of Totemism and Ethnicity” (especially pp. 61-65) in Ethnography and the Historical Imagination (1992) provides indirectly the analytical basis for the constitution of this “indentured status” as a by-product of the politics of ethnicity that persist in all social formations with a multicultural polity and where structured inequalities prevail.

[lxi]  Knauft (1996) op. cit., p. 142.


[lxii] A. Ahmad, In Theory. (New York: Routledge, 1996)

[lxiii] Cited in N. Soguk, ‘Reflections on the “Orientalized Orientals”’, Alternatives (18, 1993), p. 361.


[lxiv] M. Strathern, The Gender of the Gift. (Berkeley: U. California Press, 1988), p. 28.


[lxv] Strathern, ibid. p. 27.


[lxvi] However the grounds on which this fusion is to take place cannot mimic the methodological individualism prevalent in the solipsistic discursive practice of postmodern feminism, and the kinds of theoretical brinkmanship it has occasioned in the form of perpetual competition between different protagonists.  It is a discursive context that is evocative of a Rortyan post-humanist community where accountability to anything or anyone beyond one’s own positionality is unthinkable. A brief sampler of the diversity of perspectives on the practice of feminist ethnography will illustrate this point: Judith Stacey’s [“Can there be a Feminist Ethnography?,” Women’s Studies International Forum (11,1, 1988), pp. 21-27] acknowledgement of the minefield of negative outcomes –in the form of ‘potential treachery, betrayal, exploitation’ etc- that are inherent in the deployment of the ethnographic approach even by women researchers vis-à-vis women subjects, undermines the cherished notion of the ‘natural kinship’ between women. She concludes that recourse to experimentation with styles of writing can neither mitigate nor eradicate these outcomes, but only constitutes a mere acknowledgement of the moral dilemmas attendant to ethnographic practice. Abu-Lughod’s (op. cit, 1993) resort to ‘storytelling’ about women’s lives in a particular community constitutes, as already noted, an apolitical textual strategy aimed at an innocuous countering of the ‘power of social scientific generalizations’ and amounts to a misplaced locus of struggle. Kamala Visweswaran, [“Defining Feminist Ethnography,” Inscriptions (3-4, 1988), pp. 27-44.] ‘restitutive approach’ in the form of an exegesis and retroactive appreciation of ethnographic texts of an earlier generation is too scholastic an exercise to address current concerns. Her 1994 text, Fictions of Feminist Ethnography is a perfect example of what Knauft [op. cit. 1996, p. 243] has warned about when the “deconstruction of gender in anthropology risks becoming a new version of fragmentary ethnography –a fin-de-millenaire ‘Notes and Queeries.’” Finally, Marilyn Strathern’s [“An awkward Relationship: The Case of Feminism and Anthropology,” Signs (12, 2, 1989), pp. 276-292.] unbridled gynocentrism as a counter discourse to the prevailing androcentrism and her argument regarding the incommensurability between anthropology and feminism, but especially her advocacy of a patent anti-relationality between men and women, seem to disqualify her from consideration. The implication here is not to resort to some form of theoretical corporatism, but a commitment to larger values and pragmatic groundings that resonate with the particularities of Middle Eastern societies. Kandiyoti gives an indication of such particularities when she describes them as ‘societies where both men and women are tightly enmeshed in familistic networks of mutual rights and obligations, where both sexes may be labouring under much harsher forms of economic and political oppression and where different possibilities exist for cross-gender coalitions’ (op. cit., 1996 p.15). In such a context of interwoven lives and fate, the public/private and women/men dichotomies of the segregationist paradigm as well as the pre and post-colonial distinction should be seen as extreme oversimplifications.


[lxvii] Talal Asad,  “Afterword: From the History of Colonial Anthropology to the Anthropology of Western Hegemony,” in George Stocking , ed., Colonial Situations (Madison: Wisconsin University Press, 1991), p. 322.

[lxviii] D. Scott, “Colonialism,” International Social Science Journal (154, 1997).

[lxix] Majid (1998) op. cit., pp. 356, 387.

[lxx] E. Said, “Representing the Colonized: Anthropology’s Interlocutors,” Critical Inquiry (15, 1989), p. 225. Perhaps one could update Said’s terms by referring to “empire” and its “resisters” , given the former term’s revaluation by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri as “a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontier.” (Empire (Mass: Harvard University Press, 2000), p.xii.)

[lxxi] C. Geertz, “Thinking as a Moral Act.” In C. Geertz, Anthropological Lights. (Mass.: Harvard U. Press, 2000).


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