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  • Writer's pictureReet Mansharamani

Critical Analysis: The study of women and gender in MENA beyond culturalism

Can the discourse of gender in the MENA region move beyond culturalism? Reet Mansharamani analyses how the uniqueness of culturalist assumptions in the MENA region has informed the ideas of gender and equality.

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The September 11 attacks did not go down in history as acts of terrorism rather, they went down as acts in furtherance of global political Islam. In the simplest terms, political Islam refers to the extension of Islam beyond its religious bounds and towards achieving political power by radicalising religious means. Ever since the global war on terrorism began to take shape, western policy-makers too began condensing all issues pertaining to social trouble with political Islam. Similarly, all the people who identified with the religion became the propagators of political Islam, in their eyes. Since the West could not afford to exercise blanket discrimination on account of being the torch-bearers of liberalism and secularism, it most definitely had to find legitimising tools to construct a certain identity of the ‘other’ Muslim man. One such tool that it found worth scapegoating was gender. Maryam Khalid (2011) in her paper ‘Gender, orientalism and representations of the ‘Other’ in the War on Terror’ highlighted how the burqa was portrayed as a clear sign of subjugation which gave the Americans a legitimising ground to invade Afghanistan. The United States was ‘liberating’ the Afghan women by lifting their veil for the first time- was a justification used to hide its extraterritorial military actions. Such narratives were reinforced to the extent that they almost became the truth.

While it is a fact that such discourses are nothing but misleading simplifications, however, it is not quite known as to how the literature surrounding gender issues in the Arab countries are tackled. To excavate the same, this paper will derive from Gamze Cavdar’s paper titled ‘The Study of Women and Gender in the Middle East and North Africa Beyond Culturalism’ and will assess how equality in Arabic society is judged and whether the correct parameters are used.

A society is judged through various parameters. One such important parameter is its political discourse. Cavdar argues that for the Middle East and North African (MENA) region, there has always been a tendency to omit political history while dissecting gender norms. Rather, Islam is taken as an explanatory factor solely responsible for the plight of Muslim women. After examining as many as 118 articles, Cavdar highlights that there is an acute tendency of misleadingly simplifying the political discourses of Islam. While some have colossally connected Islam with violence, others feel that because democracy is an aberration in the Middle East, any talk of rights of women becomes out of question. Critically analyzing these claims does not imply that Islamism has no role to play in the status of women. However, it is the overlap between Islam and Islamism which is problematic. To assume that the religion is absolutely closed to reinterpretation is again a western narrative. Recognizing this not only opens the reality of the complexity of the religion but it also highlights that the vastness of Islam easily paves a way for it to be twisted and employed as the root cause of all the social evils; including the status of women. There is also a tendency of qualitative research scholars to use abstract apparatus like religion to trace the causes of an issue. As the sections also show, it is true for the case of the MENA region as well. However, Cavdar (2022) in his paper excavated various branches of state apparatus which are far more legitimate sources of an indiscriminative gender atmosphere in the region.

At the most basic level, Cavdar rightly highlights the role of political economy in uplifting its people. Those at the periphery of a society always require special assistance to achieve parity with the rest and women fulfill this criterion better than any other section of people. 

When talking about state-driven social services, Cavdar points out that after the fall of the USSR in the late 1980s, countries all over the world began adopting neo-liberal policies. Even though states transitioned at their own pace, nonetheless, it became clear that the state had to roll back to just playing a supervisory role. In the developing regions like MENA, this void created by the state soon started to be filled by faith-based organizations that provided unregulated, non-standardized social services. Often, in such cases, the motive went beyond the welfare of society. While Cavdar himself cites scholars who argue that the services provided by faith-based organizations are apolitical yet, in retrospective terms, these organizations did not only spring as an extension of what the state lacked but they too took shape within the corporatist-neo-liberal atmosphere and thus, were inherently political and even gendered to begin with. A lack of well-funded welfare net is a major reason as to why many of the Arabic women remain on the peripheries.

Additionally, the degree of inclusivity in the institutional setup of the state also determines the status of minorities in society. Proportional representation of women in executive bodies has long been talked about. In-fact, 14 out of 22 Arab league nations have adopted gender quotas to uplift women. Nonetheless, the absence of women from law-making processes and legal committees again renders these quotas ineffective. Besides, the perception of women as the inefficient and unqualified candidates also does very little to help their status.

Last but not least, female activism also determines the level of participation of a woman in society. Here Cavdar is right to highlight that female activism was repressed to a great extent after the Arab spring between 2010-2011 and Turkey’s Gezi Parki in 2013. Often sexual harassment was used as a means of keeping women inside their house. This is to highlight that state repression again is the reason for gender inequality here and not Islam itself.

While Cavdar is right at all times when he dispossesses Islam from gender inequality but what the author does not highlight is the fact that ineffective gender quotas and repression of female activism too derives from Islamism and its ideology of keeping females within the walls of honor. This article remains cautious of the underlying differences between Islam and Islamism, yet the inability of Islam to curb the shortcomings of Islamism in terms of extremism remains one of the major causes as to why not just women but other minorities also keep suffering in many Arab nations. Unless the clerical influence at the grassroots gives way to a more reasoned way of following the religion, the upliftment of women seems a bleak possibility.


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