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Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Teaching Gender and Women’s Studies in the Middle East

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Given how gender and gender relations are context specific, the challenges faced in teaching gender studies in a colonial context—where dealing with gender could be seen as an integral part of the de-colonization process—differs from teaching it in a different context, where gender as a concept is contested and rejected. Mainstream concepts in gender and women’s studies should thus be reconsidered and reconstructed in their own specific contexts across the region.

To better understand the status of gender and women’s studies in the Middle East, we need to problematize the mainstream wisdom that deals with gender and women’s studies in the Arab world from a universal convention angle. A universal convention angle focuses on issues such as women’s rights, gender violence, Islam and conservatism but fails to contextualize these issues in their respective context.

In Occupied Palestine, for example, feminist nongovernmental organizations and activists, who are driven by the universal conventions on women’s rights, are losing their power and popular bases in favor of Islamists because of the de-politicization of their gender agenda and the discarding of the colonial context. An understanding of these diverse and shifting contexts is a must to advance the field of gender studies in the region. Thus, understanding and teaching the many layers of oppression whether stemming from colonialism, patriarchy, class, race, color, disability, age, is a must to face all challenges in spreading gender studies.

Hanane Darhour, associate professor in the Faculty of Languages, Arts and Human Sciences, Ibn Zohr University, Morocco

A focus on the history of women’s and gender studies programs, beginnings, objectives and achievements is significant to understanding the actual state of affairs of women’s and gender studies programs in higher education in Morocco and the institutional and pedagogical challenges that these programs face. Women’s studies has emerged and developed since its beginning as a field of knowledge marked by international connections and disconnections with an objective to deconstruct the traditional male-dominated curriculum. The field first started in America in 1969, then spread to the Anglo-Saxon world and then to North of Europe because of the historical and cultural ties between the three geo-political areas. After the 1980s the concept gained more prominence in the less privileged and developing countries by making the concept more embracive of cultural and religious diversities.

In the late 20th century, scholars from the Arab region and developing world in general started to challenge the Eurocentric perspective of white feminism. As a result, home-grown versions of feminism have largely underpinned the scholarship by the MENA region intellectuals and gender and women’s studies programs, especially in higher education. Despite these developments, there is still a long way to go before women’s and gender studies programs gain full academic and ethical trust by the larger public.

Dalal Alfares, assistant professor, Department of English Language and Literature, Kuwait University

Gender studies is like therapy, nobody wants to do it, but everyone would benefit from it–especially in the Middle East. I teach gender and women’s studies in a public university in a Gulf country that is known for its wealth and reliance on petro-economy and its conservative Islamic society. When introducing “gender and sexuality” to my students, I stress the importance of the above identity markers in constituting discourses on gender and feminism in the Gulf. Therefore, one of the most needed frameworks in teaching gender and women’s studies in the Gulf is spending some time with intersectional theories of oppression where students can engage in deconstructing their privileges and positionalities. However, I have taken careful attention to (a) give credit to its radical black feminist revolutionary roots, and (b) translate the matrix of privilege and oppression to better contextualize it within a Khaleeji context that emphasizes histories of citizenship (vs. statelessness/bidoun), class (vs. tribe), sect, and migrant working status under global neoliberalism. It is not only a moral and feminist imperative to discuss the intersections of these identities, but also a pedagogical necessity as it truly helps students comprehend the multiple constructions of discourses on gender and feminism.

Another challenge that is necessary to overcome is the difficulty of teaching issues of embodiment and regulation from secular/non-Islamic perspectives. While students will consistently resist and refer to hegemonic Islamic texts when faced with anything critiquing Muslim hetero-patriarchies, gender and women’s studies classes could approach regulations of gendered bodies from perspectives that take into account hegemonic masculinities stemming from queer theory and disability studies. I believe that these frameworks would help students understand how much of our understanding of gender is influenced by disability and vice versa. It will also help students analyze the multidimensions of intersectional normalizations of gender in their communities from different perspectives

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