Gender & National Identity: Women & Politics in Muslim Societies // Review

Article excerpt

Gender and National Identity: Women and Politics in Muslim Societies Valentine Moghadam, ed. Zed Books: London, 1994, 180 pp.

Reviewed by Nahla Abdo Department of Sociology Carleton University Ottawa, Ontario

The image of the European woman has been integrated into much of the discourses and debates by Middle Eastern women. This image has served as a reference point to westerners and "authentic" modernists and traditionalists, secularists and Islamists, etc. In the writings on Western women, the female body served as a terrain of political and cultural contestations and as an important metaphor for delineating self and "Other." Women became the marker of a political, cultural and religious difference and identity. These encounters transformed the notion of femininity from its polar opposite of masculinity, into a signifier of Western - mediated gender identity, a transformation which has had a great impact on the evolving legal status and social position of Middle Eastern women.

The dilemmas described above -- the problems and uncertainties characteristic of most debates currently prevalent among Middle Eastern women around the question of identity -- are also at the centre of Gender and National Identity. The book, based on case studies of a number of Middle Eastern and Muslim societies, contributes to our understanding of the internal dynamics of these societies. The book has very strong and special qualities, unlike most studies on identity politics which are culturalist or essentialist in character. Some of the book's contributors have opted for an historical approach backed by political economy analyses of the socio - economic and political forces in order to explain the emergence of Islamicism and the Islamicist identity, such as in the case of Iran, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Palestine.

Common to all articles is the emergence of the phenomena of Islamicism, feminism and nationalism as three separate yet intertwined movements. As is clear in the Algerian, Palestinian and Iranian cases, both nationalism and Islamicism have appropriated the "woman question" and made it central to their policies and activism. Such appropriation becomes all the more visible during economic and political crises, such as the Iranian revolution, the Palestinian Intifada and the Algerian economic - politicalturmoil of the 1980s.

Nationalism and Islamicism appear as both contradictory and complimentary movements. They both share the "ideal" of presenting the "self," that is the nation or the Umma from the "Other," namely, the colonial imperial West. Internally, however, these movements strive to create separate identities, a relatively secular national identity, viz., a mainly religious/traditionalist Muslim identity adhered to by Political Islam. During crises expressed in confrontation with an outside force (Intifada, Algerian Revolution, Iranian revolutions), both forces appear harmonious. However, when the outside force is eliminated, the nation - building process reconstructs these forces as polar forces.

It is in the latter process, namely the nation/state building, that the "woman question" reappears as contested grounds for these two movements. Caught between these two forces, women are often called upon to reshape their identity based on parameters already set by male leaders in the movement.

This book makes the crucial point that Islam is not a homogeneous nor a uniform ideology. Reformist Islam, as the Iranian case demonstrates, had a specific appeal to many Iranian women, as it helped them - prior to Khomeini's coming to power - to mould an "authentic" identity which is modest, oppositional to the Shah and his Western allies, and non - repressive. …