Women: Secularism, Gender and the State in the Middle East

Article excerpt

Secularism, Gender and the State in the Middle East, by Nadje Al-Ali. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Cambridge Middle East Studies, No. 14. xv + 232 pages. Bibl. to p. 252. Index to p. 264. $64.95 cloth; $22.95 paper.

Reviewed by Cynthia Nelson

One of the challenges confronting many Egyptian women activists is the difficulty that women's groups have organizing in greater solidarity to achieve stated goals. That is, why don't we see greater collaboration among the various secular-- oriented women's groups in Egypt who share common concerns to achieve a faster pace of change? Nadje Al-Ali addresses this question in Secularism, Gender and the State in the Middle East. To my knowledge this is the first such study that provides a theoretically sophisticated and empirically well-documented analysis of the tensions and controversies within the contemporary women's movement in the context of the wider political culture in which these debates take place. Hence, the author explores a range of factors such as the Egyptian state, Islamic constituencies, and the political left, as well as international organizations and agendas which all, in one way or another, have an impact upon the forms, content, and discourse of women's activism. As the author states: "For secular women activists even more is at stake as their rejection of Islam as the only possible framework for political struggle and nation-building evokes suspicion and doubt about their place within the indigenous landscape of 'tradition' and `authenticity... (p. 2).

What is particularly engaging about Al-Ali's analysis is her willingness to reflect personally on the "tension between researcher and activist which was never totally resolved," highlighting some of the problems that emerged throughout her fieldwork (i.e., 14 months in Cairo interviewing about 80 women) that help readers understand why collaboration among different activist groups is so difficult.

The author develops her argument through the organization of the book itself. Beginning with chapter one, she demonstrates how the relevance of post-colonial and post-orientalist scholarship informed her own research and led to an analysis of constructions of the "West" among Egyptian women activists. Chapter two sketches the history of the Egyptian women's movement as seen through the eyes of the women that Al-Ali interviewed, paralleled by an analysis of the changing relationship between the Egyptian state and the women's movement. …