Secularism, Gender, and the State in the Middle East: The Egyptian Women's Movement

Secularism, Gender, and the State in the Middle East: The Egyptian Women's Movement

Secularism, Gender, and the State in the Middle East: The Egyptian Women's Movement

Secularism, Gender, and the State in the Middle East: The Egyptian Women's Movement

Synopsis

Nadje Al-Ali's book explores the anthropological and political significance of secular-oriented activism by focusing on the women's movement in Egypt; in so doing, it challenges stereotypical images of Arab women as passive victims. The argument is constructed around interviews that afford insights into the history of the movement, its activities and its goals. The author frames her work around current theoretical debates in Middle Eastern and postcolonial scholarship.

Excerpt

The contemporary situation of women in Egypt – who are at the centre of and are reacting to apparently contradictory discourses and interests – is emblematic of tensions and dilemmas characteristic of many postcolonial societies. Inherent in the power struggles and conflicts within these societies are fierce debates about modernization, its relation to westernization and contestations of 'authentic' national culture and traditions. Recent writings within the broad and diverse field of post-colonial studies have documented political contestations linked to processes of decolonization and state-building. They have particularly pointed to the emergence of powerful local elites which tend to reproduce unequal relationships between classes, gender and religious groups (Chatterjee, 1993; Hall, 1996a; hooks, 1990; Kandiyoti, 1991, 1995; Maiello, 1996; Prakash, 1995; Rattansi, 1997; Said, 1993; Spivak, 1988). Caught between the pursuit of modernization, attempts at liberalization, a pervasive nationalist rhetoric of 'authenticity' and ongoing imperialist encroachments, women are often the focus of conflicting and ambiguous interests.

In the Egyptian context, growing Islamist currents have further limited the discursive horizon of the debates and the choices available to women. This holds particularly true for those who are actively engaged in contesting existing gender relations and various forms of inequality and injustice within the hegemonic narrative of 'the Nation'. Egyptian women activists, whose efforts have been historically rooted in nationalism and the struggle against colonial powers, have inevitably run the risk of being stigmatized as anti-nationalist and anti-religious. They have increasingly been accused, particularly by Islamist movements and conservative nationalist forces, of collaborating with western imperialism by importing alien ideas and practices and disseminating them throughout society. These very intimidating weapons have given rise to a specifically Egyptian feminist phobia that has silenced many voices.

By focusing on one specific, yet heterogeneous, segment within postcolonial Egypt, namely secular women's activism, I hope to unravel many . . .

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