Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East

Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East

Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East

Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East


Contrary to popular perceptions, newly veiled women across the Middle East are just as much products and symbols of modernity as the upper- and middle-class women who courageously took off the veil almost a century ago. To make this point, these essays focus on the "woman question" in the Middle East (most particularly in Egypt and Iran), especially at the turn of the century, when gender became a highly charged nationalist issue tied up in complex ways with the West. The last two decades have witnessed an extraordinary burst of energy and richness in Middle East women's studies, and the contributors to this volume exemplify the vitality of this new thinking. They take up issues of concern to historians and social thinkers working on the postcolonial world. The essays challenge the assumptions of other major works on women and feminism in the Middle East by questioning, among other things, the familiar dichotomy in which women's domesticity is associated with tradition and modernity with their entry into the public sphere. Indeed,Remaking Womenis a radical challenge to any easy equation of modernity with progress, emancipation, and the empowerment of women. The contributors are Lila Abu-Lughod, Marilyn Booth, Deniz Kandiyoti, Khaled Fahmy, Mervat Hatem, Afsaneh Najmabadi, Omnia Shakry, and Zohreh T. Sullivan. The book is introduced by the editor with a piece called "Feminist Longings and Postcolonial Conditions," which masterfully interfaces the critical studies of feminism and modernism with scholarship on South Asia and the Middle East.


This book grew out of my strong sense that emerging in Middle East studies was a fundamentally new way of thinking about the implications for women of the projects of modernity. This new thinking was enabled by the mature scholarship on “the woman question” that had been developing over the last two decades, scholarship characterized by fine historical research, critical social analysis of the contemporary scene, and intense intellectual debate. It was also enabled by the wider reading by feminist scholars of the Middle East of contemporary theory and historical work about and from other regions, whether Europe or South Asia.

Although there are some differences in theoretical approach and interpretation among the contributors to this volume, four features distinguish our collective effort. First, we question the familiar dichotomy that has opposed tradition to modernity, relegating women’s domesticity to the realm of conservatism and tradition and labeling women’s emergence into the public sphere, whether in politics, employment, or education, as radical and new. Several of the chapters examine the modernity of early-twentieth-century domesticity itself and the discourses about nationalism that supported it. Others consider the modernity of the gender politics of contemporary Islamism.

Second, we are suspicious about the way modernity is so easily equated with the progress, emancipation, and empowerment of women. Some chapters reexamine iconic figures and institutions in the narrative of modern Middle Eastern women’s progress. Others explore the ambiguities and contradictions of the programs intended to make women modern, programs related in particular to education, marriage, and rational, scientific forms of conduct, including child rearing. We ask not just what new possibilities but what hidden costs, unanticipated constraints, novel forms of discipline and regulation, and unintended consequences accompanied such programs.

Third, we take seriously the vexed question of the relationship of Europe to Middle Eastern projects of remaking women. We try to steer a measured course between glossing over and overemphasizing the role of the West (in its variety and its local appropriations), looking for ways to acknowledge the specificities of local feminisms while interrogating the complex ways in which European colonial power was fundamental to the historical development of the Middle East. This inescapable history and its postcolonial legacy, as the chapters on the late twentieth century show, have profoundly affected, in sometimes counterintuitive ways, its gender politics.

Finally, we use a broad definition of feminism in this volume, not confining ourselves to women’s movements per se (ably studied by others before us) but . . .

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