Teaching the History of Women in the Middle East and North Africa
Sara Scalenghe, November 2012
Why are Middle Eastern women forced to wear the veil? Why are they so oppressed?" asks a student in response to the anonymous questionnaire I hand out on the first day of my course covering the history of women in the MENA (the Middle East and North Africa, here broadly defined as the region that stretches from Afghanistan in the East to Morocco in the West). The mistaken belief that the veil is obligatory throughout the Middle East (it is required by law only in Saudi Arabia and Iran) and the simplistic generalization that women in the region are "so oppressed" are common to the undergraduates I have taught at universities as different as Georgetown, Indiana, and Loyola University Maryland. These assumptions are hardly surprising, given the sensationalism and exoticization with which the media addresses Middle Eastern "women's issues." Following in a long tradition of European and American Orientalism, the status of women in the region is regarded as a barometer of development and "civilization;" "saving" them remains a rhetorical justification adduced to garner support for wars—a technique evident in the war begun against the Taliban in Afghanistan in October 2001. In the post-9/11 world, with the United States maintaining a military presence in several Middle Eastern countries, the responsibility of teaching subjects so fraught with controversy can weigh heavily on scholars of the MENA, a sense of responsibility heightened by the presence of students aspiring to careers in government after graduation.
My undergraduate course on the history of women in the MENA, to which my remarks in this forum are confined, is the most popular course I teach. Usually oversubscribed, it enrolls students from many fields, with males making up at least a third of the class. For the opportunity to introduce both the Middle East and women's history to a captive and diverse audience, I am very grateful. But challenges abound, beginning with the time-consuming obstacle of students' ignorance of even the region's basic geography, let alone its rich histories and cultures. Of course, this state of affairs does not apply exclusively to the Middle East: the geography of sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia, for example, is often just as alien to undergraduates. And while it can be disheartening to see Iraq's location mistaken for that of France or Peru on map quizzes, such basic knowledge can be imparted with relative ease. Prejudices about the region, its institutions, and its inhabitants are more vexing and difficult to remedy. Students sometimes express views of Arabs, Middle Easterners, and Muslims—three categories often erroneously conflated—so intolerant and hostile that they can only be described as racist. This is not overly surprising—a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in 2010 found only 37 percent of Americans held a "generally favorable" view of Islam—but it can make teaching stressful.1
This brings me to the dilemma with which scholars of the Middle East, and especially those who discuss women, gender, and sexuality, must contend: how, in this tense climate, can we present our students with honest, critical, and nuanced information about contentious topics such as veiling, Islamic family law, "honor" killings, or female genital cutting (which in the MENA is practiced almost exclusively in Egypt), without reinforcing deeply ingrained stereotypes about Islam and the Middle East, and without at the same time assuming a defensive or apologetic position? One approach is not to teach the subject at all. Another is to teach it but dispense with controversial topics so as to deflect attention from them. I sympathize with teachers who adopt either of these approaches, and understand their rationale—particularly given the number of students who view us as representatives of an entire region and religion (regardless of whether one is Muslim or from the Middle East). But I continue to teach this class—not only because the history of women in the MENA merits as much attention as the history of women in other regions, but also to offset somewhat misinformation disseminated by the media. And I resist the temptation to eschew controversial topics. In fact, I dedicate roughly the last third of the semester to them, after spending the better part of the course conducting a broad chronological survey of women's history from pre-Islamic times to the present day, paying special attention to competing interpretations of Islam's foundational texts (the Qur'an and Hadith), to women's education, to their participation in the economic and political life of their communities, and to the rise and development of different womens' movements, starting in the nineteenth century.
My experience to date suggests that one of the most effective teaching strategies is to address all topics in comparative global perspective, drawing particular parallels with the history of women in the United States and Western Europe. I explain, for example, how "honor" killings are not primarily a Middle Eastern phenomenon but a practice perpetrated in different cultural and religious settings: in Italy, "crimes of honor" (which permitted a man to receive a maximum sentence of seven years for the murder of his wife, daughter, or sister on the grounds that their sexual behavior had brought dishonor upon him) were eliminated from the Penal Code only in 1981, and the "honor defense" as a justification for wife-killing was officially struck down by Brazil's Supreme Court a decade later. Perhaps an even more effective tactic is to emphasize, and thus historicize, the beliefs and practices about gender and sexuality shared by Muslims, Christians, and Jews. This helps to counter pervasive Islamophobia and the widespread misconception that Islam is inherently more misogynistic than the other monotheistic religions.
At semester's end, some students depart with their initial prejudices intact. This is always disappointing, but I take comfort in the knowledge that many others—such as the student whose evaluation said the course "provided me with a new perspective on Middle Eastern women and gender roles that completely shattered my notions of Islam as an inherently misogynistic religion"—leave with a new or enhanced appreciation for the complexity and diversity of the historical and contemporary experiences of women in the MENA region, and with new questions and tools for exploring a range of their worldviews.
Sara Scalenghe is assistant professor of history at Loyola University Maryland.
1. www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/polls/postpoll_09072010.html?sid=ST2010090806236. Accessed July 26, 2012.