Challenging unintended reifications of women’s agency in the Middle East: the case of Egypt

By Mariz Tadros
Submitted to Session P4882 (Gender struggles and interpretive frameworks: how far can they travel?, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Gender/Women's Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Scholarship exposing the bias, ethno-centrism and reductionism in the portrayal of women in the Middle East in Western scholarship has been highly illuminating in exposing the hidden and invisible power dynamics and challenging western hegemony on constructions of women’s agency, rights and gendered relations. However, counter-critiques challenging Western narratives while useful for the Western contexts for which they were intended, may inadvertently contribute to the emergence of counter-reified identities about gender and gendered activism in the Middle East. When these interpretive frameworks are appropriated for understanding struggles around gender equality in contexts such as Egypt, instead of challenging reified identities, they run the risk of producing new ones when for example there is a conflation of Arab with Muslim, the authentic with the religious and the elite with the Western. This paper explores these discursive practices emanating from such scholarship through three case studies. The first is the manner in which the narrative conflating Arab with Muslim women tends to ignore the religious plural nature of many societies in the Middle East, including that of Egypt. As a consequence Coptic women are omitted from many of these narratives about the women in the Middle East. Second in a bid to challenge negative representations of religion in Western scholarship in the Middle East, such narrative have sometimes accentuated a pre-existing power dynamics in Egypt that delegitimize mobilization around gender equality that is not framed in religious terms and a tendency to shun them as foreign. Finally, some scholarship has pitted religious-inspired forms of activism against a feminist movement represented as exclusively elite and western, thereby contributing to generalisations about a highly heterogeneous set of actors. The paper then interrogates potential ways for continuing to challenge Western ontological hegemony about women in the Middle East while avoiding the counter-hegemonic reified identity constructs that serve to omit, homogenize and sometimes vilify local actors, and thereby undermine their gender justice struggles