SUMMARY:Focusing on the Mandate Mediterranean (1920-1946), this panel highlights how migration, transnational debates and activism across colonial and anticolonial networks transformed the region’s gender structures. The “woman question” was a crucial locus of the colonial encounter between the Middle East and an expanding industrial Europe, itself undergoing gendered reconfigurations as women claimed new legal protections and pushed social boundaries. Debates on whether women should be awarded rights because of their contributions to society, what those rights should be, and how they should be institutionalized, intersected with wide-ranging concerns among bourgeois Arab and European men and women about women’s role in the nation, the family--including marriage, childrearing, and domesticity-- sexuality, women’s education, feminist nationalism, access to the public sphere, and labor rights. These discussions produced an imagined and idealized “new woman” that contrasted with the everyday realities of subaltern Arab and European women. The panel restores the range of encounters that informed the construction of the “new Arab woman”. Attending to the labor of maids, servants, and wet nurses in Cairo and Beirut, the public roles of Palestinian women contending with British colonialism and growing Zionism in Jerusalem, the limits posed to Spanish colonialism by Spanish prostitutes in Tangiers, Syrian women, sponsored by the state, touring the United States to promulgate the “new woman” as norm, our conversation reveals that scholarship has tended to focus too narrowly on the liberal dimensions of gender reconfigurations.
The panel makes two interventions into the historiography. First, we show that the “new woman,” whether championed or condemned, embodied an enlightened femininity that would not only improve on traditional Ottoman spheres and roles but also help construct a global modernity anchored in a bourgeois ideal. Situating discussions about the “new Arab woman” in transnational and international contexts, including the League of Nations and regional labor migrations and religious networks, is crucial to recognizing the breadth of the debate. Second, we demonstrate how mandate-era public debates were deeply informed by subaltern dimensions of the “woman question.” The ideal of the “new Arab woman” was forged against the increased presence and visibility of Arab and European women pursuing negatively moralized labor in the realms of factory work, performance, prostitution, and labor agitation. While marginalized in archival regimes, feminist narratives, and historiography, these “other” new women were also central to the articulation of new gender norms in the region, and to the negotiation of the colonial encounter in institutional and quotidian keys.