On May 7, 2010, UCLA’s Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES) and the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies co-sponsored the lecture, “Rethinking Arab Women as ‘Subjects.’” The talk was delivered by Suad Joseph, a Lebanese-born professor of anthropology and women’s studies at UC Davis, and president-elect of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the principal professional organization for scholars of the region. Joseph, who has co-edited a book with CNES director Susan Slyomovics, is considered a pioneer in the field of Middle East women’s studies, accolades which—as is, sadly, often the case—translates into apologetics for the oppression of Middle Eastern women.
Joseph announced she was perturbed about the title of her lecture; she couldn’t decide whether “Arab” was an appropriate term to use for identification purposes. Yet, she contradicted herself (and followed the Arabist practice of her discipline) by referring to the Middle East exclusively as the “Arab world” and by questioning the identities of Jews, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and other distinctive, regional minorities. She wondered why these groups perceive themselves as separate from Arabs when the answer is readily apparent both in the distinctive histories of theses peoples and in their persecution at the hands of Arab Muslim majorities. The very term “Arab”—often used arbitrarily to describe anything Middle Eastern—is loaded with a perilous and extreme nationalism that has made ethnic minorities such as Mizrahi Jews and Assyrians victims of the majority.
Joseph questioned, and at times denounced, studies examining the status quo of women in the Middle East. She argued that the representation of Arab women as subjects is a “problematic category and necessary one,” and that there is serious fault with characterizations—particularly in Western research and media—of Arab women as the victims of patriarchy, culture, politics, and religion. Instead, Joseph contended, notions of self are changing and malleable.
Predictably for contemporary Middle East studies, Joseph paid tribute to Edward Said’s deeply flawed book Orientalism, which helps explain her rejection of any implied Western superiority regarding women’s rights. In asserting that Westerners shouldn’t assume women in the Middle East wish to imitate secular, Westernized women, she encapsulated the ideology widespread on college campuses: multiculturalism, a form of cultural relativism that denies the ability to judge non-Western cultures on their merits, and which, in practice, judges all non-Western cultures as superior. She made no reference to universal human rights or to the possible reasons for rising Arab immigration to secular European nations and to North America.
Joseph asserted that Arab women are the “most relationship-driven” of any with which she has worked. She described Americans, in contrast, as less “relationship-driven” and American women as having fewer expectations than their Arab counterparts. Joseph offered no factual evidence for either of these preposterous claims. Given the grave circumstances under which many Arab women live, one would think it is they who are forced to have fewer expectations and not, as Joseph contended, Western women.
Incredibly, Joseph theorized that Arab women want to be claimed by men, and therefore have no objection to being subjects of a patriarchal and theocratic society in which their individual rights are abridged. The audience, which appeared to consist mostly of Center for Near Eastern Studies and Women’s Studies faculty, nodded their heads in agreement with this troubling statement. In fact, those gathered reacted favorably to the lecture overall and asked no challenging questions of the speaker. Overwhelming (if understated) evidence of the systematic and institutionalized abuse of Middle Eastern women didn’t seem to factor into the equation.
In many regions of the Middle East, the basic standing of women and the attitude of men towards them are pre-modern. Were this not so, there would be no honor killings, female genital mutilation, child marriage, or legitimized wife-beating. Moreover, the West should consider the disturbing social implications for its societies as these barbaric customs are imported through Muslim immigration.
If I may end on a personal note: As a woman of Middle Eastern origin, the situation of women in the Middle East has always fascinated and troubled me. Although I come from a very traditional Middle Eastern family—albeit Jewish—the women in my family have always been empowered and independent. Therefore, I find it extremely difficult to come to terms with the theory that Middle Eastern women are a different breed who welcome abuse for some twisted concept of maintaining a “relationship-driven” society.
If one believes, as I do, in fundamental human rights, there are moral principles that define our basic freedoms. Middle Eastern women’s rights activists such as Shirin Ebadi and Ayaan Hirsi Ali do not excuse the misogynistic and theocratic elements in their native countries. Instead, they demand freedom, even in the face of their abusers and of Western apologists.
Unfortunately, Joseph’s lecture belongs in the latter category, demonstrating yet again that Middle Eastern women who seek intellectual and moral support from Western professors of Middle East studies will come away disappointed.