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Problems in the Study of Middle Eastern Women

  • Nikki R. Keddie (a1)


The study of Middle Eastern women, past and present, poses a number of methodological problems, some common to Third World studies and others peculiar to the Middle East. Recent research and editorial experience lead me to some conclusions regarding research on Middle Eastern women, both historical and contemporary. The most obvious problem is that, as compared either with many other areas of Middle Eastern history or with numerous geographical areas of women's history, almost no serious scholarly historical work has been done.



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Author's Note: An earlier draft of this essay was presented to the conference on Women and Development, Wellesley, Mass., 1976.

1 See ar-Rāziq, Ahmad 'Abd, La femme au temps des Mamlouks en Egypte (Cairo; Institut francais d'archéologie orientale du Caire, 1973);Jennings, Ronald C., ‘Women in Early 17th Century Ottoman Judicial Records,’ Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 18 (01. 1975), 53114;Tomiche, Nada, ‘The Situation of Egyptian Women in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century,’ in Polk, W. R. and Chambers, R. L., eds., Beginnings of Modernization in the Middle East (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), pp. 171184, and idem, ‘La femme en Islam,’ in Pierre Grimal, ed., Histoire mondiale de la femme Vol. III (Paris: Nouvelle Librairie de France, 1967), chap. 3. Since 1977 the most notable further work may be found in the relevant parts of Fernea, E. W. and Bezirgan, B. Q., eds., Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977), and in the historical chapters by Bates, Ülkü, BayatPhilipp, Mangol, Dengler, Ian, Marsot, Afaf L., and Philipp, Thomas, in Beck, Lois and Keddie, Nikki, eds., Women in the Muslim World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978) (hereafter cited as Beck and Keddie).

2 Tomiche, ‘La femme en Islam.’

3 Mernissi, F., Beyond the Veil (New York: Schenkman, 1975).

4 See the several relevant studies on rural and tribal women in Beck and Keddie.

5 Tillion, Germaine, Le harem et les cousins (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1966), chap. 9 ‘Les femmes et le voile.’

6 See Jennings, ‘Women in Early 17th Century Ottoman Judicial Records,’ and Ian C. Dengler, ‘Turkish Women in the Ottoman Empire. The Classical Age,’ in Beck and Keddie, which cites a German-language study using such materials.

7 Musallam, Basim F., ‘The Islamic Sanction of Contraception,’ Population and its Problems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974 and idem, ‘Birth Control and Middle Eastern History’, in Land, Population and Society: Studies in the Economic History of the Middle East from the Rise of Islam to the Nineteenth Century (tentative title), A. L. Udovitch, ed. (Princeton: Darwin Press, in press).

8 Dols, M. W., The Black Death in the Middle East (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), chap. 5; and ‘The General Mortality of the Black Death in the Mamluk Empire,’ in Udovitch, ed., Land, Population and Society.

9 Numerous Western travellers and observers have noted that Middle Eastern women, while careful to cover their hair and some part of their face, were often more casual than Western women about exposing their legs and their breasts. This may account for the shock of 15th century Italian observers.

10 Perhaps the best of the discussions of this question is Afaf L. Marsot, ‘The Revolutionary Gentlewomen in Egypt,’ in Beck and Keddie.

11 Customs and Manners of the Women of Persia, trans. Atkinson, James (New York: Burt Franklin, 1971; reprint of 1832 ed.).

12 Chodzko, A., ‘Code de la femme chez les persans,’ unidentified nineteenth-century offprint seen at the Institut Nationale des Langues Orientales Vivantes, Paris.

13 Some serious scholarly studies on women in feminist and political movements appear in Beck and Keddie: Mangol Bayat-Philipp, ‘Women and Revolution in Iran,’ Juliette Minces, ‘Women in Algeria,’ and Thomas Philipp, ‘Feminism and Nationalist Politics in Egypt.’

14 'Abd ar-Rāziq, La femme au temps, especially the last page of his text.

15 Clark, Alice, Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (London: Frank Cass, 1968, reprint);Power, Eileen, Medieval Women, ed. Postan, M. M. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), chap. 3, ‘The Working Woman in Town and Country.’

16 The contrasting and complex role of the representatives of different classes noted here was in part suggested to me by unpublished papers by Hollis Granoff and Judith Gran. It is to be hoped that they and others will continue this important line of scholarship.

17 For a short version of Bartsch's, W. University of London dissertation see his Employment and Incomes Policies for Iran (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1973).

18 Guha, Sunil, ‘The Contribution of Non-Farm Activities to Rural Employment Promotion: Experience in Iran, India and Syria,’ International Labour Review, 109, 3 (03, 1974), 235250. Far more extensive information is to be found in the (ex-) Ministry of Cooperatives and Rural Affairs's sample surveys, mimeographed and sometimes available. It would be a mistake simply to reject official statistics if they contain the best available data, as they often indicate important trends. See the excellent comparative work done from such statistics in Youssef, Nadia Haggag, Women and Work in Developing Societies (Berkeley: Institute for International Studies, 1974), and in papers by Youssef and by Elizabeth White in Beck and Keddie.

19 See Vieille, Paul, ‘Iranian Women in Family Alliance and Sexual Politics,’ in Beck and Keddie, and his brilliant La féodalité et l'état en Iran (Paris: Anthropos, 1975), esp. chap. 2, ‘Naissance, mort, sexe, dans la société et la culture populaires.’

20 Kotobi, M. in particular is continuing to work on sexual attitudes and practices in Iran. See especially the relevant tables in his ‘Attitudes et problèmes des étudiants entrant à l'université en pays en voie de developpement,’ unpublished Doctorat d'Etat thesis, University of Paris, 1973. See also the articles on contemporary Egypt in Beck and Keddie.

21 Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock, Guests of the Sheik (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969);Tapper, Nancy S. S., ‘The Role of Women in Selected Pastoral Islamic Societies,’ unpublished M. Phil. thesis, University of London, 1968.

22 See especially the two works by P. Vieille, cited in n. 19.

23 A Society for Iranian Studies panel on ‘Sex and Society in Iran’ was held in conjunction with the MESA convention, New York, November, 1977. Participants included Donald Stilo, Michael Hillman, Kaveh Safa-Isfahani, Marvin Zonis, and myself. The panel discussed some of the questions raised above, including survey research and other forms of questioning of individuals; homosexuality; and women's theater games as an indicator of unsuspected sexual attitudes. Other useful works on sex in the Muslim world (although not based on questioning) include Bouhdiba, Abdelwahab, La sexualité en islam (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1975), and Bousquet, G. H., La morale de l'Islam et son éthique sexuelle (Paris: A. Maisonneuve, 1953).

Problems in the Study of Middle Eastern Women

  • Nikki R. Keddie (a1)


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