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Arab Women and Work: The Interrelation Between Orientalism and Historiography

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This essay examines the approaches and themes in two overlapping historiographical areas on women and labor since the sixties. The first area examines the scholarship on Lebanese women and modernization. The second area covers the scholarship on women, labor and the family in Arab Middle Eastern society. Despite their general critique of Orientalist representations of the “Muslim” woman, several scholars continue to invest cognate features of the modernization discourse and West-centered models of womanhood. For one, scholars have persistently stated that the social structures in Middle Eastern/Islamic society do not lend themselves to class or gendered divisions. Using classical Eurocentric criteria for gauging women's “empowerment,” these scholars tried to show that Arab working-women are unable to organize themselves on the basis of gender due to cultural taboos, sectarian affiliations, provincial loyalties, family authority, and lack of education. At times, “Islam” or “culture” is presented as operating from above-creating social attitudes that limit women's public activities and involvement in waged work. The primacy given to cultural difference prevents comparability between Western and Middle Eastern/Muslim women on the basis of shared socio-economic experiences. Several studies overlooked the complex interconnections among family, sect, class and gender expressed through the range of activities and experiences linking women's domestic and waged work. There is indeed an overwhelming focus on the ideas and attitudes of bourgeois woman and their legal rights, which are rarely analyzed in connection to historical context, economic arrangements, productive patterns, or social interest. Rather, they are discussed in connection to women's education and work and ultimately levels of modernization. These prevalent features of the historiographical literature give shape to new and subtle Orientalist narratives about Muslim/Middle Eastern women.

Affiliations: 1: McGill University;, Email:


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