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Debates over gender relevant legislation such as family law have led to serious conflict in many periods of Middle Eastern history, especially in recent times. One way to understand the intensity of the current debates is to recognize that gender issues raise fundamental questions about the relationship between individual and society and the role of states. In this article I argue that, in considering gender relevant legislation in the Middle East, we need to develop a framework that is different from the paradigms anchored in the politics of western liberal democracies in the U.S. and Western Europe. The frame of reference I propose is built upon the following propositions. (1) We should treat gender legislation in the Middle East as an inherently political matter that goes to the heart of the organization of power. Such a perspective opens up the possibility of considering the role of multiple and complex political processes including pressures from below by social movements and top down reforms. (2) We need to reformulate the concepts of tradition and modernity that have pervaded the study of gender in the Islamic world. Tradition and modernity as two distinct, well-defined cultural forms should be dropped altogether. Instead, the discourses of tradition and modernity should be taken as political constructs and the following question should be asked: who benefits from each discourse in given political contexts? (3) The role of kin-based solidarities should be considered in the nexus of conflicts and alliances that shape the process of state formation. The individualistic model of politics in western liberal democracies has limited value for the understanding of political processes in the historical development of the Middle East. The focus should be instead on the role of identities based in communities that define themselves in collective and ascriptive terms of common kinship.

Affiliations: 1: University of Texas at Austin


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