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Rethinking Gender in Arab Nationalism: Women and the Politics of Modernity in the Making of Nation-States. Cases from Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria

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image of Oriente Moderno

In the late XIX century and the beginning of the XX century, Arab nationalism identified women as the “bearers of the nation”, the symbolic repository of group identity. Nationalists, both modernists and conservatives, shaped the image of the nation around an idealized image of the woman, functional in different political projects. If the latter exalted women’s domestic roles as part of the defense of the Islamic cultural authenticity, the former criticized women’s seclusion and promoted their inclusion in the public sphere as an essential part of the making of the modern nation. The woman unveiled became a symbol of modernity and progress. In nationalist projects, politics of modernity intersected deeply with the gender issue.This article analyzes, from a gender perspective, modernist discourses on the nation and women, and studies the way in which women were involved in such debates. It underlines, on one hand, how women participated in anti-colonial struggles and on the other, their challenge, resistance and renegotiation of men’s nationalist projects. Through poems, tales, novels, short stories, memoirs, essays, journalistic articles, speeches educated women from the upper and middle classes shaped their nationalist and feminist agenda, in continuity and in contrast to the men’s. To combat national forms of patriarchal domination, firstly, under colonial rule, and, subsequently, under the independent state, some of them established feminist organizations. During colonization, women’s struggles were characterized by both nationalist and feminist goals, but having achieved independence, women had to fight to obtain their rights as citizens in the new nation-states. Post-independent governments marginalized women and/or co-opted their claims in what is called “state feminism”. Focusing on three countries, Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria, this essay highlights differences and similarities in nationalist discourses and projects in the Arab world.

Affiliations: 1: Università LUISS Guido Carli


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