The Arab Institute for Women

News & Events

Book Launching: “Routledge Handbook on Women in the Middle East”.

On May 23, 2023, The AiW hosted a panel discussion on Suad Joseph and Zeina Zaatari’s “Routledge Handbook on Women in the Middle East”. The panel represented a great opportunity for scholars and academicians to reflect on the themes of the book, share major insights and learnings, respond to the attendees’ queries, and importantly shed light on the handbook’s exceptional contribution to populating the body of knowledge on women in the Middle East.  

In an opening statement, Director of The AiW, Ms. Myriam Sfeir, welcomed the attendees, introduced the panelists, and reiterated The AiW’s commitment to encouraging research on and by women in the Arab world. On these lines, she emphasized the key contributing role of the book in advancing extensive research on women through an analysis of the historical, social, economic, political, religious, and cultural factors which define the conditions and status of the latter in this part of the world.

In a first intervention, Distinguished Research Professor of Anthropology and Women and Gender Studies at the University of California, Davis, Dr. Suad Joseph, ushered the discussion through a brief overview of what she described to be a long and arduous writing, reviewing, and publishing process. According to Dr. Joseph, this valuable resource came to fruition only after an extensive process of research, analysis, reflection, and careful development. As she described, the handbook is divided into several main thematic areas and introduces topics like politics and the state, discourses and practices of religion, counter/publics, bodies and sexualities, and sites of cultural production, among others. According to Dr. Joseph, the handbook holds great value in the field of gender and women’s studies as it offers a wealth of knowledge for every reader who is willing to think and learn.

Then, Director of the Arab American Cultural Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Dr. Zeina Zaatari, expounded on the feminist and decolonial research rationale of the handbook’s authors. As she described, this nontraditional approach, which steered the overall writing process, helped to challenge the dominant belief systems, deconstruct unchallenged paradigms, and produce original analyses. Importantly, Dr. Zaatari explained the rigorous peer-review process and highlighted the team’s commitment to providing junior scholars with research and publication opportunities in the field of gender and women’s studies. The handbook, she finally stated, encourages critical thinking and enables the readers to navigate the complexities of the thematic areas in question.

Next, Associate Professor of Women’s History at the King Saud University, Saudi Arabia, Dr. Hatoon Ajwad Al-Fassi, presented a comprehensive overview of her three chapters, “Women in the Ancient Middle East”, “Women in the Islamic Middle East”, and “Women of the Middle East in the Colonial and Postcolonial Eras” which, she emphasized, record significant but often unrecognized periods in the history of the evolution of women’s status in the Middle East. As Dr. Al-Fassi explained, through this meticulous exploration and analysis, these chapters help to discern the patterns of continuities or disruptions in the evolution of women’s positionality, analyze the differences in cultural contexts over time, and identify the shifts in power structures. This historical approach, she confirmed, unveils the experiences, challenges, and achievements of women in relation to the cultural and sociopolitical contexts to which they have belonged.  

Following Dr. Al-Fassi’s intervention, Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the College of New Jersey, Dr. Alma Aamiry-Khasawnih, also presented an overview of her chapter, “Women’s Participation in Public and Street Art” which focuses on women’s stirring artwork during and in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Amidst junctural events of social change in many Arab countries, art by women, she explained, represented a powerful form of protest. For example, artwork like graffiti and murals became a voice for women who were demanding for change, social justice, and political transformations. This chapter, Dr. Aamiry-Khasawnih finally pinpointed, is an in-depth exploration of the role of women’s street art in expressing dissent and defying the status of quo of oppression and marginalization.   

Building on the work of Dr. Aamiry-Khasawnih, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Media Studies at the American University of Beirut (AUB), Dr. Kristen Scheid, discussed the invaluable contribution of art in helping women in the Middle East to express their refusal of oppression and their spirit of revolt. As she mentioned, artwork represents a social commentary, a political statement, a personal narrative, and importantly, a call for fundamental change. Indeed, as Dr. Scheid confirmed, the handbook, on numerous occasions, explores how women developed the power to create art and how their self-grown power became a source of inspiration and transformation for women themselves and society.  

In a commentary, Dr. Livia Wick, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Sociology, Anthropology, and Media Studies Department at AUB, offered her insights and reflections on the handbook’s key themes and analyses. As she explained, the handbook, which critically addresses issues of politics, religion, culture, social movements, activism, and agency encourages the readers to challenge mainstream perspectives and ignites a sense of curiosity to unlearn and relearn the unacknowledged role which women have long played in the Middle East. According to Dr. Wick, the handbook clearly reorients the readers’ understanding of women’s social and political involvements through time. Thereby, she finally stated, the handbook significantly considers and analyzes the status of women in the Middle East and their outstanding engagement in shaping and reshaping their societies. 

Finally, Dr. Zina Sawaf, Assistant Professor of Gender Studies at LAU, succinctly summarized the handbook’s remarkable contribution to the field of women’s studies in the Middle East, especially amid the limited availability of data and resources in the field. According to Dr. Sawaf, the handbook will serve as an important reference for young inspiring scholars who wish to develop their research methodologies, cultivate their critical thinking strategies, and reconsider the applicability of established theories and structures. Indeed, she finally stated, the handbook serves as a detailed reference and a reliable source of guidance for research.

The panel discussion concluded with a short Q&A session.