By: Wilson Chacko Jacob

The exciting thing about setting off in the mid-late 1990s to research “gender and empire” with a particular focus on masculinity was the fact the field was just taking off and everyone seemed open to learning from regions and time periods other than their own. Inter- and multi-disciplinarity and a variety of approaches, theories, and methods were par for the course. I suspect now, over two decades later, the more mature field comes with natural constraints for the student pressed for time. All of this of course makes identifying eight to ten essential texts for the prospective Middle East scholar a daunting task. What I list below should therefore be considered a starting point to get a sense of how fundamentally gender (and sexuality) relates to empire.

When I began, there were perhaps two works that could be considered essential to masculinity studies in the Middle East. The first was Mai Ghoussoub and Emma Sinclair-Webb’s edited volume Imagined Masculinities: Male Identity and Culture in The Modern Middle East (Saqi, 2000). The gendered and historical dimensions of masculinity (its relational and variable development over time) were taken for granted in most of the chapters, with the exception of the contribution by Afsaneh Najmabadi. Empire was not central in any of the chapters. Fortunately, Mrinalini Sinha’s groundbreaking monograph in South Asian history, Colonial Masculinity: The ‘Manly Englishman’ and The ‘Effeminate Bengali’ in the Late Nineteenth Century (Manchester University Press, 1995) had appeared a few years earlier. It posited a particular space, the “imperial social formation,” in which gendered identities were formed through dialectical encounters, in this case resulting in the production of two figures that would inform policy debates and delimit political and cultural horizons. Sinha’s book tipped me off to the fact that historians in the United Kingdom, perhaps unsurprisingly, were leading the way in making connections between modern gender formations and imperial expansion and rule.

However, it was the work of Ann Stoler—who made linkages between and among race, class, sex, gender, and empire in the context of Southeast Asia—that caught my eye. She wrote a series of must-read articles from 1989 onward that shaped my future work; these are collected in her book Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (University of California Press, 2002). Alongside those crucial pieces was the product of Stoler’s collaboration with Frederick Cooper, which stands perhaps as a testament to the brilliance of the University of Michigan’s History-Anthropology program’s 1990s “moment,” Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World (University of California Press, 1997); in it was reproduced Anna Davin’s trailblazing article from 1978, “Imperialism and Motherhood.” The book, perhaps without trumpeting it, was one of the first works of global history; in that, the authors taken together present a view of bourgeois culture as a phenomenon emerging in the polyvalent interactions between metropoles and colonies rather than being the exclusive product of European social formations exported fully assembled to the rest of the world. Davin was well ahead of her time in linking early twentieth-century British population politics to gender, sex, race, and class all within the framework of a global empire; the new “ideology of motherhood” targeted mothers of all classes as the key vector in the scientific reproduction and rearing of a healthy imperial race, which was deemed integral to the industrial workforce at home and the management of empire abroad. Echoes of this very important volume can be heard in the excellent collection edited by Lila Abu-Lughod, Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East (Princeton University Press, 1998); demonstrating the “bourgeois world” thesis and motherhood as global ideology is Omnia Shakry’s contribution, “Schooled Mothers and Structured Play: Child Rearing in Turn-of-the-Century Egypt.” For a student starting out, this volume offers a veritable “who’s who” of Middle East gender studies.

When my book, Working Out Egypt: Effendi Masculinity and Subject Formation in Colonial Modernity, 1870-1940 (Duke and AUC University Presses, 2011), which was a revision of my dissertation (NYU, 2005), came out, it reflected—one might say—the formative period of “gender and empire”: its eclectic use of theory (the biopolitics of Michael Foucault and performativity of Judith Butler); its irreverent approach to the historical timeline and regional specializations (interloping from medieval Islamic studies to British, French, and Ottoman imperial histories to the national period); and its breadth of sources (ranging from archival documents, photos, and memoirs to novels, poetry, and film). A somewhat self-indulgent work, perhaps, but I hazard to suggest that there are some valuable insights (and discoveries) in there about the knotty problem of gender as a new global disciplinary apparatus by the late nineteenth century and its emergence in imperial cultural networks. These should make one pause before staking liberatory claims exclusively on and through gender. In that regard, the late Saba Mahmood’s brilliant work, whose impact was felt far beyond Middle East studies, defamiliarizes the feminist subject through her ethnography of the women’s mosque movement in Egypt, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton University Press, 2005). Though a difficult read, the payoff is huge. “Our” commonplaces and pieties are challenged in this work—who we are as a secular scholarly community is as much exposed as the unexpected political effects of women explicitly and deliberately pursuing a pious life, understood as a life of submission.

The relatively speedy translation of Malek Alloula’s The Colonial Harem (University Minnesota Press, 1986) from the 1981 French edition reveals among other things the disconnect between national academies and the marginalization of North Africa in Middle East studies until recently. This fascinating, though in some ways overly simplistic, study of colonial photography and postcards was an early attempt to trace the emergence of a particularly Orientalist, prurient masculine gaze through the intertwined imperialist and capitalist ventures in Algeria. A suitable accompaniment would be the innovative historical fiction of Assia Djebar translated from the French, especially Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade (Heinemann, 1985) and the history of Lalla Zainab in Julia Clancy-Smith’s Rebel and Saint: Muslim Notables, Populist Protest, Colonial Encounters (Algeria and Tunisia, 1800-1904) (University of California Press, 1994). A previous version of Clancy-Smith’s fascinating retrieval of this history that ties together gender, Sufism, and colonialism appeared in a valuable anthology edited by Nikki Keddie and Beth Baron, Women in Middle Eastern History: Shifting Boundaries in Sex and Gender (Yale University Press, 1991).

My earliest teacher and mentor in the field, Judith Tucker, tried to teach me the importance of “the little voices,” an absence, as she later commented, in my own work. Tucker’s groundbreaking study of subaltern women’s histories using sharia court records, Women in Nineteenth-Century Egypt (Cambridge University Press, 1985), is a classic that reveals the implications for peasant families of incorporation into the world system during a time of imperial restructuring and modern state formation. Afsaneh Najmabadi’s work perhaps illustrates best how far the study of gender and sexuality in relationship to empire (or what I have called colonial modernity) has come for any field, especially her Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity (University of California Press, 2005). This brilliantly conceived and executed work of historical narration and critique demonstrates how silences were produced in the general epistemic shifts accompanying colonial modernity that made some subjects legible (and legible in particular ways) and others illegible and excludable.

As a firm believer that one cannot bandy about “modernity” or “modern” empire without a good sense of what they ostensibly replace, three crucial works in that regard are Leslie Peirce, The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire (Oxford University Press, 1993), which reveals the enormous political significance of Ottoman women, in particular the sultan’s mother; Khaled el-Rouayheb, Before Homosexuality in the Arab and Islamic World, 1500-1800 CE (University of Chicago Press, 2005), which demonstrates the literary and historical evidence for the complexity of same-sex practices and love before their sudden erasure and reduction under the sign of “homosexuality;” and Elyse Semerdjian, “Off the Straight Path”: Illicit Sex, Law, and Community in Ottoman Aleppo (Syracuse University Press, 2008), which mines sharia court records and other sources to unearth the deep structure of gender operating as a norm in relation to socio-legal and political histories. All three works brilliantly debunk shoddy Orientalist reifications of sex and gender in “Islamic” societies.

The outpouring of novels, short stories, films, and cyber-interventions at the intersection of gender and empire mean that the above is nothing if not incomplete. But I feel compelled to point to a few gems. I find Tahani Rached’s documentary Four Women of Egypt (1997) one of the most brilliant treatments of gender, empire, Islam, feminism, and nationalism possible under two hours—quite simply because her subjects are so beautifully rich and laden with history’s urgencies. For sublime treatments of empire’s continuities and monstrous returns that are always gendered, there are two very different kinds of films that must be viewed, treating the French-Algerian connection and the Israeli-Palestinian, respectively: Caché by Michael Haneke and Divine Intervention by Elia Suleiman.


[The Essential Readings series is curated by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) team at the Arab Studies Institute. MESPI invites scholars to contribute to our Essential Readings modules by submitting an “Essential Readings” list on a topic/theme pertinent to their research/specialization in Middle East studies. Authors are asked to keep the selection relatively short while providing as much representation/diversity as possible. This difficult task may ultimately leave out numerous works which merit inclusion from different vantage points. Each topic may eventually be addressed by more than one author.Articles such as this will appear permanently on and Email us at for any inquiries.]