Interview conducted by Jacob Bessen.

The following interview explores Lila Abu Lughod’s interdisciplinary thinking and teaching in anthropology, gender studies, and Middle East studies. She reflects on the changing agenda for critical anthropology of gender and sexuality in the Middle East, noting the opportunities for successive generations of scholars to grow the field and further develop classroom approaches. The interview originally appeared in JADMAG’s 2019 pedagogy issue. This is the first installment of a pedagogy-focused interview series produced by MESPI. The series aims to bring together interventions in academic and political discourses with classroom methods and advising strategies. Simultaneously, it is a dialogue between junior and senior academics, and therefore is not only about pedagogy but is also pedagogy-in-action. 


Jacob Bessen: Teaching Islam and gender in the Middle East inevitably occurs in a loaded context. In the years following the “war on terror” discourse, there seems to have been a resurgence and reconfiguration in the production of orientalist tropes and repertoire. How do you teach in a way that does not just convey content that undermines these narratives but also teaches the critical thinking and reflexivity necessary to contend with the changing pulse and landscape of imperial prejudice?  


Lila Abu Lughod: Anyone teaching about gender and sexuality in the Middle East in the Euro-American academy has to contend, as you note, with the politics of representation. Edward Said’s Orientalism taught us to ask not just about representations (or “misrepresentations”) of people in the region but the power/knowledge nexus of these representations. What work do these representations do? Some tropes seem surprisingly enduring, but we need to look more closely. Are they? 

I sometimes worry that we do not pay enough attention to the politico-historical shifts in the ways women and sexuality are represented. Western missionaries and colonists were one thing. The war on terror, as you note, is another. It has produced different convictions about Middle Eastern or Muslim women. The consolidated figure that miriam cooke has called “the Muslimwoman” was catapulted to the center as part of a project of military intervention—to save her. The men who oppress her are vilified; the crusade to rescue her works to affirm the moral superiority of liberal western values of freedom, including feminism. Saba Mahmood and Hamid Dabashi have noted a related development in the lionization of “native informers” who now denounce their own cultures, nations, and religion in the name of feminism. 

Rather than generalizing about timeless forms of gendered orientalism or imperial feminism, I think we should track such shifts and relate them to geopolitical developments. I have recently become concerned with the shifts underway as the “global” security industry flourishes. Counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism have come to dominate the political landscape. The alliance of American, European, Israeli, and some Gulf governments joined by the participation of the media and some academic counterparts is alarming. The language of radicalization and CVE (countering violent extremism) prevail. Military intervention has moved to the back burner, at least for now. 

How are representations of women, gender, and sexuality working with this new political formation? The perverse Muslim violent extremist takes center stage. A new specter has emerged–the non-innocent Muslim woman. I am writing about the hypervisibilization of the small number of “radicalized” women who migrated to join IS and live under the caliphate and the way this manufactures fear to justify this industry. The inclusion of Muslim women here places all Muslims under suspicion. What surveillance and what policies are tied to this figure of the extremist woman?

At the same time, the triumph in the last couple of decades of what Janet Halley and her colleagues call “governance feminism,” through institutions like UN Women or the NGOs spawned by the Women, Peace, and Security agenda, or the carceral feminist agenda that has dominated the international courts and has prioritized and criminalized sexual violence in war (to the exclusion of other forms of women’s suffering, as Karen Engle tracks in her forthcoming book, The Grip of Sexual Violence In Conflict) have transformed the relationship between feminist knowledge and power. We need to figure out how to come to terms with the links between shifting policies and figurations of women.  

Teaching about women, gender, and sexuality in the Middle East in the Euro-American academy has to start then with this kind of critical analysis of the politics of representations and the political work of violence. But it cannot stop there. As an anthropologist, not a feminist theorist or legal scholar, I feel a responsibility not just to teach critique of representations but to try to offer alternative ways of understanding gender and sexual politics in the Middle East. This means introducing and taking seriously perspectives from the region. I do not mistake these for truths. They are mediated and partial. They are not independent of the representations by the powerful and political. But in important ways, they are different and provide another way to question the representations.  

I find two tactics useful in teaching. First, I insist on historicizing. What are the major political transformations of the worlds we are studying? What is the history of the present? The dynamics of colonialism and anti-colonial nationalisms, as well as violence of current wars and occupations are crucial. Their impacts on the organization of gender, women’s possibilities, and the meanings of sexuality are profound and complex. I like to surprise students too by introducing matter-of-factly the long regional histories (and class politics, of course) of activist projects for legal reform, schooling, religious reform, and political enfranchisement—what students might understand as other histories of feminism. 

Second, and a bit more consistent with my anthropological commitments to learning about “other” worlds, I insist that students immerse themselves in the lives and texts of those whose reference points and ideals may be quite foreign to them. From precarious Yemeni plantation workers being cured of possession to Iranian youth being lectured by Ali Shariati on how Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet, should be their guide for revolutionary womanhood, I want them to confront and take seriously the unfamiliar. There are moral and intellectual worlds out there that challenge their everyday assumptions, values, and judgements. This is humbling. And it can be humbling even for students whose family backgrounds link them to the region. They rarely know much about the multiple worlds in which different communities live or the variety of aspirations they have.   


JB: One reason your earlier work has remained influential is the nuanced and holistic way you describe dynamics of patriarchal domination and women’s agency and resistance. You have written at length about how to theorize these dynamics, but how do you teach this skill as an ethnographic sensibility to a student leaving for the field or as a mode of descriptive writing for a thesis or manuscript?


LA: I am honored that you think my work has stood the test of time. I presume you mean my first two ethnographies based on fieldwork in the Awlad ‘Ali Bedouin community in Egypt, Veiled Sentiments and Writing Women’s Worlds. Just as a preface to my answer, I have to say that, honestly, I do not think you can teach anyone to have an ethnographic sensibility, except perhaps to have them read and appreciate good ethnographies. I also do not know how to teach the skills of ethnography. So much depends on the quality of the personal relations you can forge. The only advice I ever give is to listen. And stay a long time. And write everything down—you never know what it will all mean. There are no shortcuts. 

Your question was more specific though. You use two concepts that I do not tend to use: “patriarchy” (too unspecific) and “agency” (too liberal). Resistance is even more knotty for me—one of my early interventions was to criticize what I called “the romance of resistance.” I do not find these constructions helpful because of what I have learned from the women and men I have had the privilege of working with in the two communities in Egypt I have come to know well over my forty years of coming and going. I learned from them how to think more subtly about the dynamics of gender and power. I felt that my task was somehow to translate and to theorize what I had learned from them to confront what scholars, feminists, and the wider public think they know about “patriarchal domination” in the Middle East and what might surprise them about “women’s agency.” I look at the logic of social systems and the everyday politics of interpersonal lives. Even Do Muslim Women Need Saving? and some parts of Dramas of Nationhood were based on carefully listening to how women in one Upper Egyptian village talked about their lives, men, families, government, God, and the world. Ethnography. Simple constructs like male domination do not begin to do justice to their complicated lives. 


JB: Your earlier research remains useful pedagogically for its consideration of what feminism offers ethnography. Your current focus on gender violence, human rights frameworks, and liberalism’s universalist claims makes me wonder about the reciprocal: what does learning to think ethnographically or developing ethnographic sensibilities offer feminism?


LA: This is an intriguing way to construct the problem: what feminist theory and scholarship offer ethnographic work and what ethnography can offer feminism. Marilyn Strathern famously described the relationship between anthropology and feminism as “awkward.” I think the traffic between these fields is interesting. When I began, I certainly thought that ethnography of particular places—like the communities in Egypt I was writing about—would challenge feminist constructions of the social world. I structured Writing Women’s Worlds to challenge typifications of Arab society and cultural generalizations rampant in both anthropology and feminist studies. I called what I was doing “writing against culture.” Later, I began to think that another way ethnography could contribute to feminist theory was to subject women’s rights activism itself to study. This has made me in some ways more sympathetic to activists, because of the complexities of managing differences in academic and activist approaches across different locations. In other ways, it has made me more certain that we need critical social and political analyses of the terms and constraints of activisms. 

This has made me in some ways more sympathetic, but in other ways more critical. In my first attempt, I characterized what we could do as studying the social life of Muslim women’s rights—how rights discourse circulated through institutions and texts. This has led more recently to a collaborative project to study the global discourses on violence against women/gender-based violence. I am working on this with Rema Hammami and Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian (both, incidentally, amazing ethnographers and feminist theorists) and other colleagues who work on the institutional and ideological framing of violence in the Middle East and South Asia. For my part, as I said earlier, I am trying to analyze demands for women’s inclusion in security. What does an anthropologist bring to the study of such policy worlds? We can attend to the languages, vocabularies, and key symbols of dynamic and shifting policy subcultures. We can track the social and economic networks that produce and sustain their worldviews. We can analyze the political entanglements and effects of their practices as well as their ideological framings. 

As feminist anthropologists, I think we can engage critically with mainstream US feminist assumptions. Many of these have gone global, as Sally Engle Merry (2006) has shown. They inform both scholarship and social movements around the world. I like to think that we could contribute not just by pushing for better ways of thinking about gender and power through bringing in what we know about how they are lived “elsewhere” and “otherwise” (the classic anthropological move) but also by studying the assumptions and practices of particular groups of historically and socially-located feminists. We might call this parochializing feminism. But another way to think about it, because we must support all those who also care about women’s suffering, is that we are engaging in what Janet Halley and her colleagues call “internal” critique. This approach to feminism has led me to some awkward relations with colleagues and friends, but it really grows out of the same critical perspective we started developing in the book I edited in the late 1990s, Remaking Women.


JB: Yes, in 1998, you wrote the introduction for Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East, which set the agenda for a critical anthropology of gender and sexuality in the Middle East. Now, over twenty years later, how has this agenda changed? How has it stayed the same?


LA: Remaking Women was based on a conference that a graduate student at NYU (Sandy Sufian) encouraged me to organize, one of so many examples of the mutual relationships that are so fundamental to pedagogy. I had started teaching a graduate course called “Gender Politics in the Muslim World.” I was reading well beyond anthropology for this, as Middle East gender and sexuality studies demands. The introduction to the book laid out not so much an agenda for anthropology but for Middle East feminist studies. 

I was inspired at that time by the emerging work in colonial and subaltern studies. This was my first foray into interdisciplinary work. Since the early 1990s, Timothy Mitchell and I had been bringing together scholars of Middle East and South Asia, conceiving of this collaborative project as a way to develop “post-orientalist” scholarship. Both of us had been involved in committees at the Social Science Research Council, Tim on the one for the Middle East and I on a new committee for the Comparative Studies of Muslim Societies. We were interested in the potential of cross-regional thinking, especially given the stultifying force in Middle East studies of orientalism, modernization theory, and Zionist anti-Arabism. I was reminded of the extraordinary (then young) scholars who participated in the first workshop in Cairo in 1993, when the archives of Items, the SSRC newsletter, were digitized last year and contained a report from us.

Of those, some worked on gender. We were fortunate to have Afsaneh Najmabadi and Deniz Kandiyoti at the first workshop, and Saba Mahmood at a subsequent one. They offered critical alternatives to the emerging work celebrating early feminism in the region. Remaking Women pushed this further. Inspired by a Foucauldian articulation of the dark side of modernity and theorization of the dynamic of subjectivation, I still think the book was groundbreaking. It was interdisciplinary and largely historical. One of its key insights came from Afsaneh Najmabadi who characterized modernist reforms for women as both emancipatory and regulatory/disciplinary, a view shared by Khaled Fahmy in his chapter on Mehmet Ali’s often celebrated School for Midwives. 

What has happened in Middle East gender studies since the late 1990s is nothing short of stunning. I do not know if we set an agenda with Remaking Women, but I do know that a new generation has revolutionized the field. It now flourishes. The work is rich, whether in historical, literary, religious, or social studies. Based on research in and on the Arab world, Iran, Turkey, and the wider Muslim world, there is no way to keep up, and I find it harder and harder to limit the readings in my courses. One sign of the maturity of this field is institutional: at least two journals were founded: Hawwa: Journal of women of the Middle East and the Islamic World (2003) and the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies (2005), and the magnificent reference work The Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures (2003) was published under the senior editorship of Suad Joseph. 

What I have found personally most compelling and have incorporated more and more into my teaching are the studies that take as a given the critiques of orientalism and empire and move on from there. As an anthropologist I have found two developments especially compelling: the ethnographic work on pious and Islamist women, on the one hand, and on sexuality, on the other. The latter was a sort of taboo in the academy. That both topics have emerged in Middle East scholarship is not, it seems to me, accidental. We cannot disconnect them from their political contexts. These include social developments and movements in the region and the international political interests at work around Islam and LGBTQ rights. Back to that thorny power/knowledge nexus. 

Saba Mahmood’s intervention in Politics of Piety in 2005 fundamentally changed the terms of Middle East gender studies, not to mention feminist studies more broadly. By taking seriously Egyptian women in the piety movement and using her ethnography to illuminate their aspirations, she challenged the common meanings of agency, confronted feminist theory with its parochialism as secular and liberal, and opened up space to value religious piety and conformity to social norms and hierarchies, including what get glossed as “patriarchal.” Muslim women in the mosque movement, seeking Islamic education, developing new brands of what some call Islamic feminism, and affiliating with Islamist political parties and movements and proudly asserting public piety—all became subjects of reflection. Key questions this new work addressed were: how to define empowerment as well as agency, what motivates religious observance and political activism in Islamic movements, how to make sense of the assertions of choice in defying expectations about dress and behavior, and what implications their alternative trajectories have for assumptions about the forward march toward secular liberal feminism. The work charting these alternatives is now overwhelming, from books like Leila Ahmad’s Quiet Revolution to Lara Deeb’s An Enchanted Modern, Zakia Salime’s Between Feminism and Islam to Ellen McLarney’s Soft Force, and articles on women’s leadership in Hamas (Sara Ababneh and Islah Jad), Moroccan preachers and activists in Islamist parties (Meriem El Haitami and Merieme Yafout), even seminarian women in Iran (Amina Tawasil) and Jordanian schoolgirls in state schools (Fida Adely). The growing literature on Muslim women in Europe, subjected to burkini bans or drawn to Salafism, is equally thought-provoking (e.g., Annelies Moors, Anabel Inge, Sara Bracke, Mayanthi Fernando). 

To return, though, to the agenda we may have set in Remaking Women, I think Deniz Kandiyoti’s afterword was prescient. I still remember how reluctant she was to accept my invitation to write this afterword. Even then, in the late 1990s, she was fatigued by the subject. She thought little more could be said about “the woman question” in the Middle East. She saw the way forward as a careful look at the ethnic and class politics of the colonial encounter, on the one hand, and urged that a study of modernity like ours, should examine the ways gender and sexuality had been transformed in the heterosexualization of the nuclear family across the Middle East. We needed to look at men too. 

After contributing to Remaking Women, Afsaneh Najmabadi indeed turned her book on the history of women and citizenship in Iran on its head. She reframed it to consider gender, men, and (homo)sexuality. Then followed her brilliant ethnography of trans* in Iran. From Lebanon came studies of queer urban life, analyses of queer activism, and riveting first person accounts of lesbians and questioning women like those in Bareed Mista’jil which both affirmed and radically challenged standard stories of lesbians by showing how family, class, and religion were as formative for experience as the internet. Trans in Turkey; homophobia in diasporic Iranian cyberspace; pinkwashing in Israel; homonationalism and securitization—we now have so much more ethnographic work to teach. Categories are questioned. Politics are consistently intersectional. In recent special issues on sexuality in the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies and the International Journal of Middle East Studies what is refused—just as it is in the work on pious women—is either the simple exposition of allegedly separate “other” worlds or the celebration of a universal liberal progression to rights and freedom. I like the way Omnia El Shakry and Paul Amar put it in their introduction to the IJMES roundtable on “Queer Affects.” Scholars, they say, are committed to theorizing from the gender trouble, affective economies, social movements, and forms of geopolitical and cultural domination at work in the region. This represents critical Middle East gender studies of the sort I would like to be teaching. 


JB: One recurring theme in our conversation is the impact of friendships in your teaching. I would be remiss if we left this conversation framing pedagogy as limited to cold textual preferences and evolving research agendas. Would you mind talking about the importance of relationships to your approach to teaching gender and Islam the in Middle East?


LA: Texts do not feel cold when they are in a scholarly field to which you have devoted your intellectual/political life and work. They become friends, worn and covered in notes. I love to teach the books and articles of my friends. And to make friends with the authors of books and articles that teach me. 

But I am so glad you picked up on this theme in our conversation, so rarely talked about. Pedagogy for me is not about the classroom or the syllabus. It is about living relationships—with those who have taught us and those we hope have learned something from us. These are often the same people. I have learned from students and colleagues and from the people I have known through fieldwork. I cherish these relationships, which can be for life. 

When I think back to starting out, going to Egypt for fieldwork for my dissertation and then presenting my first papers on what I learned, I feel grateful to those pioneering feminist scholars of the Middle East who were generous and supportive of me, but also demanding. Soraya Altorki, Suad Joseph, Deniz Kandiyoti and Cynthia Nelson. I did not have any teachers or advisors who worked in this field. But when I think about why I want to write and teach about the subject of women and gender in the Middle East and Muslim world, it is because of what I learned from the women and girls I got to know in different places in Egypt, whether the Awlad ‘Ali families in the Western Desert, individuals in Cairo, or villagers in the Upper Egyptian hamlet in the midst of Pharaonic ruins and clover fields where we got to live as a young family after my kids were born, beginning in the mid-1990s. Seeing the world through their eyes, to the extent to which I have been able to manage, drives my passion to challenge representations that do not do justice to their visions and experiences. 

Writing and teaching, then, are grounded in friendships and make friendships. And then there are all the colleagues and students who over the years have taught me about women and gender politics. I think about what Rabab El Mahdi taught me about feminist politics in Egypt; Marilyn Booth and Suzannah Ferguson about earlier Arab feminisms; Ayse Parla about virginity tests and the honor of the state in Turkey; Omnia El Shakry about scientific motherhood and population management in Egypt; Shahla Talebi about political prisoners in Iran or Amina Tawasil about pious seminarians; Mayssoun Sukarieh about the political economy of women’s “empowerment”; Nadia Guessous about Moroccan feminists; Maya Mikdashi about sex and sectarianism in Lebanon; and beyond the Middle East to the South Asian Muslim world, about Dina Siddiqi’s critiques of Bangladeshi feminists’ secularism and Shenila Khoja-Moolji’s analyses of the push for girls’ education in Pakistan. This learning and teaching happens through the intimate and generous work of reading, commenting on, and thinking with each others’ works in progress. 

Over the past couple of decades, developing friendships with colleagues who live and work in Palestine has transformed me. The intellectual/political project on reframing gender violence that I mentioned earlier has changed the courses I teach. It has ramped up the scale, and the urgency, of what I am trying to understand. I share this with Rema Hammami and Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, and they in turn have connected me to Palestine, giving me insights into a place that I care deeply about but where I have not done anthropological research. Humanitarianism’s deformation of the work of local women’s organizations, the ironic feeding of the war on terror by the Women Peace and Security agenda, the ways feminist successes in making gender violence an urgent concern are occluding vicious forms of state violence and imperial domination—these are topics about which we have taught each other. The text we are editing together now is anything but cold. It is an instantiation of friendship, between us and the community of extraordinary feminist scholars who have contributed to what we know. And how we want our work to intervene in the world, through and beyond teaching.