Nicola Pratt, Embodying Geopolitics: Generations of Women’s Activism in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon (University of California Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Nicola Pratt (NP): I began thinking about this book in 2012. I became frustrated with how Western media, policy makers, NGOs, and think tanks discussed women’s involvement in the popular uprisings and mass protests that erupted across the Arab world from 2010. There was a tendency to view women’s participation in protests as new and extraordinary, ignoring a long history of women’s activism.

Moreover, many assessments of the outcomes of the uprisings turned on the question of whether the uprisings were “good” or not for women. Increasingly, there came to be an emphasis on how women’s rights were under threat by newly empowered Islamist political actors—as though women had enjoyed equal rights under the previous nominally-secular authoritarian regimes. Such attitudes reflected deep-rooted Western frameworks for understanding the Middle East, which consider women’s agency and women’s rights within so-called Arab-Muslim culture as an exception.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

NP: In writing this book, I sought to historicize women’s activism and to challenge binary thinking that associates women’s participation and women’s rights with Western/secular culture and, conversely, views “Arab-Muslim culture” as the cause of women’s oppression. However, I have not merely inverted this binary by demonstrating that women’s rights and women’s participation are indeed part of Arab-Muslim culture. Rather, I have tried to dismantle this binary by demonstrating the more complex ways in which women’s participation and women’s rights are entangled with geopolitical power over time. Specifically, I demonstrate how dominant gender norms have been historically produced in relation to colonialism and neocolonialism, how these gender norms have both enabled and constrained women’s activism and women’s rights, and how women’s activism and women’s rights have served to reproduce and to disrupt dominant geopolitical power, depending upon the historical context.

The book is based on over one hundred interviews with women of different generations in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, speaking about their lives and their activism. They were conducted between 2013 and 2014. Where permissions were given, these interviews are now deposited in the SOAS Digital Collections.

The book uncovers stories that remain marginalized, if not totally absent, in the majority of scholarly literature on the international politics of the Middle East and North Africa. However, it does not treat personal narratives merely as objective historical sources that may present previously hidden or marginalized histories. Drawing on the work of feminist historians, such as Louisa Passerini (1979) and Molly Andrews (2007), I have approached narratives as texts that can only be understood in relation to the wider sociopolitical and geopolitical context. Specifically, I contextualize women’s narratives in relation to postcolonial state projects of national sovereignty and modernization and their gendered underpinnings, which have their roots in experiences of colonial domination and resistance to colonial discourses that deployed gender as a civilizational marker.

Through women’s personal narratives, the book draws attention to the gendered dimensions of geopolitics and the geopolitical dimensions of gender. Building on critical geopolitics, feminist geopolitics, and postcolonial studies, I use the term “geopolitics” to problematize the spatialized dimensions of power, the role of power in constructing space, and the ways in which space and power are gendered. The book highlights the ways in which space and power shape the experiences of women activists and, in turn, how women are geopolitical actors, reproducing and/or reconfiguring space and power through their embodied activism.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

NP: The book builds on my longstanding interest in “politics from below,” as well as my previous research, conducted with Nadje Al-Ali (Brown University), on the impact of the US-led occupation of Iraq on women activists and gender politics.

However, this book represented a significant departure for me in terms of its historical and geographical scope, covering three country cases over a period of more than seven decades. Consequently, it was the most ambitious project of my career so far.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

NP: I would like the book to provide a counterpoint to gender-blind and ahistorical analyses of geopolitics in the Middle East and North Africa and to contribute to further decolonizing the field of international relations by providing an exploration of the ways in which the legacies of colonialism and neocolonialism shape the politics of gender and sexuality, with consequences for women’s activism and its effects. I hope that scholars of Middle East gender studies/women’s studies will be interested in my contribution to theorizing women’s activism in relation to hegemonic power beyond binaries of resistance/compliance. I also hope that more colleagues in the field of Middle East politics and international relations will be inspired to adopt feminist approaches and to consider women’s experiences as vital to understanding how power in the region is produced across time and space, and how it is resisted and transformed.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

NP: I am currently finishing a book on politics and popular culture in the 2011 Egyptian revolution and its aftermath, with Dalia Mostafa, Dina Rezk, and Sara Salem. This is a major output of our joint research project on “Contested Narratives of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution,” which also resulted in a multimedia, digital archive on the subject.

I have also recently begun a new writing project with Nadje Al-Ali, which aims to provide a new framework for studying gender and sexuality in the Middle East and its diaspora.

Finally, I have begun researching the gendered impacts of the COVID-19 crisis in the Middle East and North Africa. I published some preliminary ideas in a blogpost.

J: You have made the interviews that you conducted for this book available in a digital archive hosted by SOAS Digital Collections. Why did you think it was important to do this and do you have advice for other researchers in this regard?

NP: I was motivated to do this for a few reasons. First, I wanted to contribute to expanding oral history archives for the Middle East and North Africa. Oral histories, in general, are important historical sources that enable a diversification of voices to be heard, particularly those who are ignored in conventional historical and political research. Second, I wanted to create a corpus of interviews that could be built upon by other researchers, thereby overcoming one of the problems faced by women activists in the MENA region of being “over-researched” and having to repeat the same or similar information to multiple researchers. The importance of creating such archives is brought into focus in light of current barriers to international travel, as a result of coronavirus, and the difficulties of conducting research in Egypt as a result of political repression.

My advice to anyone thinking about depositing their interview materials in a digital archive is to think about this as soon as you begin to plan your research project. There are technical, financial, and ethical issues to consider. Whilst you can now record audio on your phone, this will not be of sufficient quality for depositing in an archive. Therefore, you need to invest in a digital voice recorder that can record mp3. It is essential to have sufficient space to store audio files, as they are relatively bulky, and to make sure this space is secure. You also need a secure space to back-up your audio files.

You need to budget for transcription and translation, if you want the archive to be accessible to non-Arabic speakers. You will also need a lot of time to prepare the metadata for the audio files and transcripts. My department has a student research assistantship scheme, so I was able to benefit from that to complete this part of the work. I was also fortunate that SOAS Digital Collections agreed to host the archive and, therefore, I did not need to produce my own digital platform. In addition, a huge amount of work was conducted by the Special Collections Archivist at SOAS to prepare the audio files and metadata for depositing.

Finally, you must obtain written consent from all your interviewees. In light of the rapidly deteriorating political situation in Egypt after I finished conducting my research (in 2014), I went back to all my interviewees in summer 2020 (before the archive was made public) to ask whether anyone wished to withdraw consent. I also took a unilateral decision to remove interviews with Muslim Brotherhood members. Importantly, SOAS Digital Collections has a take-down policy that allows interviewees to request the removal of their data at any time.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 4-8)

Women’s Activism as Embodied Geopolitics

As Cynthia Enloe has famously argued, “the international is personal” and “the personal is international” (Enloe 2014: 351). Although feminist approaches have highlighted the gendered and embodied dimensions of geopolitics and international relations, the ways in which geopolitics shapes women’s activism and what these reveal about international politics remain relatively understudied. Meanwhile, a substantial literature has documented women’s organizations and movements in the Middle East and North Africa, their goals, strategies, philosophies/ideologies, and activities, but has tended to neglect the geopolitical consequences of women’s activism. Moreover, there has been a tendency to view women’s activism in terms of its resistance or opposition to dominant power at different scales and the forms of violence with which it is associated. I argue that women activists are illuminating subjects of research because their experiences necessarily straddle the private and the public; the personal and the political; and the local, the national, and even the international. This is particularly the case for many of the women whom I interviewed for this book. They have participated in struggles against colonialism, imperialism, war, and dictatorship; dealt with the aftermath of violence, conflict, and displacement; and simultaneously negotiated the politics of gender and sexuality in their homes, workplaces, communities, and beyond. Therefore, I argue that their embodied experiences and agency provide a window into the ways in which power relations at multiple scales intersect and play out, illuminating the complex and often contradictory ways in which gender is entangled in the construction and normalization of different geopolitical scales and wider relations of power. However, I do not conceptualize women’s activism as necessarily resistance to or separate from geopolitical power; rather, I understand it as a crucial part of the circuits of gendered power that circulate at multiple scales, from the personal to the international—that is, as a form of embodied geopolitics.

This section theorizes women’s activism as embodied geopolitics by elaborating how geopolitics shapes women’s activism and how women’s activism shapes geopolitics. In this regard, I emphasize the multiscalar and gendered nature of geopolitics and, hence, the geopolitical implications of activism that transforms or seeks to transform gender relations and norms. Here, I understand gender as discursively constructed and as embodied by living beings. In addition, I underline the need to dismantle the binary of resistance/compliance in understanding the relationship between women’s activism and dominant geopolitical structures.

How does geopolitics shape women’s activism? Women’s activism occurs within geopolitical spaces and structures that provide opportunities, challenges, and limitations for women activists. For the most part, women’s activism is located within the political boundaries of the state and is shaped by the respective state’s policies and laws as well as significant national events, such as, wars, disasters, and economic crises. Women’s activism may also be targeted at entities other than the nation state, such as the United Nations or the European Union. Rather than viewing the nation state and other geographic scales as pregiven, feminist scholars have drawn attention to the ways in which these geopolitical constructs are dependent upon the production of gendered boundaries that distinguish the domestic from the foreign, the inside from the outside, order from chaos, us from them, and public from private (Dowler & Sharp 2001; Enloe 2014; Grewal and Kaplan 1994; Peterson 1992b; Pettman 1996; Tickner 1992; Youngs 1996; Yuval-Davis 1997). These gendered boundaries are reproduced through a variety of state policies and laws, not only foreign policies but also laws governing marriage, divorce, and nationality, with differential implications for women’s mobility (Yuval-Davis 1997). Moreover, such laws and policies serve to shape particular norms of femininity and masculinity that are essential to the reproduction of states and nations as well as practices of militarization and diplomacy (Enloe 2014, 1993, 2000, 2007; Parpart and Zalewski 2008; Peterson and Runyan 2010; Rai 2002). These gender norms, in turn, regulate women’s behavior, including their activism.

Given the significance of gender to the operation of geopolitical power and the construction of dominant geopolitical categories, it follows that embodied geopolitics not only includes those activities targeting conventional sites of geopolitics, such as governments and international organizations, or ‘big geopolitical’ themes, such as, war, foreign policy, or revolution, but also activism that transforms or seeks to transform gender norms and gender relations, including state laws and policies that regulate them. In this respect, the book documents activists’ efforts to reform legislation and policies that enshrine gender discrimination as well as considering how their advocacy is “framed” (Benford and Snow 2000) in relation to dominant geopolitical constructs and power. This assessment is dependent upon an understanding of the specific geopolitical context of the MENA, as will be discussed in the next section.

The book also understands activism that targets conventional sites of geopolitics as also potentially transformative of gender relations and norms, even if this is not its stated aim. Activism entails embodied performances of gender norms that have implications for the organization and normalization of geopolitical power. As already noted, dominant geopolitical structures and processes depend upon the successful production of particular notions of femininities and masculinities. Drawing on Judith Butler’s notion of the performativity of gender (1999: xxiv), gender is conceptualized as “always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to preexist the deed” (Butler 1999: 33). Just as ordinary men and women are constituted through hegemonic discourses of gender, so is hegemonic gender reproduced by ordinary women and men repeatedly performing the “correct” gender—through “the stylization of the body . . . bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds” (Butler 1999: 179). By contrast, refusal by women and men to enact hegemonic gender exposes gender as “a politically tenuous construction” (Butler 1999: 179), which, in turn, threatens the successful reproduction of the geopolitical order that is dependent upon it. Hence, women’s activism that “interrupts normative orders and activates competing ones through imagination, symbolism, and enactment” (Hasso and Salime 2016b: 4) should be considered in terms of a “corporeality of dissent” (Hafez 2019: 134).

In conceptualizing the relationship between women’s activism and geopolitics, it is essential that women’s activism should not be reduced to acts of resistance and transgression. Kimberly Hutchings (2013) warns against efforts to insist upon the existence of a “revolutionary subject” as a prerequisite for a feminist politics, arguing instead for a feminism that accepts pluralism. Meanwhile, women may also reinscribe power relations and uphold hegemonic gender norms (Abu-Lughod 1990; Kandiyoti 1988; Mahmood 2005). Moreover, given that women’s activism may have effects at multiple geopolitical scales, from the personal to the international, it is impossible to understand it through a binary prism of resistance or compliance. Women’s activism may resist and comply with dominant power structures at different geopolitical scales simultaneously. For example, women’s use of motherhood and maternal politics to protest human rights abuses (among others, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina) and militarism (among others, the Greenham Common base women) constitute the performance of their gender identity in accord with dominant notions of femininity. Yet, simultaneously, these women subvert this gender identity by transposing it from the private sphere to an overtly political space that challenges the legitimacy of the state’s monopoly on violence. This resignification may further expand the space for women’s activism, creating incremental changes in gender norms rather than radical ruptures. Similarly, as this book reveals, much women’s activism has taken the form of welfare and charitable work, which has been performative of dominant gender norms of female respectability as well as class privilege. Yet, in particular historical and geopolitical contexts, such as during the period of colonial rule and the geopolitical upheavals following the 1967 war, this work was resignified as part of political movements challenging the geopolitical order. While women’s participation in such activities might be viewed as reproducing a gendered and classed public sphere, the resignification of their social activism as political/nationalist may simultaneously function to reconceptualize the political (Richter-Devroe 2012), with implications for geopolitical order.

This book demonstrates the need to go beyond conceptualizing women’s activism as either resistance to orreproduction of the dominant geopolitical order, including the gender norms and gendered hierarchies that underpin it. It is necessary to be attentive to time and space at multiple scales in order to understand the geopolitical effects of women’s agency. Women’s activism may at once disrupt and reproduce the dominant (gendered) geopolitical order through their embodied performances of gender as well as the modes and discursive framing of the objectives of their activism. However, in order to assess the disruptive and reproductive effects of women’s activism, it is necessary to understand the relationship between geopolitics and gender in the specific context of the MENA region, as the next section examines further.