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Report from Beirut, Day 2

As the conference progressed, the divisions and disagreements deepened, but at the same time it was clear that shared political perspectives were not only emerging but becoming enriched by the conversations. First the disagreements, inevitable – and necessary – in any political gathering. There were tensions between participants from the Gulf countries and others from Lebanon, Egypt, and to some extent North Africa. The extraordinary wealth and conspicuous ‘development’ of the Gulf region is often experienced as threatening to other Arab countries which in turn look down on their rich neighbours because they lack the historical, social and cultural sophistication of the Mediterranean societies. Not that this was an issue here, but it provided a context for misunderstanding. More significant was the split between secular and religious feminisms. One panel devoted to this, all in Arabic so difficult to follow in detail, led to the most heated and sparky discussion. Because I was following over the headset I don’t want to attribute names to comments in case I didn’t hear the nuances, so this is a summary: There were some - mostly older secular feminists - who stated clearly that there is no Islamic feminist movement: all Islamic feminists are part of a hierarchical patriarchal structure serving masculinist agendas, in service of religious clerics and ulamas. Those who believe there is such a movement are deluded, it doesn’t exist. Secularists pointed out that it was dangerous to accept the idea of Islamic feminism or any other religious feminism. It was important to keep them apart as it could have negative consequences. Others were less adamant about this: ‘We haven’t adequately addressed the link between working women and feminism and the importance of class; religion occupies a hugely important place for working class women.’ ‘There are over one billion Muslim women in the world. The may have misinterpretations of Islam but you can’t just tell them they are mistaken – we do need to change the texts.’ This last point about reinterpretation of texts followed a presentation by a distinguished proponent of Islamic feminism from the Women and Memory Forum in Cairo (which was one of the co-organisers of the conference)

Omaima Abu Bakr who spoke about ‘Themes and Directions in Muslim Feminist Thought’. Her work must be seen in the context of tackling Personal Status laws and Sharia across the region. There are many examples of women activists employing feminist interpretations of religious texts to argue for changes to divorce laws and laws on married women and property, for example. In a way it was surprising that there was such hostility to the idea that feminists could identify as Islamic, arguing from within a religious discourse. Omaima emphasised that she always called for alliances between Islamic and secular feminists, and Christians as well. Justice and equality were central to Sharia – either concept on its own was not useful – this was a theme that emerged throughout the conference. One of the Indian participants, KumKum Sangari, suggested: ‘we need to know more about regionalism and the different histories of Islamic practices. We don’t have to think of Islam as always standardising and homogenising – look at the heterodox Sufi movements eg. Is it a project to get feminists to adapt to things as they are, or is it a transformative practice to change things that oppress women? If the latter, then this involves conflict. How will it make things easier to have Islamic feminism, rather than a feminism that seeks to address these questions? The afternoon panel covered a very different area of politics. Called ‘Globalization and Colonial Feminism’ it began with a fascinating account of Oprah’s popularity among Arab women audiences across the region, given by Amina El-Annan, who is doing her phd at Yale.

This raised many questions about US cultural power, mediated by a personality who was a complex cipher of contradictory aspects of femininity. Next was a riveting critique of the gendering of the contemporary counter-insurgency agenda, by Laleh Khalili of SOAS. One point stayed in my mind: during the 2008-9 attack on Gaza, only women and children were counted as civilian casualties. Men were not counted as civilians. Alan Dershowitz was reported as saying, since women supported their men, only babies could really be counted as civilian casualties of the war. Laleh analysed the female foreign policy advisers in the White House: Samantha Power and Sarah Sewell. Eilleen Kuttab of Bir Zeit University examined the way that feminist and civil society programmes were determined in accordance with international politics, funded by UN agencies. The ‘trickle down’’ approach had led to a conformity of agendas. The effect of Beijing had led to local issues being left out in favour of the issues identified as globally important – eg women’s rights and human rights, adapted to UN agendas. Funded bodies were being forced to learn skills like report writing, where the format was more important than the content. She asked: how can we talk about women’s rights in a society where there is no rule of law, in a militarised society? Loans have increased the burden on women. Tackling women’s rights should be done in a general framework without abstracting from the local context. Shahrzad Mojab from the University of Toronto detailed the work of the US based Independent Women’s Forum (http://www.iwf.org/) an organisation that provides so-called leadership and training to women. Her account of their pernicious influence in Iraq (as ‘colonial feminists’) was extraordinary; she drew attention to the rise of anti-feminism percolating through democracy training under ‘reconstruction’ but argued that women there were not passively receiving funds, but had to dare to criticise NGOs that were part of the reconstruction package (http://www.iwf.org/publications/show/20943.html)
 
Finally (and obv the reason why this panel is recounted in more detail) it was my turn. I discussed the way that literature had become part of the war on terror, linking this to other themes of the conference, such as: how do art and culture effect social change? Using the Saudi best seller ‘Girls of Riyadh’, published in over 20 languages, as an example, I drew attention to the convergence of public diplomacy with the global publishing industry, and agreed with Laleh that the counter-insurgency policy makers were obsessed with the ‘democratic bulge’ of youth in the region, and the possibilities of reaching ‘hearts and minds’ through the new media environment.