Women and War in the Middle East: Transnational Perspectives

Al Ali, Nadje
Pratt, Nicola
Zed Books, London, 2009, ISBN 978 1 84813 1859, 285 pp
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Orla Rodgers
CENDEP, Oxford Brookes University, UK

Women and War in the Middle East could be described as an appeal to feminists, scholars, activists, and practitioners to ‘gender our perspectives and approaches to include power relationships and structures as well as shifting notions of femininity and masculinity’ (p. 4). This cry is embedded within the contributors’ arguments, their feminist ideology both evident and convincingly argued.

Coherently structured into three parts, comprising seven chapters, this book explores the transnational dimensions of war, post-conflict transitions, women’s activism, and peace building in the Middle East. What originated as a collection of ideas at the ‘Eighth Mediterranean Social and Political Research Meeting’ held in Italy in March 2007 has become a critical examination of NGO gender-mainstreaming policies. The contributors are a collection of multidisciplinary academics, concerned to convey the harsh realities of war and the roles that women play in post-war reconstruction, based upon a self-critical analysis in relation to feminist theory and well-balanced arguments.

Oral testimonies by women of Iraq and Palestine provide a welcome contrast to the complexities of the accompanying academic theory and argument, clearly showing the realities of occupation. Many of the arguments are positively optimistic, encouraging further exploration of gender and transnational relationships, while other contributors refer to the factors that are preventing women’s empowerment in the Occupied Territories, and the developmental challenges that they pose.

The first section assesses the role of global processes related to US empire building and neo-liberalism in restructuring gender relations that in turn redefine woman’s activism (p. 22). Peterson’s contribution opens the debate from an economic stance, inviting the reader into the world of ‘gendered informal economies’. What is revealed through Peterson’s examination is the ‘extent to which gendered divisions of authority, labour and power structure these economies’, essentially producing a hierarchy that ‘devalorizes women’ (p. 57). Peterson attacks donor agencies, both governmental and intergovernmental, for being actively involved in promoting neo-liberalism through their policies. The analysis expands on what this contributor describes as ‘combat and criminal economies’ emerging in occupied Iraq. The warning to feminists in Peterson’s conclusion is all too familiar to those who have read around the subject area of gender: ‘extensive scholarship on conflict, war and terrorism continues to ignore or marginalize the politics of gendered ideologies . . . this is no less true of the war in Iraq’. What the analysis lacks, however, are recommendations to ‘address how gendered ideologies, identities and activities affect operations of power’ (p. 57), although these are addressed by other contributors. Although original in thinking, this chapter is unfortunately bogged down in academic /economic jargon, so the reader will be relieved by what is to come.

The contribution of Al Ali and Pratt to the first part of the book outlines the implications of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq for Iraqi women, considering gender relations and transnational feminism, drawing on interviews with women who remained in Iraq and with others who dispersed to locations across the globe. They argue that the Bush Administration purposely forged links with women who had left Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s regime, as part of a propaganda effort to justify the invasion. They maintain that US promotion of women’s human rights was essentially empty rhetoric, which was revealed in US support for a new legal and political system in Iraq that excludes women from participating in the formation of the constitution and contributes to the erosion of women’s rights.

Few commentators have alluded to the fact that the women of Iraq were deliberately instrumentalised as a means of implicitly justifying the war; nor has this hitherto been explored through first-hand case studies of the experiences of women both inside the country and from the diaspora. These women’s voices help to establish why the title of Part One – ‘Gendering the Neoliberal Imperial Project’ – truly matters, and they enhance the credibility and originality of the arguments put forward. As one woman says: ‘I am under no illusion that the Americans did this for us, for Iraqis. They want our oil and they want to control our region’ (p. 93).

Devroe’s contribution to dealing with the failures of joint peace initiatives provides potential solutions: ‘In the Palestinian context peace-building solidarity needs to follow the joint political agenda of opposing and resisting occupation . . . such a contextualised praxis-based approach to gendered peace-building offers more transformative potential than anti-essentialist post modern or anti-nationalist theoretical stance’ (p. 186).

The notion of a joint political agenda pursued both by Israeli women activists and by Palestinian women would appear naïve at best and impractical at worst, due in part to the fact that Israeli women do not encounter the economic, social, and political oppression experienced by Palestinian women.1
This argument highlights one of the book’s weaknesses: its failure to address concrete realities. The gap might have been partly filled by including contributions from grassroots practitioners, but the main tenor of the book is that of an academic, theoretical debate.

In the final section, Kamp’s chapter on ‘Fragmented citizenship: communalism, ethnicity and gender in Iraq’ illustrates one of the book’s strengths. It argues that despite gender-equality policies embedded in the 2005 constitution, the notion of Iraqi citizenship ‘strengthens patriarchal privileges’ of certain communities – privileges which apply also to the occupying power, the USA. These arguments will no doubt be explored further by other academics.

In general, the core dilemmas are conveyed well: when political alliances and transnational feminism intertwine, protecting women’s rights at a local level must underpin the success of any peace-building process. While the contributors show us that women’s basic rights have been sacrificed for the purpose of political alliances, they do not, however, demonstrate how women in these occupied regions can avoid being instrumentalised by neo-imperialist agendas. They do fully engage with the issues that underpin the discrimination against women in the Middle East, and encourage further scholars to explore the implications for men as well as for women. Overall, however, the impact of the book is limited by its academic perspective, which, while fresh, fails to explore solutions to the underlying issues sufficiently and thus is ultimately unsatisfying.

1. Maria Holt, ‘Palestinian women, violence and the peace process’, in Development, Women, and War: Feminist Perspectives, edited by Haleh Afshar and Deborah Eade, Kumarian Press (2004), p. 109.