Gender and Citizenship in Middle Eastern States

by Suad Joseph
published in MER198

The debate on citizenship in the Middle East was preceded by and now parallels the debate on civil society. In the West, discussion on these subjects often assumes Middle Eastern countries are incapable of sustaining democratic relations between state and society. [1] The citizenship debate questions the capacities of Middle Eastern governments to allow or enable their members to participate actively in the political process. Despite the burgeoning of these debates, most theorists have neglected or glossed over the issue of gender. [2]

The concept of citizenship has been gendered from its origins in the Middle East, as elsewhere. Despite the fact that constitutions have been written in the (gender-neutral) language of the universal citizen, state institutions and political processes have presumed the citizen to be male and females to be dependent second-class members of the political community. For example, nowhere in the Middle East, were women given the vote as early as men, and in some countries women still remain disenfranchised. Likewise, women have struggled for the right to own businesses or travel without permission of fathers and husbands, rights still denied women in certain countries. The socio-cultural and political converge in areas of law where women have inherited less than men, have been considered lesser legal witnesses than men, and often have not had legal rights to initiate divorce or maintain custody of their children. Social welfare legislation gives citizens’ benefits often on the basis of participation in the labor market, making women who are not employed dependent on working men. It is important to note, however, that gender bias in citizens’ rights is not unique to the Middle East. Indeed, the absence of such bias is the exception around the world. [3]

The centrality of gender in contemporary struggles for citizenship rights is attributable, in part, to the achievements of domestic and international women’s and human rights movements. Yet women, minorities and the poor often have been accorded status in politics at moments when public institutions have begun to lose socio-political and economic robustness. Historically disempowered groups have attained some levels of success in their struggles for rights at moments when nation-states as sites of power have begun to suffer serious challenges. Power is shifting from national to multinational and global organizations whose authority and agendas are removed from the direct reach of national citizens.

The nation-state, however, remains a site of strategic importance to women, as well as minority groups. It is here where these groups gain or lose crucial legal and political protections against other political communities, patriarchies, and religious and secular non-democratic forces. Often women have nowhere other than the state to turn for protection from domestic violence, familial coercion, discriminatory religious practices, and the oppression of oppositional political parties or movements. The nation-state model remains the central arena for those concerned with rights and responsibilities embodied in the notion of citizenship. Women in the Middle East lobby for rights already offered to men, such as the right to pass citizenship on to their children, to be able to vote and to own their own businesses. In many Middle Eastern societies women lobby the state for a secular family code to free them from discriminatory religious codes. In analyzing the struggles over citizenship and the gendering of those struggles, the challenge is to identify and explain their specificities and continuities while de-essentializing [4] the constructs of the Middle East as a region, its states or its peoples. Eschewing stereotypical notions of gender is also a challenge.

Gender captures only one axis of women’s interests and identifications. Other relevant axes include, variously, class, race, ethnicity, religion, kin and other status differentials (such as age and marriage). People’s locations in these various networks affect their relationship to the state. Femaleness, therefore, is not a uniquely bounded and self-referential category, nor is gender a simple dichotomy. [5]

De-essentializing the Middle East

The Middle East, a geographic construct developed by European powers and scholars for political purposes, includes the Arab countries of North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean, plus Iran, Turkey, Israel and, at times, Afghanistan and Cyprus. Orientalist scholars have tended to reify the region -- assuming the existence of a stable set of cultural characteristics that unify the region transhistorically. But the region does not share a common culture, language, political boundary or vision; the region has many cultures that have continually changed. Even Islam, the predominant religion, which Orientalists and the heirs of their modernization theory have projected as the region’s defining feature, is highly diversified and does not constitute a unifying culture or cohesive community.

Contributors to this issue assess the nature and significance of religion (Islam, Christianity and Judaism) and national identity (Arab, Turkish, Iranian and Israeli) in the gendering of citizenship. In some contexts, gendered citizenship dynamics emerge from the political privileging of the family as a unit and the legal privileging within families of males over females. Some gendered citizenship issues result from the entrenching of religious communities and the legal authority of religious leaders over their members. In some contexts, inequities result from the articulation and conflation of gender with discourses of family and religion as maintained or advanced by the state. Some patterns, however, are consistent with patriarchy, class, state or colonial dynamics in other regions.

De-essentializing States and Nations

Often feminist and minority rights groups see the state as a unified entity with a coherent set of interests and agendas. Such notions lead to strategies that are constructed both rhetorically and politically as oppositional, with the state seen as external to society and the perpetrator of oppression. Less often, although more useful, the state is seen as composed of different, conflicting sets of interests that are embedded within communities and that reflect conflicts and contradictions within local, national and global contexts. [6] For women, however, the institutional unity of the state remains relevant in light of the laws, rights and responsibilities of citizenship that the state accords. Like the state, women are at some level unified as a homogeneous category defined by their sex, and as such are comparably located in relationship to state-provided rights and protections. Nevertheless, this unity among women is circumscribed by the same factors that circumscribe the unity of the state; the conflicting interests within the state may parallel conflicts among women of different social positions or groups.

Issues of gender and citizenship, however, are not limited to legal issues, but also raise issues of practice, specifically the practices that comprise governance. What the law affords in principle and what women experience in practice is often quite different. Analyzing the role of the state in mediating citizenship rights requires seeing the multiple and conflicting interests represented and embodied in the state, as well as recognizing the often contradictory practices carried out by the various agencies and agents of the state in relationship to women.

In the modem nation-state, citizenship is a modality of rights and duties. [7] The realities of nationhood, however, reveal complexities that cannot be confined within the boundaries of the universal citizen. People identify as members of multiple social groups, many of which do not correspond to the boundaries of the national community. Nation-states may differentiate among their members, formally or informally, by class, race, ethnicity and religion, as well as gender.

Women have been crucial in establishing and maintaining the boundaries of nations and are often made into the symbolic markers of the nation itself. This is evident by the institutions and processes nations subsidize to ensure control over women’s reproduction, maternal rights, productivity and wealth. Laws regulating marriage, naturalization, inheritance and property are among the formal means nations use to define and defend the boundaries of their communities. Even women’s dress codes, such as the veil, can become embroiled in the struggles over nationhood. The fact that Middle Eastern states allow men to pass citizenship on to their children and their non-national wives but do not allow women the same is further indication of the ways in which women are equated with the reproduction of the nation. On another level, rape as a weapon of international warfare becomes an even more violent and charged act precisely because of the conflation of women with nation and national boundaries.

The use of women -- or more particularly their status and relations with others -- in competing claims to modernity and tradition is further evidence of the symbolic centrality of women as markers of the nation. Modernizing regimes in Turkey, Iraq and Iran, for example, focused on educating women, bringing them into the labor market, transforming their appearance and integrating them into the political process as emblems of the successful transformation of their nation-states. But modernity is often judged by Western standards and thus success is always tempered by the perceived relevance of non-Western features. Islamic fundamentalism has been, in part, a response to “Westernizing” processes by using women’s bodies as sites for assertions of cultural authenticity, further reinscribing women’s symbolic and real importance in definitions of the nation.

When women are used as icons of the nation, they often become captive to patriarchal structures and ideologies. [8] Patriarchy has entailed the privileging of males and elders and the justification of those privileges in and through kinship. [9] The symbolic equation of women with nation often leads to the subordination of actual women through calls for the preservation of “traditional” families, codes of ethics, values and conduct. At times, the preservation of the nation results in moves to assume greater control over women than had existed in some imagined past.

Individual or Communal Citizenship

In the liberal construct of citizenship dominant in most Western countries, the unit of society is the individualized citizen, not the family or any other collectivity. Individuals, not collectivities, are the bearers of rights and responsibilities vis-à-vis the state. The citizen as an individual is assumed to have -- at least ideally -- no identities and loyalties to other collectivities that compare with those to the nation-state. [10] Individual citizens are seen as having equal access and rights to a neutral state, which does not differentiate among its members on the basis of race, gender, class, ethnicity or religion.

Most Middle Eastern constitutions articulate notions of the individualized citizen, but also include constructs of citizens as members of subnational communities. Middle Eastern states, thus, tend not to construct citizenship exclusively or primarily as individualized. Citizens, in various ways, are formally recognized as members of family units, religious sects, ethnic, tribal or other subnational groups.

It is often in relation to women that Middle Eastern constitutions and laws evoke the importance of subnational collectivities that are constructed by and around male-headed families. Women are brought into the nation-state as appendages of husbands and fathers. That children come to have citizenship through their fathers and not their mothers in many Middle Eastern societies further reinforces the connection between fathers and national citizenship.

One reason citizenship is often dependent on familial membership is that patriarchy weaves together civil society, state, market and family in Middle Eastern societies, subverting the separations and boundaries that Western theorists argue are necessary for democracy. Discussions of community in relation to citizenship are often divorced from discussions of patriarchy, yet patriarchies are central to the social organization of almost all Middle Eastern subnational and national communities. Women are recognized and addressed as citizens in the context of their positions within patriarchal structures, as subordinate mothers, wives, children or siblings. As their relationship to the state is often mediated through family ties, women are often conflated with children as mutually dependent upon men. To the extent that women are recognized as valued members of society, their value is often abstracted and depicted in terms of their familial roles and sacrifices, notably as mothers. Given the importance of family in patriarchal structures, women are expected to continue to prioritize their subordinate familial roles even when they achieve public status as individuals, including, in some cases, powerful public positions. [11]

The formal or informal incorporation of subnational communities into nation-state discourse and practice powerfully reinscribes Middle Eastern patriarchies in a manner less evident in the Western liberal conception of nation-state premised upon the individualized citizen. Personal status laws (family codes that regulate marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody) remain one of the most crucial legal arenas in which Middle Eastern states formally incorporate one form of subnational community -- religious sects -- into juridical communities. All Middle East states except Turkey and Tunisia defer personal status issues to legally recognized religious authorities, subjecting women to the patriarchal control of male relatives and clerics in their communities. In some Middle Eastern states, large communities, religious and ethnic, have become the legal institutional structures through which persons become members of the nation-state. In Lebanon, for instance, parliamentary seats are allocated on the basis of an assumed distribution of religious sects in the population. Sect membership is indicated on citizen identity cards.

Communities are problematic bases for citizenship and representation also because they are not coherent, bounded or fixed entities. Internally differentiated by class, status, region, religion, ethnicity, race and gender, subnational communities are not necessarily held together by shared mutual interests. While still valuing communities, fixed political rights or obligations should not be seen as based on community membership.

The tendency to essentialize, fix, bound and naturalize the community intensifies when control over women is at stake, as is the case in personal status laws. Empowering the subnational community can be a way of disempowering women by locking them into gender hierarchies. Several Middle Eastern state constitutions specify the family as the core unit of society, thus reinforcing patriarchal structures that further entrap women. Crucial questions for women, then, are whether community membership is voluntary or mandatory, whether there are legal alternatives to the juridical powers of communal institutions, and how communally based patriarchies are privileged by the state.

One way to problematize the significance of communities is to view them as hierarchically ordered yet fluid sets of relationships. Community-based relationships are shifting, situational and changing. The meaning of community, for those who claim or are assigned membership, also changes continually. For example, a Maronite woman may think of herself as a member of her family or village in relation to another Maronite, as a Maronite in relation to a Greek Orthodox, as a Christian in relation to a Druze, as a Lebanese in relation to a Syrian, or as an Arab in relation to an Israeli Jew. Given the enduring and in some ways positive significance of communities, it is critical for women to negotiate their relations within them, while continuing to negotiate their relations as individuals in the broader national context.

Citizenship and Religion

Religious identity is intimately tied to citizenship rights in most Middle Eastern countries, regardless of the dominant religion. With the rise of religious fundamentalism, one of the most embattled zones in the contest between state and religious communities appears to be over women’s bodies and women’s rights. These struggles are as evident in Israel, which is predominantly Jewish, and Lebanon, which has a heterodox constituency, as they are in predominantly Muslim Middle Eastern countries. Some states have directly or indirectly fostered religious movements (Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia) or ceded authority to religious institutions in key areas, such as personal status laws (Israel, Lebanon, Kuwait). In such cases, women’s individual rights are often sacrificed in the interest of an alliance between national and religious forces.

Most Middle Eastern states, excluding Turkey and Tunisia but including Israel, have either elevated religious codes to state law or deferred personal status laws to religious courts. In most instances, these laws also mediate women’s primary rights as citizens through their roles as mothers and wives, and the family as the basic social political unit sanctifying sectarian definitions of these roles and obligations. In the process, the state prioritizes religious membership and law over civil membership or secular law in the sphere most crucial to women. This intersection of religion, state and patriarchy further reinforces communalist views of citizenship that tend to diminish women’s roles and rights as citizens.

Patriarchy and Kinship

Gender, kinship and patriarchy are related but relatively autonomous relational networks. By considering them separately, we can see more effectively the operations of the multiple systems that discriminate against women. It is the conflation of gender and kinship, and the patriarchal structuring of kinship that allows people to view women in terms of family, and states to mediate their relationship to women through their roles as mothers and wives. This conflation facilitates the recognition, valorization and entitlement of women primarily in relation to the ways in which they are different from men. This differs radically from the construct of citizenship as individualized and the idea of democracy as a political order premised on the sameness and equality among citizens. The problem is reconciling sexual/gender differences with the principle of gender-blind equality. Middle Eastern women do not suffer this contradiction alone; it characterizes feminist debates around the world.

While the state may impose gendered roles and rights, women also take on these roles and actively assert these rights -- as mothers, wives, workers. This is brutally observed in areas of gendered violence. States are often reticent to intervene in cases of domestic violence, most of which is practiced against women. In other instances, state agents use rape as an instrument of war and social control in order to assert patriarchal domination or assault the integrity of political opponents.

Civil Society

Little of the now extensive feminist literature on gender and civil society has been engaged in Middle Eastern debates on citizenship. With few exceptions, [12] those who analyze Middle Eastern societies have overlooked the gendering of the paradigms and the practices associated with the state/society relationship. As Carole Pateman has vividly documented, civil society discourses in Western Europe were gendered and patriarchal from their inception. [13] As these discourses have been adopted in the Middle East, gendered Western constructs of citizenship have been wedded to gendered Middle Eastern discourses. In few Middle Eastern countries could one argue that the relationships among civil society, the state and subnational groupings are not reproducing and reinforcing patriarchies. Neither could one readily argue that Middle Eastern countries are immune from seepage of patriarchal influences from other arenas. The international order also bolsters patriarchies in local and national contexts.

The binaries of public/private or civil society/state that are often central in liberal political discourses on democracy do not readily apply to most Middle Eastern countries and arguably misrepresent political dynamics in the West. [14] While many scholars have lamented the lack of differentiation among these spheres, [15] few have recognized the systematic role patriarchy plays in weaving the domains together.

In many Middle Eastern countries, family and kinship relations are privileged in both the state and civil society. They represent primary means of access to resources. They are continually reproduced by political leaders who favor their own kin for public positions and political support. They are evident wherever relatives help each other locate resources in state institutions, and where states give political legitimacy to kin relationships in the body politic. So strong is the kinship idiom in many Middle Eastern societies that people fabricate kin relations to get and give access to resources.

Having said that, I want to caution against placing undue emphasis upon family. We cannot assume there is a specific family form that counts as family throughout the Middle East or even within one of these societies. In most societies there are diverse family and household forms, despite hegemonic ideologies.

The civil society debate focuses on the existence and autonomy of non-governmental organizations. Women’s organizations in the Middle East are often organized by the state, run by ruling family or elite members and dominated by family relations. At times, women’s organizations are merely extensions of the ruling political parties. [16] In such instances, autonomy is compromised.

Entitlements, Gifts or Market Values

Where membership in subnational communities is crucial for membership in the nation, sectarian or traditional leaders often become the spokesmen and representatives vis-à-vis other communities or the state. This presents problems for women because it is premised on various forms of patron-client relationships. Consequently, the relationships between individuals and the state are represented, experienced and mediated through communal leaders.

These patron-client relationships, widespread in Mediterranean societies, foster a notion of citizen rights as charity or gifts. Citizens come to have rights in such systems of distribution not because they are accorded and entitled to equality by virtue of their individualized citizenship but because of specific sets of personalized relationships of unequal exchange. At times patrons can be other women or women’s organizations that are appendages of the state or elite men’s organizations. The conflict in Kuwait between elite women’s organizations, which see their offerings as charity, and middle class women’s organizations lobbying for women’s rights as citizens, is symptomatic of the tension between patron-client and individualized citizenship forms of representation. Such patron-client forms are characteristic of, but not exclusive to, political communities that institutionalize and preserve the relevance of subnational communities.

The struggle over citizenship in Palestine crystallizes further tensions between different social sectors. Proposals for social legislation in Palestine would link citizens’ rights to welfare, pension and medical benefits to their labor contributions. Thus the dichotomy between the “employed” and the “unemployed,” a distinction which is highly gendered, becomes relevant to the discourse of political rights for citizens. Because women are underrepresented in the formal labor market, the access to these rights for most women would be mediated through their relationships with fathers and husbands who are employed. Women’s social contributions to the reproduction of the citizenry and the labor force as wives and mothers, under these proposals, would not entitle them to direct benefits from the state. This market-based notion of citizenship would systematically discriminate against women as individuals and as a collectivity. The implication is that families can care for their members. Family-based networks and support systems are severely stressed and unstable sites for rights, however, and further reinforce local patriarchies. Similarly, women in Kuwait are allocated housing, child allowances and welfare assistance only through their relationship to male heads of households. From the 1970s, Iraq, by contrast, allowed women to receive housing, child allowances and welfare benefits if they were the main breadwinners in their families.

Constructs of Self

In the liberal tradition, citizenship is an attribute of the individual and the individual is the bearer of rights. This notion requires people to be individuals, thus generating a historically and culturally specific construct of self Carole Pateman calls this citizen the “contractual self.” The psychodynamic implications of these terms, it can be argued, assume the contractual self as masculine. I would add that the individualized, contractual self is also Western-centric, white and class-privileged.

I have suggested elsewhere that there are numerous constructs of selfhood cross-culturally and within any one culture. [17] In Lebanon, a widely supported construct of selfhood (not unique or exclusive to Lebanon) is relational; it is constructed and maintained in reference to specific connections with others. This construct of selfhood is linked to a relational notion of rights. Relational rights are generated by and embedded in significant relationships; one comes to have rights by having relationships with people who have access to resources and privileges. [18] Citizenship in a society where connective selfhood is fostered and relational rights are practiced entails investing in relationships that provide certain forms of access. Citizens in Lebanon often exercise and experience their rights by knowing people upon whom they can make claims and who are situated to serve as providers or links to providers. This is a very different notion of rights than that assumed in the liberal construct, where rights inhere in the autonomous individual.

Not only are there different relationships to the state because of subject positions defined by gender, ethnicity, race, class and religion as relevant structural categories within society, but there are also different relationships to the state based on constructs of selfhood embodied in what it means to be a citizen and the varying practices of drawing on and exercising rights. Different constructs of selfhood intersect in complex ways with gender, race, class, ethnicity and religion. Perhaps by individuating, certain persons lose or compromise their rights. It could also be that the structured subordination of the individual within collectivities causes certain persons to lose or compromise their rights in national and global arenas.

The twentieth century opened and now is closing with highly energized debates on gender and citizenship. The issue promises to remain heated well into the twenty-first century.


[1] Yahya Sadowski, “The New Orientalism and the Democracy Debate,” Middle East Report 183 (July-August 1993).
[2] Suad Joseph, “Gender and Civil Society: An Interview with Suad Joseph,” Middle East Report 183 (July-August 1993).
[3] See Chantal Mouffe, “Liberal Socialism and Pluralism: Which Citizenship?” in J . Squires, ed., Principled Positions (London: Laurence and Wishart, 1991); Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988); Anne Phillips, Democracy and Difference (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993); Anne Showstack Sassoon, ed. Women and State: The Shifting Boundaries of Public and Private (London: Hutchinson, 1987); Wendy Sarvarsy, “From Man and Philanthropic Service to Feminist Social Citizenship,” Social Politics 113 (Fall 1993); Patricia Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991); Iris Young, “Polity and Group Difference: A Critique of the Ideal of Universal Citizenship,” Ethics 99 (1989); Nira Yuval-Davis, “The Citizenship Debate: Women, Ethnic Processes and the State,” Feminist Review 39 (1991); Nira Yuval-Davis, “Citizenship and Difference,” paper presented at the University of California, Davis, 1995; Sonia Alvarez, Engendering Democracy in Brazil (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990).
[4] To de-essentialize is to recognize that categories are fluid and changeable, and may shift in their meaning in relation to changing historical, geographical and cultural contexts.
[5] See Yuval-Davis, “Citizenship and Difference.”
[6] Tim Mitchell, “The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and their Critics,” American Political Science Review 85/1 (March 1991).
[7] See Sami Zubaida, Islam, the People and the State: Essays on Political Ideas and Movements in the Middle East (London: Routledge, 1989).
[8] See Deniz Kandiyoti, “The End of Empire: Islam, Nationalism and Women in Turkey,” in Kandiyoti, ed., Women, Islam and the State (New York: MacMillan, 1991).
[9] Suad Joseph, “Problematizing Gender and Relational Rights: Experiences from Lebanon,” Social Politics 113 (Fall 1994).
[10][10] See Yuval-Davis, “Citizenship and Difference”; and Zubaida, lslam, the People and the State.
[11] Suad Joseph, “The Mobilization of Iraqi Women Into the Wage Labor Force,” Studies in Third World Societies 16 (1982).
[12] See “Gender and Civil Society, An Interview with Suad Joseph,”; Suad Joseph, “Women Between Nation and State in Lebanon,” in Norma Alarcon, Caren Caplan and Minoo Moallem, eds., Between Women and Nation: Feminism and Global Issues (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, forthcoming); Hisham Sharabi, Neopatriarchy: A Theory of Distorted Change in Arab Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); Yuval-Davis, “Citizenship and Difference.”
[13] Pateman, The Sexual Contract.
[14] Mary Dietz, “Context Is All: Feminism and Theories of Citizenship,” Daedalus 116/4 (1987).
[15] For a review of this issue, see Sadowski, “The New Orientalism and the Democracy Debate.”
[16] Suad Joseph, “Elite Strategies for State Building: Women, Family, Religion and State in Iraq and Lebanon” in Kandiyoti, op cit.
[17] “Gender and Civil Society, An Interview with Suad Joseph.”
[18] Joseph, “Problematizing Gender and Relational Rights.”

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