Twentieth-century historians and historiography of the middle cast women, gender, and empire

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The proliferation of colonial and gender studies in the humanities and social sciences during the past decade invites critical reflection on how these fields have transformed-or could potentially transform-the historiographies of the modern Middle East and North Africa. As scholars armed with novel methodologies, questions, and theoretical perspectives scrutinize anew the histories of European empires, older interpretations have proven unsatisfactory. Classic notions of unidire(..1ional and univalent mere-patrie-colony relations-the center-periphery modelhave been decentered. Colonial encounters-political, economic, cultural, and ideological-now appear as multidirectional, if uneven, exchanges between colonies and metrop01es as well as among various colonial possessions worldwide. One major change is that historians now pose cultural questions about the most basic elements of imperialism. This has resulted in the realization that empire and nation-state were part of the same historical process and that this process was deeply gendered. Another conse- quence of the cultural approach to imperialism is that scholars now work on all three sides of the colonial equation-the colonizer, the colonized, and the hybrid arrangements continually secreted by la situation colonialewhich has moved previously marginalized peoples and relationships to the foreground.1 This conceptual repositioning owes much to newer fields not solely concerned with empire, such as world history and women and gender theory. In addition, literary theory and its unruly offshoots, postcolonial theory and cultural studies, have also significantly advanced our understanding of certain aspects of imperialism. However, as some historians have observed, these two fields oft.en suffer from a theoretical "embarrass de richesse" and a corresponding penury of evidence, context, and thus historicizing.2 For the Middle East and North Africa until very recently, most writing on European interventions from 1798 to decolonization fell into the genres of either diplomatic history whose subjects were "great white men" or nationalist history with its "heroic founding fathers. ''3 Imperial and nationalist histories were seen as distinct; but in fact they hail from the same forces, traditions, and worldviews. Excised from these interrelated narratives were the losers, women, marginal folk, failed movements of protest, religious or ethnic minorities, and the hundreds of thousands of Mediterranean migrants who settled the Maghreb and Egypt from 1830 on and either preceded formal European rule or followed in its wake. Some of the conceptual shortcomings in the historiography of inlperialism in the Middle East and North Africa can be detected in the scholarship for other world regions during the age of empire. This essay does three things: First, it briefly surveys traditional or conventional scholarship on imperialism in general, and the Middle East in particular. Second, it then discusses work produced from about 1978 on, but with occasional side-long glances at other historiographies, especially research on British India and the French Empire in Indochina. It employs 1978 as a. moment of rupture associated with the publication of Orientalism but argues that Edward Said's work was part of a larger intellectual sea change. Indeed that same year proved critical for women and gender studies on the Middle East since Nikki Keddie and Lois Beck published their edited volume, Women in the Muslim World.4 Third, it considers how gender analysis and women's history has effected paradigm shifts in older understandings of the region's colonial moment with regard to Egypt, and above all, the Maghreb.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationMiddle East Historiographies
PublisherUniversity of Washington Press
Number of pages31
ISBN (Print)9780295986043
StatePublished - 2006

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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