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Transformations dans le genre en péninsule Arabique

Gender Transformations in the Arabian Peninsula

Tensions and Articulations in Social Relations. Introduction
Blandine Destremau, Stéphanie Latte Abdallah et Marina de Regt
Cet article est une traduction de :
Transformations dans le genre en péninsule Arabique

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1At a time when studies on gender have grown and are now more widespread, a small group of researchers around CEFAS and its director, Michel Tuchscherer, thought it would be useful to assess the state of the art and ongoing studies about gender in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. Indeed, French research about gender transformation in this part of the world is scarce and what research there is at an international level is scattered. The same could be said of the different mages of women in that region: either those, relayed by the media in Europe and America, of oppressed women (in particular by the veil and early marriage), or those that make the covers of magazines by showing off their emancipation in stark contrast with common sense expectations —luxury cars, businesses, sun glasses, travels abroad…— or, more recently, those of women shown veiled but demonstrating in the Arab streets.

  • 1 This conference was supported by CNRS, the Fonds d’Alembert, the AUF (Agence Universitaire de la fr (...)

2Although knowledge on gender in the Arabian Peninsula is scattered, studies are nevertheless relatively numerous as far as women are concerned. This was made clear during the conference entitled “Gender transformations in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa” which we organized in Cairo in November 2011 —we were unable to organize it in Yemen, as was initially planned, because of the social and political instability. A call for papers in French and English was widely circulated and thanks to our funding possibilities1 we were able to invite about thirty researchers from ten different countries, some of whom met for the first time. This conference made it possible to bring together different approaches, focusing on various topics and research questions. Most of them borrow their fieldwork methods from anthropology though they come from different disciplines (sociology, anthropology, ethnology, political science, contemporary history and literary studies).

3Gender as a concept is far from being about the study of women. However, despite our initial ambition to take into account broader gendered subjectivities, including masculinities as well as femininities and the way in which they interact, the fact that works on masculinities in this part of the world are virtually non‑existent means our review deals mostly with the study of femininities, although some of the papers in this issue do address gender relations and men’s roles, and pave the way for more research on masculinities.

4Our discussions and debates served to highlight to what extent the implementation and complex effects of state policies, development policies and globalization, in terms of ideas, exchanges and trajectories, mean women are more and more involved in the interplay of local and transnational actors, in configurations of ambivalent values. At the same time, public policies directed towards reproductive behavior or aimed at access to education affect women’s future, and more broadly gender relations in the family, in the labor market and in the workplace. The field of law shows that norms are subject to tension resulting from such transformations. This tension is amplified by the intense migratory movements which are nowadays largely feminine. Due to these on‑going processes, “how to be a man” or “how to be a woman” are hybridizing, subjectivities are evolving, and boundaries between social and ethnic groups —native citizens, foreigners, migrants, expatriates…— are blurring in spite of the fact that legal and political statuses continue to set them apart based on rather rigid categories.

  • 2 Created in 1993by the French Centre for Yemeni studies (CFEY,) which became, from 2001 onwards, CEF (...)
  • 3 According to the analyses of Goffman, 1991, and in this specific context to the works of Rouleau‑Be (...)

5This first issue of the new international journal Arabian Humanities begins from where the last issue of Chroniques yéménites2 left off, in which, under the title Gender and Mobilities in Yemen and the Horn of Africa, three papers presented at the Cairo conference were published. In this second special issue, we present eleven articles, also taken from the conference. These articles have in common that they are all based on long periods of fieldwork, a good command of the language, and long interactions with the various local actors, leading to detailed analyses of the collected data. This “methodological cosmopolitism” (following Ulrich Beck) adds a certain reflexivity to fieldwork situations and is one of the reasons for the richness of the studies that we present here. Indeed, this methodological perspective and practice is characterized by an intensive commitment and stringent demands in the production and adjustment of the frames of research experience3, and by paying specific attention to the “contexts of meaning” and to the “contexts of experience”.

6Since this project was started —at the beginning of the year 2010— important social movements have arisen in the Arabian Peninsula even though they have not been labeled “revolutionary” like those in Tunisia or in Egypt. More discrete forms of contestation have emerged in the Arabian Peninsula, with less media‑friendly mobilizations, less paroxysmal uprisings, showing an increasing gap between formal and informal norms and social practices. The most widespread analyses have shown the emergence of “the youth” as a collective actor, even if it means at times dealing with somewhat essentializing generalizations and categorizations. They have also shed light on what, in these social movements, expressed the agency of numerous women, visible and audible in the public domain, voicing their claims, taking risks (amongst which facing aggressive sexual behavior), speaking on their own behalf, claiming their right to be there. Although these articles do not necessarily address these movements directly —some of them do mention the link between public policies aimed at women and managing political oppositions— they point out a more discrete and deeper pattern: the world of gender, covertly or more overtly, is undergoing profound changes in the Arabian Peninsula.

  • 4 A concept first put forward by W. Kimberlé Crenshaw, formalizing an idea that emerged within the Bl (...)

7These transformations are particularly evident in the workplace, where they directly shape how gender is “performed”, borrowing a term from Judith Butler. However, shifts in the gender division of labor and in gender relations can only be understood through the articulation —or more precisely the intersection— of various social relations, and more specifically gender and social backgrounds (class, ethnicity, confession,...etc.). This is to a large extent the case with all gender perspectives as has been demonstrated since the 1980’s by various gender theories framed by female scholars. First, they insisted on the importance of the triptych that is “gender, class, culture or race”, later on they developed the more complex and refined concept of intersectionality of social relations and situations4. Nevertheless, in the Arabian Peninsula, we should highlight the specific character of the relationship between work, ethnicity, nationality and mobility on the one hand, and, on the other, the deep segmentation in the labor markets along the lines of ethnicity and nationality intersecting with gender relations. This segmentation, which was a way to deal with a massive migrant presence, has recently been challenged by the progressive nationalization of the labor markets that was initiated in most of the Gulf countries (in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain notably), from the 1990’s onwards. Such policies have indeed specifically pushed for women to join the workforce.

8The article of Amélie Le Renard clearly shows this. Indeed, it analyses a double shift: foreign workers being replaced by Saudis, and men being replaced by women. The rearrangement of hierarchies only affects gender norms at the margins, though these norms are changing to adapt to a mixed work environments and to women occupying professional positions that are less subaltern than they used to be. Although they are still at a disadvantage in professional negotiations, some Saudi women are able to attain relatively high positions and salaries, because they are seen as more effective and committed to their work than Saudi men. Even if it means compromising on some issues, they nonetheless contribute to shaping new national role models for professional women, an “avant‑garde” of the gender transformations which are taking place in major Saudi cities. Sylvaine Camelin points to similar mechanisms in Abu Dhabi, where qualified women from other Arab countries adopt “breadwinner” strategies to guarantee their own future and that of their children, occupy central positions in the family dynamics of migration, and manage to circumvent gender norms which are not to their advantage.

9This tension between gender identity and national identity is also central to Sharon Nagys’ article which shows how gender boundaries in the labor market in Bahrain have become increasingly porous, likewise for ethnic boundaries in the most feminized branches. On the one hand, the massive presence of foreign women in subaltern positions has enabled Bahraini women to disengage from domestic tasks and to follow qualified professional trajectories. But on the other hand, in certain sectors various groups of women end up competing against each other. This article also shows that the boundaries between “nationals” and “foreigners” reinforce gender stereotypes and along with them, gender and ethnic hierarchies. The study of health care professionals carried out by Anne Marie Moulin deals less with the feminization of employment than the entry of Arab women in professions that were —and are still— stigmatized because they involve being in contact with bodies and intimacy with both genders. In a way, foreign nurses are not concerned by the value system according to which their job has a low status, as they are considered on this matter, with indifference precisely because they are not part of the national community.

10Thus, the articles of this issue show the need to resort to detailed analyses of those transformations, of the accompanying tensions and of the intermingled relationships between the rearrangement of social hierarchies and the transformation of gender norms: for those most highly qualified, the permeability between nationality/ethnicity and gender increases, allowing for flexibility and the pluralisation of ways of performing gender, those women who do cross the line being less likely to face stigma. In these specific contexts, and contrary to the findings of other studies on women’s work elsewhere in the Arab world, at other time periods and in other socio‑historical configurations, higher class women seem to have more leeway than do those having to work out of economic necessity —rather than for self‑fulfillment— and still have to deal with social stigma (both because of gender norm transgressions, and through identification with subaltern foreign groups). Therefore, professional subjectivities for women are far from being homogeneous as they are also shaped by social backgrounds and individual trajectories.

11These articles do indeed consider mobility in a wider sense, which goes beyond social or professional mobility. Both the causes and the consequences of the multiple changes that affect women, their relationships with men, expanding possibilities and pushing back what is admitted, migration is henceforth increasingly feminized. Over the last few decades, the massive entry of women into the labor market of the Peninsula, taking up subaltern positions (in healthcare, as domestic workers) has contributed to employment being partitioned and to establishing a dividing line between “respectable” women and the others, placed under administrative guardianship and as such dominated. Family reunifications also changed male migration by enabling families (in particular Arab families) to settle for extended periods of times in the oil‑rich countries. But there is now a third modality, the mobility of female professionals, which brings various changes in family structures, subjectivities and gender relations. It causes tensions between legal norms and practices, and changes the place of women in public spaces. In addition, as Sylvaine Camelin mentions,

  • 5 Translation by the authors.

“women who came as spouses between the 1970s and 1990s have appropriated places, seizing opportunities for professional, personal and economic advancement. The city of Abu Dhabi is thus both presented as a space of autonomy and freedom, and as a platform to construct life courses which are often the outcome of multiple migratory experiences”5.

12The articles which are presented here argue in favor of a methodological approach which tries to understand

  • 6 Cervulle and Testenoire, 2012, p. 5.

“the relations of dependency and of autonomy between subjectivities and social relations. [That these subjectivities are so singular] is as much due to the influence of social relations as to the inability of the latter to fully limit the subjects that they produce”.6

13It produces contradictory practices, disobedience, transgression, outbreaks of empowerment, as well as stability, loyalty, and adherence to norms. Daily practices, theoretically always restricted by social and legal rules, demonstrate the leeway which women can negotiate with their immediate surroundings and in their interactions with men. But these are mostly differentiated positionings, at times ambivalent, that only make up the backdrop of the trajectories of transformations analyzed here. Indeed, professional women in positions once reserved for men and/or for foreigners, occupy these positions in accordance with behavior norms and gender morals (i.e. respecting dress codes but also the proper means of transport to get to their workplaces, lodgings, lunch areas...etc.). In a similar way, the socio‑cultural and linguistic take on the novel Girls of Riyadh, by Gemma Ventura and Agnes Garcia‑Ventura, shows how this literary text articulates different forms of subversion —regarding gender norms, language, behavior...etc.— while pushing back what is considered socially acceptable. For years, this novel was considered subversive in Saudi Arabia where it was banned. Yet, in a society where

“access to and the degree of autonomy inside this society are highly limited, literature offers a whole new space for developing alternatives, and it is used as an agent for change.”

14The characters suggest

“new ways of building subjectivities, not totally dependent on social norms.”

15The authors call this novel work a “space‑invader” in literature, in physical and symbolic spaces, in knowledge‑producing spaces and in religion. Yet,

“not all characters invading spaces are punished, or, at least, they are not unhappier than those not considered as space invaders. […]Thus, from our point of view [that of the authors of the article], there is not a cause‑effect relationship between being a space invader, and being unhappy. In the Saudi Arabian social context described in Banāt al‑Riyā, all characters suffer from the social norms, regardless if they follow them or not”.

16This, in return, shows the inability of social norms to meet individual aspirations, and opens new spaces of contestation and change. In a similar manner, Irene van Oorschot analyses cosmopolitan, educated and single modern Sana’ani women of the higher classes who put their freedom and independence on show by transgressing the gender norms regarding chewing qat —something traditionally reserved to men and married women. In doing so, they state that they belong to a “distinguished” and cosmopolitan urban class, a particular form of “situated modernity”, which circumscribes part of the social risks to which they expose themselves.

17Social change, notably from a gender perspective, owes a lot to the regulatory and sometimes innovative forces embodied in public policies. These public policies weigh heavily on the transformations of subjectivities in relation to social relations. The articles in this issue address two dimensions of these public policies. First of all, far from patterns which would leave social transformation up to “civil society” or “development”, states do play a fundamental regulatory role, as agents of change, by relaying development policies, and in decision‑making related to changes in normative frameworks; even though, these choices and policies are often strongly ambivalent. Indeed, states are first and foremost concerned by political decisions, arbitrating between their economic, social and political interests, or the sustainability of their power in an authoritarian context challenged by the activities and expression of divergent or oppositional forces. This is clearly the case for the nationalization policies of jobs in the banking sector in Saudi Arabia, the outline and effects of which are described by Amélie le Renard. It is also the case for initiatives taken by public authorities to regulate employment conditions in the health sector in order to solve the difficulties of the health care system and the chronic shortage of nurses, which Anne Marie Moulin has studied. In a similar manner, the initiatives of the Bahraini government to encourage women to become active in the labor market analyzed by Sharon Nagy have to do with similar patterns. In Bahrain, Magdalena Karolak shows that the reforms aimed at empowering women and emanating from the national government use similar discourses to those of international agencies, yet are mostly driven by economic rationality, focusing on the nationalization of employment. However, in accordance with the pattern of “rentier governance”, the process of empowerment is kept in check to prevent the possible emancipation of women subjects, and the transformation of patriarchal structures. It is also kept in check so as to make sure it does not lead to political change, which they could be a part of in the current context of contestation, through the protest movement revived in Bahrain in the wake of the Arab Spring, mobilized in part around the demands of the political minority that is the Shiite majority, itself part of a broader set of demands for the democratization of the political and economic system.

18In Oman, as shown by Jihan Safar, the government has promoted a family model which contrasts with socio‑cultural norms: based on family planning policies, it affects conjugal roles, notions of masculinity and femininity and the children’s place within the framework of the family and nation. However, precisely because these policies emanate from public authorities, the injunction to reduce fertility is not so much the result of

  • 7 Translation by the authors.

“a process of women’s sexual autonomy, as she needs her husband’s authorization to have access to contraception”7.

19The field of family and personal status is disputed between state authorities on the one hand, and the moral bulwarks and guardians of patriarchal power on the other hand, mobilized in part under the banner of religious movements and discourses. Nevertheless, certain issues remain very political. For Susanne Dahlgren, the context of the reunification of Yemen has led to power struggles, especially around the family order and the personal status, especially that of women. This question has been a central issue, as it has been elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Tensions are high between progressive and conservative camps, but more broadly between social models, between aspirations and opportunities that give rise to a wide range of norms due to the influence of international actors and concepts as well as Yemen’s specific history.

20Also, Second of all, “development policies”, inspired by modernizing intentions, in response to international “problems” or impulses tend to affect the relation between subjectivities and social relations. The articles converge and point out these contradictory effects on practices and social relations, and even sometimes the reinforcement of power hierarchies, that result from development projects aimed at “promoting” women. Ewa Strzelecka shows that, if women are now at the center of development policies in Yemen, it is above all because of a cultural, or even a culturalist perspective. Indeed, Islam (and the possibilities opened up by Islamic feminism) is integrated or instrumentalized in development and women’s empowerment projects without taking into account power relations and their implications for gender relations. The depoliticization of NGO practices and those of some feminist movements as a result of the generalization of the language of development weakens their transformative scope and their capacity to reduce gender inequalities. On the Yemeni island of Soqotra, Nathalie Peutz explores how international development projects and Islamic reformist projects offer paths to social and gender role transformation which differ at first but converge in their effects. They are vehicles for moralistic and modernizing injunctions, for pious or culturalist projections, as they both value women when they are disciplined, productive and cooperative beings. They interpret social norms as an incitement to segregation between men and women, instead of bringing to the foreground their relational aspirations. Lastly, they fail to increase women’s agency —in the first place because they do not sufficiently take into account the importance of their relational world— while trying to open up spaces for negotiations and choices for some of them.

21In the end, these texts implicitly challenge any culturalist take on the connections and overlaps occurring within gender transformations in the Arabian Peninsula. It is true that confrontations are particularly intense between, on the one hand, modernizing forces emanating from opening up to globalization, and, on the other hand, conservative forces represented by political powers firmly rooted in patriarchy, linked to fundamentalist powers which defend the established order by drawing on religious repertoires. Of course, the separation of the sexes, of classes and ethnicities is regimented by formal rules that produce explicit social segmentation with little deference for equal rights discourses. It is also true that “development”, often presented as a promoter of modernization and liberator of women is more often than not adverse to religion. However, configurations are less specific and certainly less exotic than they would appear.

22The works presented in this volume refer in fact to frameworks and analytical tools that give a central position to power relations, forms of governmentality, and the intersectionality and interlocking of social relations, gender, class and ethnicity. They also show how ideas and values are entangled with the weight of material necessities and pragmatic decisions. These studies also value the agency of individuals driven by various aspirations, rather than being reduced to gender injunctions and to the roles they perform, and instead negotiating different or ambivalent positions in relation to the injunctions of social norms and public policies. Emancipation and subjection are thus not in direct opposition but are articulated together and in tension. Power is indeed as much a producer of subjectivities as it is a constraint to them, as stated in the theories on the subject and subjectivication —and first and foremost those of Michel Foucault. Subjectivity and relationality end up being fundamental to the analysis of gender transformations, both individually and collectively. If the texts in this issue tend to emphasize individual dimensions —although some articles do mention the link between state policies towards women and dealing with political oppositions— rather than women and feminist organizations, which appear only marginally in this issue, women’s participation to the insurrectionary and reformist movements that emerged in the Arab world over the last two years, are a testament to the renewed collective presence of women as actors in the ongoing changes.

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Goffman E., Les cadres de l’expérience, Paris, Minuit, 1991.

Rouleau‑Berger L. (dir.), Sociologies et cosmopolitisme méthodologique, Coll. Socio‑logiques, Toulouse, Presses universitaires du Mirail, 2012.

Cervulle M. et Testenoire A., « Du sujet collectif au sujet individuel, et retour. Introduction », in Cervulle, Kergoat et Testenoire (eds.), Subjectivités et rapports sociaux, Coll. Cahiers du Genre, n° 53, 2012.

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1 This conference was supported by CNRS, the Fonds d’Alembert, the AUF (Agence Universitaire de la francophonie), the IREMAM (Institute of Research and Studies on the Arab and the Muslim World, Aix‑en‑Provence), the LISE (Interdisciplinary laboratory for Economic Sociology, Paris) and of ESO (Spaces and Societies, Anger). It was organized in collaboration with the Universities of Sana'a and Aden in Yemen, of the University of Djibouti, of the Netherlands Association of Gender Studies and Feminist Anthropology (LOVA), of the CEDEJ (Center of Studies and Documentation on Economics, Law and Social Studies) and of the French Institute of Cairo.

2 Created in 1993by the French Centre for Yemeni studies (CFEY,) which became, from 2001 onwards, CEFAS.

3 According to the analyses of Goffman, 1991, and in this specific context to the works of Rouleau‑Berger et alii, 2012.

4 A concept first put forward by W. Kimberlé Crenshaw, formalizing an idea that emerged within the Black feminism movement in the 1970s.

5 Translation by the authors.

6 Cervulle and Testenoire, 2012, p. 5.

7 Translation by the authors.

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Blandine Destremau, Stéphanie Latte Abdallah et Marina de Regt, « Gender Transformations in the Arabian Peninsula », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 1 | 2013, mis en ligne le 26 mars 2013, consulté le 02 juillet 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Blandine Destremau


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Stéphanie Latte Abdallah

CNRS - Aix-Marseille Université - IREMAM - UMR 7310

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