Women's Rights and the Hazards of Intervention in the Middle East

Monday, January 5, 2009: 9:10 AM
Lenox Ballroom (Sheraton New York)
Elizabeth F. Thompson , University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA
Since the start of the 20th century, Middle Eastern women activists have drawn inspiration and support from foreign missionaries and international women’s organizations as they built the region’s first true women’s movements in the 1920s.  In World War I, their relationship to European and American women changed as European powers exploited Ottoman defeat to extend imperial influence in the region. The women activists had rooted their activism through 1918 in the belief that Islam was part of a single human universal civilization.  There was no contradiction in being Muslim and espousing international law and human rights.  After the war, the political culture changed, especially in the colonized Arab world.  New political movements turned their backs on the false universalism of liberal and imperialist Europe.  Arab women’s association with American and European women’s groups provoked a strong political backlash that undermined their own efforts to extend an ethics of care as a practice of citizenship in their newly formed nations. Foreign philanthropists remained apparently unaware of their own role in supporting an unequal and often colonial structure of power, and in fueling reactionary nationalist and Islamic politics that would render women second-class citizens. This historical and political blind spot continues to hamper well-intentioned efforts to intervene in the region on behalf of human rights and women’s welfare.  I plan to talk about how difficult it has been, as a historian, to unthread the complex relationship between the universalist intents of intervention and the political realities of European hegemony, and the particular way in which the contradictions between universal rights and imperial power have affected women. How can groups intervene in the region without triggering the kind of reaction that has now been built into the region’s political culture?