Mai Ghoussoub’s ‘Feminism—or the Eternal Masculine—in the Arab World’ (nlr 161) is indicative of two fundamental problems plaguing radical analysis of the Middle East: the extent to which it is legitimate for Marxists to throw out their analytical categories and resort to Weberian notions of a ‘collective consciousness’ called Islam as the main determinant of Middle Eastern history; and the extent to which bourgeois feminism has hidden Middle Eastern women’s struggles from history. Although Ghoussoub’s critique of recent apologist work on Middle Eastern women is an important contribution, it ultimately suffers from the same limitations in theory and conceptualization that have stunted radical analysis of women in the region. Ghoussoub’s solution is a simple negation of existing claims—the notion that Islam is good for women becomes Islam is not good for women. Middle Eastern feminism then becomes mired in debates that were formed in nineteenthcentury travel literature.footnote1 Instead of reconstituting the same discourse it is time to question the very categories which have been used to study Middle Eastern women. It is surprising in this period of post-Orientalist deconstruction that an unproblematized monolithic ‘Islam’ remains at the centre of the analysis of Middle Eastern women—especially a would-be radical one. There are four aspects of Ghoussoub’s argument that demand rebuttal: the first is the Orientalist conceptualization of Islam at the centre of her argument; the second is her selective use of history in order to buttress this conceptualization; the third problem is the absence of a notion of class in her work, which in turn results in the fourth problem: a narrow definition of feminism specific to the lives of bourgeois women.

The main thrust of Ghoussoub’s argument is that Islam, in both jural and psycho-social forms, lies at the root of Arab women’s oppression. In fact, because there is no mention of social and economic processes, the reader gains the impression that Islam is the sole cause of women’s oppression in the Middle East. This analysis, uninformed by recent Marxist theorizations of the role of ideology in women’s subordination,footnote2 is simply a redeployment of classical Orientalist scholarship which sees Islam as a monolithic, unchanging worldview outside of history, yet one which paradoxically determines all emotions and thoughts, both political and sexual. Such statements as, ‘The early conquests and later triumphs of Islam established a continuity across centuries that came to form a kind of permanent, natural substratum in the Muslim unconscious’ (p. 4), indicate a conceptualization that precludes historicity, the varying ideological stances within an Islamic discourse, and ultimately, struggle.

Ghoussoub informs us that only with the twentieth-century demise of the Ottoman Empire did ‘the seamless fabric of Muslim identity start to unravel’ (p. 4). Thus in 1,300 years of history, from Morocco to Southeast Asia, there was no struggle, but simply a universal conformity to an unchanging doctrine. Even classical Orientalist scholarship does not go this far, but grudgingly concedes that there have always been varying movements within a changing Islamic tradition, as well as Islamic counter-traditions such as Sufism. Radical critiques of hierarchy, exploitation and gender oppression have often been at the centre of Sufi movements such as the Baktashi in Turkey, the Sanusi in Libya and the Bayyumiya in Egypt.footnote3 As in all radical movements in which religious traditions are turned upside-down, these movements have often been described as heretical by members of religious hierarchies. Even within the textual tradition itself, there have been, throughout history, a variety of theological stands which have sought the basis of a socially just world within Islamic philosophy.footnote4 Thus Ghoussoub’s deployment of Mernissi’s analysis that the ‘Islamic attitude’ (p. 5) towards women is based on two medieval texts is akin to saying that ‘Christian’ attitudes towards women continue to be wholly defined by the writings of St. Augustine, as if the Kathars, the Diggers, Vatican II and liberation theology had never existed.footnote5

Beyond this refusal to see change and a variety of counter-hegemonic ideologies that have taken on state-authorized Islamic discourse, what remains most troublesome in Ghoussoub’s analysis is the extent to which she claims that ‘Islam’ determines everyday lived experience in the Middle East. Thus not only is there a ‘Muslim’ culture (p. 5) and a ‘Muslim’ identity (p. 4), but these are determined by ‘a historical context in which Islam has been an all-encompassing, dominating reality’ (p. 4). As to what constitutes this Islam, we find that it is actually the doctrines of the original texts—the Quran and the Hadith. Further, it is not how these doctrines are translated into everyday lived experience that defines Islam, but the normative doctrines which define, or actually are, everyday lived experience. It is both irrelevant and futile to enter into a debate about the degree of piety that exists in the Middle East. Nevertheless, as any anthropological text on peasant Catholicism will testify, the way Latin American or Southern European peasant women appropriate Catholicism has much more to do with precapitalist cosmology and their social relations of production than with the New Testament.footnote6 Further, if in the Middle East normative Islamic dogma is such a totalizing consciousness, then where does non-Islamic opposition to exploitation come from? The Iraqi Communist Party, the Lebanese National Movement, the South Yemen Communist Party, the Sudanese Communist Party all had huge indigenous followings and were not overthrown by ‘profound popular attachments’ (p. 9), but were threatened or overthrown by imperialist money and gunpower.

Another problem in Ghoussoub’s analysis is the relationship between Islam and politics. She makes no distinctions between state deployment of Islamic signs and jural forms and the variety of counter-hegemonic movements working within radical Islamic frameworks. Ghoussoub’s analysis actually takes the opposing stand and claims that these movements (whose ideological permutations she ignores) actually reverse some of the gains for women made by state legislation. Only in the study of the Middle East, with this elaboration of a profoundly backward spectre of Islamic sentiment waiting to rear its head, is the claim made that states are more progressive than the popular movements which oppose them.

Ghoussoub bases her analysis on a very fragmentary and selective reading of history. She begins with the Tillion thesis concerning the impact of pre-Islamic tribalism on women’s privatization, then jumps five centuries to the Islamic textualist material analysed in the works of Mernissi and Sabbah.footnote7 These two de-contextualized phenomena (an imputed and abstracted kinship system and two texts by two theologians) are then combined to formulate a timeless ‘Islamic view of women’. This abstract idealization allows the author then to ignore six hundred years of intervening history and to assert how this view finally came under attack in the nineteenth century.

Ghoussoub’s discussion of the nineteenth century most clearly exemplifies the limitations of her overall analysis. According to her conceptualization of a ‘seamless’ Islam (p. 4), the only possible threat to its allencompassing power would have to be external—more specifically, we need the coming of the West in the form of Napoleon to catalyse women’s struggles against ‘Islamic despotism’. Even the weaker form of this argument that his invasion brought French Enlightenment thought to Egypt is still outrageous in a period in which feminist scholarship has spent the last decade analysing the drastic loss of women’s power with the incorporation of the various Third World countries into the capitalist world market.footnote8 While it has been an accepted conclusion of Marxist thought (excluding Warren) that capitalism has been the demise of not only peasant autonomy and forms of precapitalist egalitarianism, but also of relative gender equality, when it comes to discussions of the Middle East, capitalism (as represented in the figure of Napoleon) is advanced as a force for women’s liberation.