This undergraduate seminar explores the lives of women and men in the contemporary Middle East through a series of anthropological studies and documentary films. Over the past three decades, the Middle East has witnessed profound transformations—not only on the political level, but also in the realm of gender relations. The Middle East is home to increasing educational and employment opportunities for women, the growth of feminist and other activist movements involving both men and women, as well as many new forms of social media and medical technologies (contraception, assisted reproduction) that have had profound impacts on fertility, sexuality, and marital life across the region. Having said that, women’s and men’s lives in the Middle East have been affected by a number of powerful political forces, including revolutions and war, the development of Islamist activist movements in many countries, and Western political and feminist interventions to purportedly “save” Muslim women. This class will examine the competing discourses surrounding gender and politics in the Middle East, while seeking to embed these discussions in the actual practices of everyday life in the Middle East.

The seminar will be divided into two major sections. Part I focuses on “Feminism and Islamism, Activism and Human Rights.” In this section of the course, we will begin with the provocative question of whether Muslim women need “saving”—a discourse of “liberation” that has motivated many Western interventions, including war in the region. The answer to this question will then be explored through a number of films and ethnographies focusing on Middle Eastern women’s own forms of activism, including feminist mobilization in the name of Islam. This section of the course will end in Tahrir Square, where the roles of both men and women Egyptian activists will be highlighted.

Part II focuses on “Fertility and Family, Marriage and Sexuality.” In this section of the course, we will focus on the intimate sphere of gender and sexuality in the Middle East. Namely, what do women and men hope for in the realms of marriage, sexuality, and family life? And how are new forms of technology in the region (from computers to contraceptives to in vitro fertilization) shaping contemporary gender practices and aspirations for marriage and parenthood?

In this student-led seminar, we will think, talk, and write about women’s and men’s lives in the Middle East as portrayed in eleven key books, all of them anthropological ethnographies, and three films, two of them recent documentaries and one a drama. Through such reading and viewing, students in this course will gain broad exposure to a number of exigent gender issues in the Middle East. In addition, the course aims for broad regional coverage, with focus on eleven key countries (Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Turkey). In addition, students will carefully assess the methods used by feminist anthropologists who conduct ethnographic fieldwork in local Middle Eastern contexts. Does local-level, field-based, humanistic anthropological inquiry contribute something “value-added” to understanding Middle East gender politics and relations? This is a question that we will be asking throughout the semester, as we read, discuss, and debate eleven anthropological ethnographies, and watch a series of riveting documentaries and films.