The Arab Woman as Subject: How and why Arab women do whatever it is they do that makes them a category worthy of study

by Sandy Chamoun 2009

Suad Joseph has spent decades thinking about the interface of gender, family and state in the Middle East and, as such, is well situated to discuss the portrayals, understandings, motivations and intentions of “Arab women.” In her causal talk last Thursday at AUB, “Returning to the Arab Subject: Queries and Lenses,” she reviewed the main ways Arab women – as subject – have been viewed, mainly in the West and frequently by men: as a subject of representation, of culture, of patriarchy and of politics.

Each category yields its own questions, of course, and some of Joseph’s questions included: Who gains from these representations? What – exactly – determines “Arab culture?” What is the role of patriarchy today and are women still the “trademark” of the Arab family? and Has the failure of Arab nationalism led to a re-visioning of Arab women?

While all of these questions should be considered, Joseph contended, there are bigger questions at hand, questions pertaining to motivation or intentionality. As such, while each of these subjections of the Arab woman had its own impetus and agenda(s), all four are limited in their understanding or exploration of how and why Arab women do whatever it is they do that makes them a category worthy of study.

Joseph ascribed part of this blindness to the over-arching weight of “drive theory,” the premise proposed by Freud whereby a person’s motivations stem from her/his self-interest and survival needs. As such, behaviors and intentions can be understood “rationally,” and thus universalized. More recently – and to Joseph, more relevantly – theories of “relational models” have been put forward – in particular, arguments for viewing cultures as systems of relationships, rather than the attempt to understand a single “subject” in isolation of context.

Exploring relational models, Joseph suggested, allows for questions like: Is reason a social performance? and Is agency a social reaction? And through these questions, issues of motivations, intentions and agency can be better explored. If agency (the ability of the Arab woman to do whatever it is she does that makes her worthy of study) is shown in the result, Joseph questioned, then does agency actually encapsulate intentionality? Isn’t it, rather, that intentionality includes the before and the during of the process which leads the Arab woman to do whatever it is she does? And what, then, actually motivates an Arab woman’s (or, really, anyone’s) intention to do something?

Joseph didn’t claim to provide any answers to these questions, but rather a caveat: that quite possibly before we can begin to better understand the Arab woman (as subject or otherwise), we need an entirely new vocabulary with which to approach, investigate and interact with – not the Arab woman as subject, but rather – our increasingly contextualized understanding of what and why we all do whatever it is we do.

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