‘Modernity’ is one of those words that is often thrown around and rarely defined. What is modernity? More importantly, who decides what is modern and what is not? While the answers to those questions are complex, a point that we can all agree on is that claims of being modern are often made using women, and more particularly, the bodies and values of women. This has especially been the case in relation to women of colour, women who belong to communities and nations that are taken for granted as un-modern. Discussions over women from these communities often revolve around their lack of emancipation, freedom, or worth—all traits associated with modernity. These kinds of discussions therefore frame some women as modern and others as “un-modern” or yet-to-become-modern.
Unfortunately, this need to appear modern or represent oneself (and therefore one’s entire nation) as modern has been internalized by many within these communities that have been designated as un-modern. I can’t help but be reminded of a comment by Nadia Fadil who pointed out how men in Egypt in the 1920s and 30s would show how modern and enlightened they were by proclaiming that women should have more rights. If the question is how compatible Egyptians are with modernity, the answer is to be found in how Egyptian men (and “culture”) treat women. Within this context, the act of unveiling, for example, becomes a marker of progressiveness: men who encourage their wives to unveil are seen as closer to European norms and values and therefore closer to a thing called modernity.
This kind of response can only be termed reactionary: it is an attempt to include oneself (and one’s community or nation) within the folds of a project (in this case modernity) through representing specific aspects of one’s identity in specific ways. In this instance, women are being represented in a very specific way: as in need of becoming modern. Egyptians can only be seen as modern political subjects if they have certain gender practices. These practices have already been set by “modernity” and are not open to debate. What is additionally problematic is that much of Western feminism has also adopted these practices as signifiers of women’s liberation.
This, in turn, has led to much of the rhetoric coming from civil society and feminist organizations within Egypt become reactionary. The narratives tend to focus on proving either that Egyptian women are lagging behind women in other parts of the world and thus need to be modernized (through development organizations or ‘cultural’ changes), or that Egyptian women are “modern.” What are never questioned are the categories that are used in deciding what is modern. More importantly, why the need to assert oneself (and by logical extension one’s entire culture) as “modern” when modern clearly means a prescribed set of characteristics that have historical roots outside of Egypt?
Within development these processes are especially clear. Lila abu Lughod’s critique of the Arab Human Development Report delineates just how certain “targets” are set for Arab women which reproduce certain ideas of progress and modernity.* Specifically, the use of the “human rights” discourse privileges individuality and autonomy above other modes of social organization. Setting aside the fact that reports such as these play into the common narrative of the backwardness of Arab women as compared to women in the West, there are numerous problems with reports such as these. One of the main problems is that the reason given for so many of the problems facing women in the Arab world is a mix between “Arab” and “Islamic” culture. Rather than economic exploitation, autocracy or unequal positioning within the global political economic system, the vague term “culture” becomes the go-to explanation. As abu Lughod writes, “this contributes strongly to civilizational discourse by attributing a significant role to Arab and Islamic culture in its diagnosis of gender inequality.” The focus on culture ignores other systemic problems and creates “Others” that are traditional (as opposed to modern).
The near-obsession with education is another clear marker of modernity, and is infused deeply within development discourse. Education for girls is seen as the main barrier to their emancipation. Not only does this assume that standardized education is the only form of knowledge that is worthy, it is also a classist narrative employed by elites who see it as their duty to save the ignorant masses. One sentence on Bedouin girls read: “they are unable to read or write and thus express themselves—and have never heard of their human rights. This erodes their very human status.” Employment is another major focus of the report, implying that women’s employment (after their education) is the main path to emancipation. This not only ignores the fact that integration within the capitalist world economy is not automatically a positive thing, but also ignores the multiplicities of power and privileges involved in the employment market. As abu Lughod points out, employment is not by its nature liberating. It must be of a certain quality to provide economic independence.
The focus on individuality is another concession to the project of modernity and its liberal underpinnings. Women are advised to “live their own lives” and reject interference from outside. One could ask whether individualism is the highest moral state, and how this excludes other forms of social organization. Feminist work has shown that individualized women are not automatically better off than women that are more tied to their families and communities. Moreover, these families and communities are not always seen as a “burden” for Egyptian women—rather this is an assumption made on the part of Western development practitioners, feminists, and others.
This report is a clear example of the reactionary way in which women’s “rights” are approached by many in civil society in the Middle East. The implicit undertone is one of liberalism, which poses specific narratives as central to becoming modern, among these education, employment and individuality. Thus civil society aims to show how Egyptian women either fit or don’t fit into these narratives—they are either modern or un-modern depending on these already-prescribed measurements. Rather than organic attempts to understand processes that are happening on the ground on their own terms, these narratives are imposed and in turn construct realities that were not there before. This kind of epistemic violence is rarely spoken of. As long as much of feminist work continues to be reactionary in a misguided attempt to be “modern” or on-the-way-to-“modernity,” it will be difficult to break away from the assumptions underpinning the project of modernity and question why we need to be modern anyway.
* Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Dialects of women’s empowerment: The international circuitry of the Arab Human Development Report 2005.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 41.01 (2009): 83-103.