Global outlook: Gender researcher challenges the image of the Middle East and North Africa

2017-08-29 09:48

Gender and women’s studies gained momentum at the beginning of 1970 in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Serin Fathi Shakhshir, gender researcher, attempts to demonstrate how actively and dynamically the region works with gender related issues and how they can collaborate with other institutions in Europe.

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Aiming to highlight the active presence of Gender Studies in the Middle Eastern academia, Serin Fathi Shakhshir started the report Mapping Gender and Women’s Studies Programs Throughout the Universities in the Middle East and North Africa in 2014, while working as International Coordinator at the Linnaeus University in Sweden. The report presents an academic description of Gender and Women’s Studies programs in the MENA region and then provides ‘stakeholder’s analysis’, through which she evaluates the possibilities of establishing partnerships between Linnaeus University and the institutions in the MENA region.

– I hope that the report will affect the image of the MENA in Europe and show that people in the MENA region dynamically work with gender-related issues and educate in the field, Serin Fathi Shakhshir says.

To her, it is also a way to build networks between the European and MENA institutions for future cooperation in the field.

– Researchers in the MENA region showed a great interest for joint researches and discussing gender from an academic perspective, says Serin Fathi Shakhshir.

Gender and Women’s Studies started as a field of study in MENA in the seventies. In 1986, the Ahfad University in Sudan became the first university which offered both masters and bachelor’s programmes in the field. The American University of Lebanon and the University of Birzeit in the West Bank, Palestine, were the other academic institutions which followed the initiative and gradually started programmes on Gender Studies.

By 2014, Gender and Women’s Studies program was taught in Palestine, Lebanon, Sudan, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen in English and/or Arabic either as an independent field of study and/or interdisciplinary programmes. Yet, the field remains new to the region and the universities continue to develop and enrich it.

Ongoing Struggle

Expanding Gender and Women’s Studies in other MENA countries is an ongoing struggle.

– In Saudi Arabia; for instance, the researchers and professors at the Al-Malik Saud University expressed their interest in establishing a Gender Studies department. While the proposal was rejected by the university’s board of trustees, the professors continue to integrate feminist theories within other courses in humanities and social science, she explains.

The desire to establish a Gender Studies program has also been expressed in politically unstable countries such as Syria and Iraq.

Difference between countries inside and outside the region

The universities in MENA designed diverse and context-based Gender Studies’ curriculum. The content, focus area, language of instruction, and methods of communication varies widely from one country to another.

– Some countries take an intercultural approach and concentrate on women, their rights and socio-political participation while some others use secular methods such as reinterpreting religion or staying away from it, Serin Fathi Shakhshir explains.

To elaborate, while Women and Gender Studies institutions in Sudan follow an interdisciplinary program and combine gender with peace, development, migration and multicultural studies, Palestine’s academia concentrate on improving policies, the legal institution, and women’s political participation. Moroccan Gender Studies programmes; on the other hand, focus on integrating feminist perspectives into Islam and reinterpreting religion whereas Tunisia takes a more secular approach and tends to stay away from religious texts. The Gender Studies departments in Jordan; however, put a greater focus on health, law, social justice, and violence.

– The programmes not only produce knowledge about women’s lives but also differently address women’s issues in various levels in society, Serin Fathi Shakhshir says.

She adds that the difference becomes even more evident while comparing Swedish Gender Studies programmes to the MENA institutions.

– Gender issues in Sweden also discusses sexuality, and immigrants’ and minorities rights while in the MENA region, discrimination against women is the primary focus of the programmes.

Important to collaborate

Despite the inter- and cross continental differences, a huge interest in establishing and developing Gender and Women’s Studies programmes exists in the MENA region.

– Building partnerships, conducting international conferences and joint researches, and co-authoring cross-continental academic journals can help to improve the situation, Serin Fathi Shakhshir suggests.

Author Nazifa Alizada
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