Democratization, Women and the Arab Spring

Democratization, Women and the Arab Spring with a special focus on Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya and Algeria was the topic of speaker Val Moghadam’s recent talk. A professor of sociology and director of the International Affairs program at Northeastern University, Val has spent most of her academic career studying gender and politics in the Middle East.


photo: Wikipedia

As summarized by Rajashree in our follow up meeting:

 It was such a pleasure to be part of our meeting today – despite the weather so many of us were there and reflected on Val Moghadam’s talk last month – all of it made it very lively and special.

Smriti set the tone for the discussion that ensued in that she stated that Val’s stance in presenting the Arab women as heterogeneous and representation of the feminists in the Maghreb region as “modern, educated, feminists.” The presence of these strong women resulted in positive, democratic outcomes for countries such as Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

Nur shared her experiences from the collective of Muslim women where many of the leaders have made a separation from religion yet anchored in ideas of women’s rights. The reverse is also present. These views correspond with Val’s writings where she firmly believes that “Islamic feminism” needs to widen its boundaries and be open to western feminism. At the same time she acknowledges the presence of “feminisms” around the world as political strategies trying to bring about changes where women’s rights are concerned.

Marguerite, Ruth and Yarden shared their thoughts on varied issues relevant to today’s theme- whether religion and/culture determines who we are; can we be religious and be feminists in our different religions which the group members belong to; can change be brought about individually and/or collectively; can we all say we have participated in the feminist movement and feel that we have made strides in our personal lives…

In her post-talk comments, Smriti reflected:

What struck me was the emphasis on the diversity of outcomes for women in the Arab-Muslim world. I think the speaker really tried to challenge the notion of the undifferentiated ‘Islamic World’ that fundamentalists of all stripes embrace right now.

I was also struck by how uncritical she was of the concept of “modern” and “modernity”. I suspect she has little patience for post-modern or post-colonial ideas of culturally specific feminisms (with an ‘s’.) It has been a long time since I heard a speaker who did not put quotes around the word “modern”, so that was very interesting to me.


Indigenous Women

At our recent meeting our study group focused on indigenous women in different parts of the world and the numerous challenges they face in a rapidly changing world. Tracing indigenous traditions, Elinor Gadon  explained what makes people tribal rather than Hindu as she shared details on her research work with indigenous women in different parts in India:


Culturally they have always been part of Indian civilization. Unlike most tribal peoples outside India, they have maintained trading and ritual links with city-based, ‘civilized’ society for well over two-thousand years. Hindu civilization did not on the whole seek to displace or convert tribals, although there was certainly often conflict, and tribes were forced to retreat to the remotest areas: the forests and mountains between Hindu kingdoms.
The defining features of tribe anthropologically might be given as a close, ritualized dependence on the natural environment, especially the forest, a strong egalitarian social organization based more on clans than on caste or class, and a high degree on until at least recently of economic self-suffiency and political independence. Drums, dancing and song are at the heart of tribal culture. They do not worship the gods in temples of with the aid of brahmin priests, but at shrines in the forest. All their deities are closely connected with nature, identified with features of the local environment or natural forces including diseases. As well as priests they have diviners and shamans who go into trance to communicate with spirits.
Equality  is a powerful ideal. Land is usually divided equally among household, unlike Hindu villages which tend to have large divisions between landlords and landless laborers. Elders carry more weight in village councils than young men, and women do not usually take part, although they may have decisive influence from the sidelines. On the whole women are much freer than in Hindu villages. They speak out openly and are not bound by double standards of sexual morality, as free as men to have love affairs. Divorce is relatively easy; divorcees can marry again without any stigma. This emphasis on equality goes along with tribal villagers sefl-respect, self-sufficiency in fulfilling most of their own needs.
(Submitted by Elinor Gadon, from Felix Padel, “The Sacrifice of human being: British Rule and Konds of Orissa” New Dehli: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp17-19. Photo curtesy of WSRC/GaiDI)

Looking at issues of gender-based violence and inequality among indigenous women in a different part of the world, Marguerite Bouvard  spoke about her past experiences as she recalled her ties to Mayan women in Guatemala:

o23_84_99-m  My presentation was on the International Indigenous Women Forum and its work in leadership and human rights training, and building alliances between the Indigenous women‘s movement and the global women’s movement. Specifically I spoke about indigenous women in Guatemala, the generation that was subject to General Rios Montt’s genocide and the younger generation of Mayan Kakchiquel’s program. Lisbeth Coloc developed three programs for 60 women and their families that included strengthening the community and political advocacy, economic development, how women can become self-sustainable by building their own businesses and psycho-social help. The program works with community groups in five municipalities and is the largest indigenous group in Guatemala.

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News from our members: Marguerite will be reading poems from her new poetry book, The Light That Shines Inside Us on March 20 at 12:30. A quote from the blurb by Steven Kessler, “Across cultures, and languages, wars, brief intense joys and relentless suffering, her poems radiate compassion and a universal humanity. “

Violence Against Women With Disabilities

women-disabilities(image: PSC Crisis Connection, Disability Support Services, 24-hour Hotline)

The World Cultures Study Group had the pleasure to welcome Ana Maria Sanchez, who is currently working on her PhD in Public Policy, for a very interesting and stimulating talk on violence against women with disabilities.

Ana presented her work which is concerned with women with disabilities, a demographic that, she deplores, has generally been overlooked by the feminist researchers and activists. Focusing on two countries, Mexico and India, Ana strives to investigate the ways in which the various women’s rights organizations in these countries address, if they ever do, the problem of violence against women with disabilities.

The talk was a consciousness raiser for many of us, as Ana explained that the very word “disability” is unequivocal and resists a simple definition, even more so when it is used in different cultural contexts. She also underlined the difficulties she encountered in studying women with disabilities in Mexico and India, because they are a somehow invisible group first because they are a demographic minority, which does not make them a primary concern for government officials, then, because they are often hidden or isolated from the rest of society. Ana showed the importance of thinking about women with disabilities with a gender perspective and the necessity to raise awareness that women with disabilities are entitled to women’s rights.

Ana sent two links that she wanted to share with the members of the group, here they are:

Why Should Disability Spell the End of Romance?

For Different Indians Disability Means Different Things

The World’s Cultures Study Group would like to thank you again, Ana, for sharing your work with us. I hope this brief does justice to your inspiring talk. (Submitted by Maryline)

Students From Cambodia Visit the WSRC

The Harpswell Foundation Students from Cambodia Visited the WSRC on December 20, 2013

Attending: World Cultures members Rajashree Ghosh, Ornit Barkai , Oge Dashzeveg, Marguerite Bouvard, Ruth Nemzoff, Linda Bond and other scholars Janet Freedman, Annette Miller, Karin Rosenthal.

Harpswell students from Cambodia: Sivgech (Sue) Chheng, Chandy Eng, Lina Hun, Bormey, Sivorn

World Cultures with Harpswell Students

Our guests from Cambodia graduated from four year colleges in Phnom Penh and are here studying in fifth year programs at Bowdin College and Rhodes College. During their semester breaks they are staying in Concord MA with Alan Lightman, author, MIT professor and director of the Harpswell Foundation which sponsors these students. The Harpswell Foundation provides safe dormitory housing for young women coming to college in Phnom Penh from rural villages in Cambodia. Without this housing they would be unable to live in the city and unable to obtain a quality education. The Foundation is committed to helping the women build self confidence and take responsibility for themselves, their families and their country. All of the women spoke about their early years and the support & obstacles they faced in pursuit of an education. They expressed pride in what they have accomplished, gratitude for the opportunities they have been offered, and a desire to act as role models for other young women. It was an inspiring afternoon for both students and scholars. (Submitted by Linda, photo by Oge)

Crossing Borders


(image: latinamericanstudies)

The act of crossing a border is fraught with possibility and danger. Through personal accounts of the group’s members we traced historical changes and looked at how political borders have shifted around ancestral locations.

Starting the conversation was a shared concern regarding the plight of young unaccompanied minors who cross the border from Mexico into the United States. These children are seeking the possibility of a better life, but often find themselves exploited by human traffickers or by the US immigration system, which makes no special allowances for them. They rarely gain access to a lawyer with the result that they end up in in juvenile prisons for long stretches of time. The immigration system could make greater efforts to secure them pro bono lawyers and help place them in foster homes, but chooses not to.

We then embarked on our border-crossing journey in the Mediterranean port city of Trieste. At various points it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then Italy and, during World War II, a region claimed by both the Allied powers and by the communist bloc. In the end, Trieste remained in Italy even as the areas around it were incorporated into Yugoslavia, splitting up families and friends. Through these shared memories and their complexity we could see both the arbitrariness and the fluidity of these political borders, but also their very real and enduring cultural, economic and emotional impacts.

Alsace, whose political border puts it within France, was brought up as another example. The region has a history of resistance to Germany, which occupied it during World War II, and yet its language shares little with French and much more with German. Political borders and the emotional ties they create can therefore cut against what might seem to be more natural cultural affinities. We were reminded that we often use borders to create ‘others’ based on what would seem to be relatively insignificant differences (like the ones between Alsace and Lorraine).

The province of Buyan-ulgi in Mongolia was another fascinating account of the ways in which political borders do not always map with more obvious cultural – specifically religious and ethnic – similarities. Buyan-ulgi is dominated by Muslim Kazakhs who seized the opportunity afforded by the opening up of Mongolia to ask for an open border with the Russian state of Kazakhstan, perceived to be culturally similar. The Mongolian state allowed both the open borders as well as dual citizenship in this case. However, ten years later, it would appear that the experiment has failed. The state government in Bulyan-ulgi finds that the open border is causing law and order and other problems and has now requested that it be closed again. We also learned about the weakening of Mongolia’s alliance with Russia as Russia’s economic power has declined, and the growing importance of Mongolia’s other border with China for the Mongolian economy. Whether this shift in economic relationships will also have cultural and political implications is perhaps a topic for another discussion.

As our round table conversation continued, we learned of the ways in which Manhattan and New Jersey are crosscut by invisible and visible borders marked by ethnic and cultural differences which, to some extent, creating borders of choice. Urging us to think about the reasons why we, as human beings, seem to need to create borders, it was suggested that this was driven by the need to feel comfort in likeness, to create communities; others thought that it might be driven by a competitive instinct – the need to create ‘other’s with whom one can compete on who has the best scenery or the best sports team.

Through the vivid memory about living in Calcutta, India, at a house in a middle class neighborhood that adjoined a slum, or basti, we were reminded of how borders can be extremely meaningful even when they are not national or even ‘official’. More about political borders and their lasting and profound effects was highlighted through anecdotes relating to post-Imperial changes in India, specifically in the region that became first East Pakistan and then Bangladesh, where families fled to newly formed India in the aftermath of partition.

While the violence and bloodshed around partition (which is the term used to describe the division of British India into India and Pakistan) often reminds us of the worst in human beings, this story did help us understand how human beings can be traumatized when borders cut through their lives without blaming or hating those left on the other side. Forced migration and the resulting sense of displacement and loss created a profoundly significant impact of borders in their own lives, and eventually may have passed down to the next generation. Over time, upon returning to the ancestral home, reconciliation occurred by recasting the relationship between the ‘deportees’ and the ‘occupiers’ as one among equals and by welcoming cherished  childhood memories.

That kind of reconciliation is, of course, the happy ending we all hope for when we think of Israel and its politically fraught borders. Apart from helping us understand the historical roots of the Israeli state, the stories about flow of legal and illegal immigration to pre-independence Israel (first under the Ottoman rule and later under the British mandate) shed some light on the fascinating social experiments that were enabled by the return to this region of young Jewish ‘pioneers’. Within the kibbutzim they set up, they sought to erase hierarchies of gender and class, to share all labor and promote egalitarian ideals. Whether or not the experiment fully succeeded, it was a wonderful illustration of the possibilities, as well as the perils, of crossing borders. (Moderated and summarized by Smriti)

Women in French Politics

Women’ s March to Versailles during the French Revolution”WCsg_women's march to versailles(image courtesy of – class struggle online)

WCSG November meeting was organized and moderated by Maryline Kautzmann:

I introduced the discussion on political women by sharing what I had learned from a few readings about women in French politics.

After a short historical review where I tried to show how women gradually made their way to the French political scene, I focused on three very different French political women:

Simone Veil, who is still considered by many as the best example of a successful political woman, Edith Cresson whose extremely short and negative experience as the first female Prime Minister was marked by deep-rooted political sexism, and Ségolène Royal, the first woman to have made it to the second round of presidential elections. I considered her a very positive example because her failing to be elected could not, in my opinion, be imputed on her gender.

Finally in a more improvised third part, I talked about Rachida Dati and Rama Yade, the two young and good-looking ministers during Sarkozy’s term. I wondered if their presence in the government was not part of strategy on the part of Sarkozy, to defuse critiques concerning his debatable decisions on immigration limitation. Ornit added that even though that may be the case, one should not undermine the fact that they both have been very powerful women,  which is extremely encouraging. Finally, I quickly mentioned Christiane Taubira, our current Minister of Justice, for her eloquence and determination and Marine Le Pen, the head of the nationalistic party the “Front National”, and whose recent popularity I qualified as terrifying despite the advance it may represent for women’s participation in politics.

A very interesting discussion followed.

Rajashree and Smriti talked about Indian women, and their role in politics. They explained how certain governmental instructions have placed women in important political positions on the local level. However these women’s role often comes down to being their husbands’ voices. Women’s participation in politics was imposed from the government which explains the fact that there has never been a real women’s movement in India. Women in India also unite for environmental causes: there was a Hugging tree movement: they prevented trees to be chopped off by hugging them or drawing effigies of the Gods on them.

Oge talked about politics in Mongolia. 10 out of 76 seats in the Parliament are reserved for women. Nonetheless, these women rarely dare to voice their opinions or concerns, except for one of them who comes from a remote rural area, who expresses herself despite her lack of political education. The wives of the political men of Mongolia can also be very powerful. They are often Russian and can have a great influence on their husbands.

Marguerite mentioned women who, in certain small communities, hold important positions and are very good examples of strong women. She deplored the fact that not much has been said about women like these.

As far as American political women are concerned, we mentioned, Sarah Palin, the “loose cat”. Linda said that in her opinion, Palin was chosen to be the vice-presidential nominee not because she was competent but rather because she was seen as both sexy and feisty.

Ruth mentioned Jane Swift, who was governor of Massachusetts, and who, much like Edith Cresson, had seen her career interrupted because many were not happy to see women holding such powerful positions.

We also talked about immigration:

We discussed the heated debates that exist in France concerning the Arabic immigration. Marguerite underlined how aggressive and stubborn many French people can become when talking about the Arabs. Elizabeth shared what she had learned about Norway and the way some people were actually proposing to consider only those born from a Norwegian mother as being eligible to the Norwegian nationality. (Moderated and summarized by Maryline)