Symposium “Arab Women and Transgression”

International Symposium “Arab Women and Transgression: At the Boundary of Good and Bad”

On October 14, 2018, the Institute for Gender Studies (IGS) at Ochanomizu University hosted an international symposium titled “Arab Women and Transgression: At the Boundary of Good and Bad.” The symposium was coordinated by Jan Bardsley, Specially Appointed Professor at IGS and Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (at the time), and she invited her colleagues—Nadia Yaqub, Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Diya Abdo, Associate Professor at Guilford College—as keynote speakers. Yoko Totani, Professor at Ochanomizu University, took the role of a discussant and contributed to the development of an intercultural discussion on the transgressive actions and expressions made by women.

The theme of the symposium was based on a book titled Bad Girls of the Arab World (2017), which is coedited by Yaub. This book project was inspired by Bad Girls of Japan (2005), which is coedited by Bardsley. In the introductory remark at the beginning of the symposium, Bardsley explained the concept of “bad girls.” The gender norm in a society defines “good girls,” and such good girl ideology may delimit women’s creativity. “Bad girls” are the women who have chosen to transgress the “good girls” limitations, and their creativity has gained remarkable achievements in breaking a new ground for women.

In her keynote speech, titled “Bad Girls of Arab World,” Nadia Yaqub analyzed what transgression of women in the Arab world represents. The analysis was made from an expanded perspective, considering Arab women’s points of view, Arab societies’ points of view, and Western societies’ points of view. Yaqub presented some art works which are created by young female artists. One of them was a photograph in which an artist explicitly presented her naked body. Through this form of transgression, she attempted to express her challenge to the social norm that requires women to cover up their bodies. One the other hand, sometimes a woman’s image was used as a symbol of resistance regardless of her will or choice. For instance, a woman who participated in a protest was involved in a violent action by soldiers, her image fighting against them was widely distributed, and women activists regarded her as a hero. The image also triggered a social discussion on gender and violence. In some Western societies, particularly those with an anti-Islam tendency, these women’s images all-together are interpreted and simplified as women’s resistance to the patriarchy in Arab society. The development of the digital media has enabled women to create new forms of expressions and to deliver their works across the world. This extensive dissemination has resulted in diverse interpretations and discussions.

These interpretations and discussions are an indication that the yardstick of transgression is not fixed or clear. A social norm is created by society, but defining what is regarded as transgression can be influenced by the dynamic interaction between individuals or communities. For example, the agent that defines transgression in Arab societies is not always men; women also delimit their own actions. Studying western feminism may affect the agent’s perspective to define transgression. The reason for transgression is not always resistance or actions that challenge the gender norm, it can be an inevitable choice for survival. Restricting women’s actions, behaviors, and expressions is a violation of human rights that has always attracted international criticism. However, women in Arab societies do not necessarily see themselves or like to be seen as victims of the socio-cultural structure of their societies. The examination of various forms of transgressions sheds light on women’s continuous efforts to be creative as they challenge social norms in a society where respect for tradition and contemporary transformation co-exit.

Diya Abdo’s keynote speech, titled “Navigating love and badness in America and the Arab world: The Dilemma of the Cultural Transgressor,” was a story based on her personal experience of transgression. She was born and educated in the U.S. After the 9.11, she started experiencing difficulties in dealing with two of her identities—one as a feminist in the U.S. and another as a member of the Arab-Islamic society. She saw herself becoming a transgressor in both communities. After a while, she was offered a post in a Jordanian university and moved to live in an Islamic society. In Jordan, adapting Islamic cultural norm was required, and she found out that the president and the dean were not concerned about her academic achievements but rather the appropriateness of her clothing. In addition, as a result of one of her academic papers being misinterpreted, she was accused of being anti-Islamic. Despite her efforts, her actions were regarded as transgression in Jordan. With a sense of disappointment, she returned to the U.S. and got a job at Gilford College. She felt a certain degree of comfort in the U.S., although she still experienced some difficulties fitting in the American society.

Abdo started a refugee support project (Every Campus A Refuge (ECAR)) in 2015, after watching a report on a Syrian child refugee who drowned in the Mediterranean. The word “campus” in Arabic also means “refuge.” It helped her to come up with the idea that a university campus, as a community, should also accept refugees. So far, the Greensborough community has received 42 refugees from Syria, Iraqi, Uganda, and Congo and facilitated their local settlement. For Abdo, this project also helped her connect the two different societies where she belonged—the American society and the Arab society—with her hands. She said that through her work, family life, and the ECAR project, she finally came to accept that it was impossible to be good in every sense of one’s life. Trying to be good concurrently in different social values exhausted her, and this realization was liberation from the pressure to be a perfect “good girl” and the feeling of guilt for transgression.

In response to the two keynote speeches, Yoko Totani made comments from the perspective of researching performing arts in the U.S. “The personal is political” was the slogan of the American feminist movement in the 1960s. In the movement, telling and delivering a “herstory” was regarded as important, and along with that discussion, women artists (“bad girl” artists) presented their naked bodies in their artworks as “herstory.” Those who thought that artistic creation was a preserve of men and that women’s bodies must be beautiful in a way to respond to the desires of men accused these “bad girl” artists of causing cultural disturbances. Artistic expressions of young Arab women in Yaqub’s presentation followed the path of the 1960s feminist movement, but the environment of telling, delivering, and listening to “herstory” in the 21st century must be far more complex. The analysis of the current condition needs to take into account the “post-post-colonial” social environment. The globally developed information technology has facilitated the prompt transnational dissemination of the locally produced representation.

Totani further observed that the global movement of people and information in the 21st century was also part of the key aspects characterized in Abdo’s story. Looking at the societies where you belong to from abroad helps one develop an objective perspective. However, in the cases of people who are living in two different cultures, the situation may not be so straightforward. When these two cultures maintain different social values, what is perceived as being “good” in these places may contradict to each other. This is likely to cause a serious dilemma and conflict. Totani argued that experiencing such dilemma and conflict may bring about a deeper understanding of two cultures, particularly in terms of the differences in the standpoints and ways of thinking. She stressed that there must be a significant meaning of Abdo’s “herstory” being told within the scope of higher education in the U.S.

In the subsequent discussion, Bardsley asked the audience to talk about Japanese women’s experiences. Responding to that call, the discussion topic moved on to Japanese social environment, which has made it difficult for women to speak up. For example, the #MeToo movement in Japan did not seem to elicit a lot of public discussions because victims of groping are likely to be silenced and sexual harassment victims hardly earn social sympathy. The participants observed that such situations are caused by the Japanese social structure, which seems to allow power disparity between men and women. The role of universities in changing this power structure was also discussed. The participants were of the view that increasing the number of women who advance to higher education alone will not help. Therefore, the content of the courses provided in higher learning institutions is also equally important. For instance, studying about concealed gender bias in cultural representations can be a primary step toward addressing gender inequality issues. Therefore, learning opportunities should not be limited to classroom settings, holding public discussions in campuses, such as this symposium, may also contribute to making changes in societies. The lively discussion that took place in this symposium is a clear indication that this was a meaningful learning opportunity for all the participants.

Kumi Yoshihara (Project Research Fellow, IGS)

【Event Information】