HomeChallenging Power and Inequality: Gender and Social Justice in the Middle East

HomeChallenging Power and Inequality: Gender and Social Justice in the Middle East

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Published on Thursday, October 17, 2019


Lebanon Support is seeking submissions for the 2021 issue of the Civil Society Review on Challenging Power and Inequality: Gender and Social Justice in the Middle East. This CSR issue is interested in exploring the current landscape of gender and social justice activism both in Lebanon and across the MENA region through the lens of the myriad power dynamics embedded within the fields of “gender” and “gender equality” work and activism. 



Issue edited by: Gabriella Nassif 

Civil society in the Middle East has continued to centre initiatives and projects on gender equality and women’s rights over the past few years. In many ways, this can be read as a part of a long history of both activist and feminist engagements in the region. Since the rise of initial labour unions of women during the French Mandate in Lebanon and Syria (Thompson, 2000) and women’s active role in campaigns for suffrage and an expansion of their public roles under the newly-independent government (Hatem, 2005), to more current configurations of gender activism, such as the successful push to abolish “marry-your-rapist” laws in Tunisia, Lebanon, and Jordan and work to reform family law, activism across the region remains focused on gender equality and women’s rights.Such activism expanded even further with the rise of international feminism in the wake of the UN Decade for Women and the creation of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). With growing support in the form of international funding and increasing global pressures on states to become signatories of international human rights laws and conventions – specifically, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) – regional activists and organisations found powerful new allies to support their calls for gender equality and women’s rights. The expansion of organisations, projects, and initiatives dedicated to women’s rights and gender equality in the region, however, is not entirely unproblematic, nor is it ultimately a guarantor of a landscape more conducive to gender equitable policies and programs. The influx of donor money has brought with it a language of “human rights” and “democracy,” which many activists and established organisations in the region saw as an “imposition of western values” (Mitri, 2015). The push to “save” women, to quote Lila Abu-Lughod’s now famous critique, led to the erasure of local needs under the guise of a “universalist” agenda (Mohanty, 2003). Local organisations now more than ever are indebted to their donors, making it difficult and in some cases nearly impossible to remain accountable to the populations they serve.   This CSR issue is interested in exploring the current landscape of gender and social justice activism both in Lebanon and across the MENA region through the lens of the myriad power dynamics embedded within the fields of “gender” and “gender equality” work and activism. The call seeks submissions that pay special attention to the following three axes:  

1. Negotiating with the State

Liberal feminist strategies of gender equality focus on the institutionalization of gender inequality, and the resulting barriers to gender equality. As such, their strategies are mainly focused on the  state and other governing structures (Al-Ali, 2005; Connell, 1990). Within this framework, the state, at best, can become an avid protector of and advocate for gender equality and, at worst, it can remain an unapproachable and patriarchal institution (Goetz, 2003). The focus on the state as a primary target for gender reform is seen most clearly across the UN’s various platforms for gender equality that articulate, among other things, the importance of equal (women’s) representation in positions with decision-making power across the state apparatus. Currently, states are mandated to institutionalize gender equality, often in the form of a National Women’s Machinery (NWM) – an institutional body within the state machinery that aims to promote women’s interests and rights – or a women’s quota within ministries and parliament, often considered to be a huge success in the Middle East especially, given the historically male-dominated arenas of politics and government (Mazur and Mcbride, 2010). “Mainstreaming gender” and ensuring the representation of women and women’s interests at the level of national government, notes Rai, is part of democratization and “good governance,” both of which are critical to the long-term viability of gender equitable policies (Rai 2017). In many cases, however, the lack of political will and limited resources make gender mainstreaming initiatives such as NWM and women’s quotas little more than “symbolic commitments” to gender equality. Increasing women’s participation and representation across various levels of government without paying attention to the various power dynamics at play risks reasserting the same gender inequalities that gender mainstreaming initiatives claim to counteract. For example, a focus on institutionalising women’s quotas and NWM assumes that women’s equal representation in government – no matter which women occupy these positions – will ultimately lead to gender equality and policies that take women’s “issues” seriously. However, women are not a homogenous group and, more often than not, the women that are able to occupy these positions mandated by quotas and NWM are from the privileged fractions of society. This constitutes a major problem in the Middle East, as political positions are often allocated to those with social capital (Joseph, 1997) and where state feminism – defined as feminism that works within and through state structures – is not wholly representative of feminist demands and in many cases, actually undermines independent women’s movements (Lughod, 2009; Hern, 2017). This axis seeks contributions that highlight the unequal distribution of power in feminist mainstreaming strategies, specifically those focusing on the state and other places of institutional power in Lebanon and across the greater MENA region. - How and to what extent can the state be considered as a focal point for gender equality work today? - How can power be (re)negotiated within institutions that have been historically “gender-blind”? - What role does the state play in the push for gender equality? - What is at stake for gender equality advocates that choose to target the state and other structures of governance as part of their work towards gender equality? - What demands for gender equality can realistically be put on the state? - Has institutionalised (or state) feminism – via women’s quotas or NWM – been a productive force in the MENA region?  

2. The NGO-isation of Women’s “Movements” 

The rise of the NGO in the MENA, for many, signalled a potential counterweight to the controlling and in many cases authoritarian rule of states across the MENA region. It signalled the development of an “Arab civil society,” a “healthy sign of real, ‘bottom-up’ democracy” (Al-Ali, 2005; Islah, 2007). The growing presence of NGOs also signalled an increasing dependence on foreign financial aid; this was even more salient for women’s movements across the region, whose interactions with NGOs has produced contradictory results. The “NGO-isation” of women’s movements has in many cases effectively increased the visibility of women’s rights and raised awareness on the status of non-normative genders and sexualities across the region. With the support of powerful international organisations, local organisations and movements have been able to access a wider support base, and are better able to levy their concerns in the face of stringent or non-responsive governments.However, the benefits of donor-led development do not outweigh its costs. In a recent report conducted in Lebanon, gender equality advocates and actors voiced concerns about the “uneven relationships with their funders” and the “negative consequences” of short term projects as a result of limited project funding (Lebanon Support, 2016). Driven by “buzzwords” used by donors (Cornwall and Brock, 2005) and the focus areas chosen by donors, NGOs have become quite rigid, unable to quickly respond to current needs assessments and the demands of local populations. The resulting inflexibility reinforces the continued specialisation of NGOs that in turn encourages an almost territorial landscape: competition between NGOs for funding effectively seals off the boundaries between different sectors (Ackerly, 2006). This is exacerbated by the specific types and forms of work expected by donors; the rise of the project and “project logic” has effectively decontextualized comprehensive social justice demands in favour of simpler, “line item” issues that can be quantitatively accounted for at the closing of a project (Jad, 2007). This “project logic” results in NGO “elites” and project staff having the power to choose which issues are more important and therefore, deserve project resources. It is this top-down approach – starting with international donors and trickling down through NGO project management staff and implementers – that ultimately hinders the potential for collaborative work, and coalition building. This axis seeks contributions to the growing literature focused on the “NGO-isation” of social justice movements both in Lebanon and across the region, with a focus on the embedded power dynamics not only between donors and recipient organisations, but between local organisations and the populations they work with.  - Though the rise of the NGO – with the backing of international donors – has undoubtedly led to productive change, has this come at the expense of local movements and demands? - Are NGOs and other project-driven organisations accountable to the populations they serve? - Are the issues and “buzzwords” of the international community hindering, or developing activist work on the ground?- Can there be a productive mix of locally-driven initiatives with the support and funding of international organisations?  

3. Gender, Sex, and Sexuality 

More than ever, the language of human rights, equality, and empowerment has been embraced not only in activist circles, but within international development and humanitarian organisations and discourse. Across the region, the growing presence of organisations dedicated to gender equality and women’s empowerment has in many ways been cause for celebration. This language, however, seems to have been depleted of its once-radical roots now that they are part of the larger gender mainstreaming and human rights framework (Cornwall, 2007). The term “gender” in many cases is synonymous with “women-only” policies and projects, while “gender equality” has come to mean equality between women and men. A focus on “gender equality” or “women’s empowerment” often does not include a discussion of sex, sexuality, expression, or identity; worse, these terms are also used synonymously, obfuscating their real meanings, further depoliticising them (Lind, 2010). The UN’s adoption of specific terms – such as “violence against women (VAW)” or “gender-based violence (GBV)” gives rise to further confusion, and presents arbitrary divisions between terms that ultimately have, at their core, the same focus. This is not simply a matter of word choice: the continued misuse of these terms, and the narrowing of “gender” to imply only “women” actually works in service of the heteronormative binary. As such,  the term “gender equality” – and “gender” more broadly –  loses its radical roots. Defining these terms has only made them stagnant, depleting them of their political potential. This axis is interested in exploring the power of language more broadly in gender equality activism and work, and the power relations embedded in certain terms such as “gender” and “gender equality”. - What types of “knowledges” are circulated when terms like “gender” and “gender equality” are improperly used? - What is gained or lost when these words are used in different languages (English? Arabic?) - What happens when activists and advocates attempt to translate and transcribe these buzzwords? - In other words, are these terms indicative of local or regional knowledges, or are they simply a transcription from the Global North and mainstream development theory? - Are radical alternatives to mainstream development available as such? - What is the viability of those organisations and advocates who chose instead to challenge the binary, and take up terms outside of those sanctioned by the UN and other international organisations? 


Abstracts should be sent to: editor@lebanon-support.org 

before 1 November 2019

Specifying in the subject line the title of the CfP: “Challenging Power and Inequality: Gender and Social Justice in the Middle East.” Authors whose submissions have been accepted for publication will be notified within a month by the editors.Final papers should be shared with Lebanon Support for blind peer review by 3 February 2020. 

Submission guidelines

Lebanon Support encourages contributions from experienced scholars, early career researchers, PhD candidates, practitioners, activists, and civil society experts. Authors can submit papers in Arabic, English or French.  All papers will go through a double blind peer-review process. Priority will be given to submissions that adopt critical approaches to related concepts and categories, engage with a solid theoretical framework, and are based on empirical research.  

Abstract Submission Format

Submissions can be in Arabic, English, or French.Please submit the following details in a word document/pdf file:

  • Name(s)
  • Title(s) and affiliation(s)
  • Paper title
  • Abstract, not exceeding 500 words
  • Short bio of 250 words and one page CV
  • Corresponding email address

Papers should be between 8,000 and  10,000 words.  Practitioners testimonies should not exceed 3,000 words, and book reviews should be between 700 and 1000 words.For more information about the submission and the editorial process see here. Please note that Lebanon Support uses the Chicago style in text references for all its publication. 


  • Beirut, Lebanon


  • Friday, November 01, 2019


  • gender, inequality, power, social justice

Information source

  • Elias Monica
    courriel : monica [at] lebanon-support [dot] org


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Challenging Power and Inequality: Gender and Social Justice in the Middle East », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Thursday, October 17, 2019, https://calenda.org/692549

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