THE ABDIN CHAIR FOR WOMEN’S STUDIES:
CAIRO - SUMMER 1999
I have just returned from six weeks in Egypt. Most of this period was spent interacting with the researchers and participants of a forum studying women and civilization. The latter is the outgrowth of the activities engaged in Cairo the previous summer. I shall give a brief description of this group before reporting on its more recent activities and agenda during the 1999 summer. Before I do so however, I would like to make two observations: I was there during August, which coincides with the 'dead season', when schools, offices, and most businesses are shut for the summer. Most Cairenes are out of town, and whatever activity is engaged in almost goes against the grain, and is done at 'half staff.' It is usually very hot at this time, and even where people might be available, productivity is low. I mention this, in order to appreciate the accomplishments of my visit, notwithstanding. The fact that this trip was part of my annual holiday is beside the point. The main thing to keep in mind is that this period, particularly, the five weeks between August 10 and September 15 - was one of the more productive spans in my own academic year – 1998-99.
First.The Women’s Studies Circle in Cairo
This is a core research group set up as an autonomous unit within the institutional framework of the Civilization Center for Political Studies in Cairo. It has its own administrative structure presided by a qualified senior researcher, who represents me as the Chair at the Graduate School, both in a personal and a professional capacity. She is supported by another dynamic, capable and dedicated political science postgraduate who serves as principal coordinator and contact person as well as being a main researcher on the team. It is through this key position that most of the interaction between the Cairo Circle and myself here, at headquarters, is reliably secured. The other semi-permanent members consist of another three graduates, all pursuing their studies, while part-timing and associated with the Research Circle on a regular basis. This core group interacts with a floating number of outsiders, or a potential pool of collaborators, who may either be contracted for specific research duties at any given moment, depending on the need or research agenda in progress, or with elements who may simply be interested to visit with the circle from time to time and participate or contribute to its activities. This latter sporadic infusion is something we encourage in an effort to expand the Circle and to reach into the local community. Our priority however, at this incipient stage of our work, is to get on with a specific research agenda to ground our prospective curriculum and enhance our scholarly reputation in a new field. In principle, the core group has been set up as a major support structure for the Chair and the range of its activities and duties are currently assigned on an annual basis, as part of the policies and agenda of the Chair. An element of this policy and vision is to provide a training forum for promising graduates in our outreach communities and to foster a medium where the vision and mission for which our School stands can be appreciated, if not actually to create a future constituency for our programs. As another element in this policy too, a modicum of initiative, autonomy, and responsibility is encouraged within the units that we establish and with whom we work at the local level. This is more than a counsel of expediency so as to facilitate our collaboration with nationals in settings outside the familiar jurisdiction of the USA. I believe it is more productive in the long run and that it better serves the intellectual and academic ends for which we strive.
In order to enhance our scholarly and cultural activities in Egypt, it is necessary to encourage and support local initiatives. One such initiative launched early this Spring was the Association for the Study of Women and Civilization, ASWIC. This has been approved NGO status and is duly registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs. Working closely with ASWIC, together with our present institutional affiliation with the Center for Political Studies, should provide for a sustainable matrix for pursuing our scholarly activities there. We are careful to coordinate and integrate our activities through both arenas, namely the research unit affiliated to the Center, and the new Association. While ASWIC and the Abdin Chair Research Unit, may not be identical in membership, the scope of their activity overlaps, and the output of the research in progress at any given moment may be shared among the different arenas, as need and prudence dictate. What these two arenas share in principle, apart from a general scope of interest and activity, is a common vision and leadership, and the fact that they both work out of the same shared facilities. This a small rented apartment centrally located in one of Cairo’s residential quarters, which has been set up as an office, and which provides the locus for the activities of the core circle, lending it stability and continuity.
The mere existence of this physical space has contributed much to the team spirit of the group, as well as enabling it to develop its archives, and to conduct and implement major activity. The girls feel they belong, and they love the place and take pride in it. It is simply furnished, adequate, modest, yet elegant, with all the requisite office facilities: including computer, internet, and telephone lines. The latest addition to it while I was there, was an oval 2m x 1.60 m. conference table with six leather swivel chairs. More than an image booster in its setting, it certainly gives added capabilities for the weekly meetings and periodic workshops which are staples on the agenda out there, – not only during my visits - at which point there is a natural intensification of activity! (For the activities of the Circle throughout the year, see separate attachment.)
THE CIRCLE OF WOMEN’S STUDIES
The purpose of my visit was primarily to follow up on the activities of the research group working out of Cairo. This included a check up on the status of the newly acquired and renovated office premises that had been set up earlier in the year, in February 1999. At that time I was attending a workshop on the bibiliographic surveys in progress, a maiden project launched in the Fall and supervised and advised from my workstation in Herndon through an internet 'hotline.' [See Attachment : projects in progress.] My summer agenda was thus divided between a number of inhouse events relating to ongoing research and prospective engagements on the one hand [See below] and consolidating the administrative infrastructure of the new office. Other than that, the most important single event was a public lecture on September 12 addressing the following theme: "The Reformist Discourse and the Woman Question at the Beginning of the Century" (= an epoch in Egyptian socio-political and cultural history referred to as the ‘nahda’ [renaissance]) - a topic selected to mark the centennial of a controversial publication on The Emancipation of Women (1899). The event was co-hosted by the Center for Epistemological Studies and ASWIC and its importance was due to the fact that it marked the first public activity by our newly created NGO. This coming out was covered by sections of the Arabic media, including television. Shortly before I left I was interviewed for the press where the need for Muslim women’s studies was addressed and the mission of ASWIC explained. It might be mentioned here that I could have been more involved in this kind of publicity had I been more attentive and responsive to the media. But this was not my priority.
On a more personal note, throughout my stay I had very little time for myself - considering that, after all, this was my annual summer break and an opportunity to visit back with family and friends. Indeed, one of the findings of this visit was that whatever accomplishments gained on the women's research front had exacted a price. Having elected to establish an office in Cairo meant that henceforth any idea of enjoying a break with family, or quite simply any privacy, would have to be relinquished. When I left Egypt in mid September, it was in a rush in order to get back to Leesburg for a semester that had already started. (At that time, I was under the impression that I had a class lined up for a course on women in Islam!!)
A. Meetings and Workshops: Four events in all were organized during less than three weeks between August 13th - 31st. A fifth event scheduled for September 8 was cancelled at the last minute for various considerations and made way for the September 12th engagement. Below I shall briefly describe these various events, beginning with the one that was dropped - since the cancellation was more about rescheduling an activity and reconsidering its format, rather than affecting its substance.
The other focus of discussion went to a proposal to examine the sources for women's history in an attempt to identify its nodes and systematically re-chart its course in directions that can contribute to resolving some of the divisive or ambivalent issues in changing societies and cultures. After addressing some of the controversial issues raised by such a project, and identifying some of the available resources, it was agreed that this would be a challenging and important project that could well define our research agenda for the year 2000. The decision was taken to go ahead and submit a detailed proposal, outlining content and procedure, with timelines and estimated budget, so that it could be formally endorsed and allocated the requisite resources. A transcript of the proceedings is now available for our records. [ See Attachment… ]
The meeting that took place on August 21 was more of a brainstorming session. In addition to interacting with a few of those who were working on aspects of the literature in view, a couple of outsiders were invited to participate in the discussion of the proposed agenda for an upcoming seminar. As a result of these discussions, we came up with a new agenda, which we will be announcing as a call for papers, and on the basis of which we can publicize the event. This paper is currently being revised for some final modifications, before it is published within the next week or so. ( See Attachment).
Meeting with those working on English reviews : A discussion theme was how to read a piece of literature: What are the elements we look for in our review or summary? One of my short essays was passed round in advance, and this became the material for addressing some relevant concerns. Also some exchange followed on the basis of the report that the group's coordinator had submitted .
Background: The focus of the work here is on current works in English that address women in the Muslim world. The purpose is twofold: one is to expose the group to the relevant literature in the field: and train them to do some primary processing of that material . The end product could be used for various ends, including our curriculum resources. The other track is to review some Arabic material and make it available for non Arabic reading audiences. In this capacity, the group supplements the work going on in Arabic, which is the mainstream of our activity in Cairo, and select some of that work to reproduce (translate) in English. On the basis of actual experience, it was found that the latter half of the project was the one that was more productive, and original. However, because of certain logistic difficulties in recruiting a committed 'workforce' here (and the fact of our limited resources, financial constraints, and not wanting to spread ourselves too thin, ) we have re-organized the way in which the group works, and will have it streamlined, as part of the main group, .. rather than having it continue to function as a separate entity with its quasi independent coordinator -as was the case before. [For excerpt from Administrative Report by team coordinator, see Attachment]
Other than these formal meetings and events, there was practically a daily agenda on a smaller and - occasionally - a more intensive scale. This dealt with planning and logistics, a discussion of projects in progress, deciding on timelines and resolving some obstacles. It also dwelled on administrative details tending to the organization and performance of the internal units (notably, the archival collection) as part of the steady development of the research infra-structure in material and technical terms. A general account and evaluation of the scope of this secondary activity will be the subject of the next installment of this Report.