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Middle East Studies

Featured Honors Theses

Breaking and Making Sri Lankans: Serlankiyye Subjectivities and Practicing Lajja

Nikhita Mendis ’17

In 2012, Nesrine Malik published an article in The Guardian titled “Lebanon cannot be ‘civilised’ while domestic workers are abused” (Malik 2012). My goal in this project is twofold. Firstly, I argue that Lebanese discourse actually proves Lebanese ‘civility’ by constructing the Serlankiyye as a racialized, gendered and classed object, invisibilizing the systems that produce marginal subjecthood and relegating the Serlankiyye to heterotopic spaces. In Lebanon, the Serlankiyye is defined by dirt, irrationality/stupidity and guilt. Through this project I render visible the classed, gendered and racialized systems that construct Serlankiyye subjecthood and illustrate them as informed by the normative structures that emerge when the Lebanese anticolonial, nationalist project intersects with the Sri Lankan anti-colonial, nationalist project in a space where the former commands territorial and discursive authority.

Secondly, I demonstrate that what Lebanese society produces as Sri Lankan “irrationality” is informed by the Sri Lankan MDW practice of lajja – a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist concept of self-respect. I argue that Sri Lankans rearticulate lajja in Lebanon not to resist the Lebanese, but to reaffirm self-respect and recreate a sense of what it means to be a Sri Lankan in Lebanon. Nevertheless, since Sri Lankan MDWs practice lajja at the intersection of Sri Lankan and Lebanese nationalist projects, the very same acts that MDWs view as productive of lajja, employers frame as dirty, irrational and guilty. Given this fundamental disconnect, differing MDW accounts and employer accounts of MDW actions reinforce each other, as MDWs continue to navigate their experiences using lajja and employers continue to justify the conditions they impose on MDWs using dirt, irrationality and guilt.

In this vein, I push back on the existing literature about Sri Lankan workers in Lebanon, which perceives Sri Lankans through a resistance analytic and falls victim to the very same discourses that produce the Serlankiyye by viewing Sri Lankan subjecthood as one-dimensional. Through lajja, Sri Lankan MDWs engage in projects that go unseen by their supervisors, including employers, state institutions and human rights organizations. Ultimately, I propose the question: Are Sri Lankans really so easy to break?

View the full thesis here.

Reclaiming Jurisdiction Over the Law: Society and Shifting Power Dynamics within Women’s Huquq (Civil Law) Schools in Jeddah

Noura AlZaid ’16

This thesis investigates legal education/training in Saudi Arabia, specifically studying women’s Huquq schools in Jeddah. It examines the ways in which Huquq schools and their students, including the aspiring female legal professionals who are at the core of this study, work to revitalize society’s role in shaping the legal system and defining society’s moral fabric. This analysis suggests that this emerging bottom-up force for change is a part of a larger shift in the dynamics of power, assuming a more decentralized nature. The study is rooted within two chief contexts: 1) the Kingdom’s transformation as a globalized state with a civil society and civil participation as well as new forms of political expression; 2) challenges to the status quo, specifically the bargain between the ‘ulama and the royal family.

View the full thesis here. 

Transforming Refugees Into “Illegal Immigrants:” Neoliberalism, Domestic Politics, and Syrian Refugee Employment in Jordan

Emily Harris ’16

As Syrian refugees have arrived in Jordan since 2012, fleeing a brutal civil war in their home country, they have entered a policy environment shaped not only by previous waves of refugees but also by decades of neoliberal policy formation. Yet few analyses of Syrian refugee migration address the influence of neoliberalism on Jordanian policy, while the literature on neoliberal migration policy does not often extend to cases of refugee movement in the Global South. This thesis therefore uses a combination of primary and secondary source material to analyze how Jordanian citizens have interacted with their state’s refugee policies, with an eye to existing literature on neoliberal migration frameworks and state-citizen relationships under neoliberalism.

In this thesis, I make three central claims. First, I establish that the Jordanian government’s Syrian refugee policies bear the imprint of neoliberal values and systems. Like neoliberal migration policies documented by sociologists and geographers in other settings, Jordanian refugee policy has facilitated the exploitation of Syrian refugees in the labor force by preventing refugees from living and working legally. Second, while the literature on other settings indicates that states must portray migrants as racial “others” or criminals in order to legitimate neoliberal migration policies, I argue that these tactics are ineffective in the Jordanian context. Syrians’ claims to humanitarian status, as well as the close links between the Jordanian and Syrian communities, appear to make Jordanian citizens less receptive to this kind of rhetoric. Third, I show that Jordanians do not simply react reflexively to changes in their access to resources, whether due to neoliberal austerity measures or the arrival of new populations; Jordanian citizens have both critiqued the neoliberal aspects of Syrian refugee policy and articulated a desire for greater government regulation of Syrian refugee employment, in contradiction of neoliberal ideology and practice. These findings, illustrating the extent to which the Jordanian case complicates and adds nuance to existing sociological and geographic theory, underscore the importance of examining the full range of neoliberal migration policies and popular reactions to neoliberalism in the Global South.

View the full thesis here. 

New York City and Post-911 Era: Labor Market Outcomes for Arabs and Muslims

Julian Jiggetts ’16

This study builds on prior research that examined labor market outcomes for Arab and Muslims post 9/11. Using integrated public use micro-data samples from both the 2000-year Census and American Community Survey I found that Arab, Afghani, Iranian and Pakistani men have lower wage premiums in the year 2000 and 2011 than non-Hispanic whites in the New York City metropolitan area. This wage differential decreased in magnitude in the decade between the two years of focus. I have also chosen to study the demographic profiles and ancestry of Arabs and Muslims in the New York City metropolitan area to better understand the socio-economic makeup of the city’s Middle Eastern and Muslim population.

View the full thesis here. 

International Entanglements with Migrant Workers’ Rights in the UAE: Modern Day Slavery, Migration Governance & Codes of Conduct

Sana Parvaiz Siddiq ’16

In the context of some activists’ and organizations’ attempts to internationalize labor regulation, I turn to the case of migrant workers’ rights in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), using it as a case study to analyze global institutions and movements that attempt to improve local labor conditions. Today corporate codes of conduct and international naming-and-shaming NGOs such as Human Rights Watch proliferate and there is great hope that international monitoring schemes, codes of conduct and naming and shaming tactics can reign in the excesses of multinational corporations. Likewise, in an era where globalization is presented as endless opportunity for exchange, growth and development – elevated almost to an ideology of globalism, there is also a discourse around the power and ability of international legal instruments, organizations, and transnational campaigns to force corporations and governments to improve their track record of protecting labor rights.

The UAE is a particularly interesting case study because of a number of factors. It is a wealthy state that maintains low labor standards (although it is not compelled to in order to attract foreign investment). Between 85-90% of the country’s population consists of foreign workers who are viewed as “eternally temporary,” by the state and the indigenous population. Finally, as the UAE government attempts to diversify its economy and attract cultural and financial capital, it has a heavy stake in its public image.

I argue that that these international engagements have had very limited impacts on the ground, despite the powerful rhetoric of “modern day slavery” used to galvanize condemnation of Gulf state labor practices. While these international campaigns have been successful in politicizing the discourse, laws and standards have been reformed only superficially. The various Gulf state governments have coopted the very framework that international standards have used to target the labor practices, in order to “sell” its cosmetic changes in laws by creating zones of exception and harnessing media coverage. Meanwhile, the underlying structural systems that facilitate worker abuse remain untouched.

View the full thesis here. 

Framing Iran: How ‘politics of perception’ inform our view of Iranian Contemporary Art

Layla M. Heidari ’15

This paper discusses the “exceptionality narrative” that is occurring in today’s discussion of Iranian contemporary art. This paradigm refers to the ways in which Western discourse about Iranian artistic expression presents it as an anomaly in an otherwise restrictive and authoritarian society. The exceptionality narrative situates the work of a selected few artists within political perceptions of the Iranian state rather than analyzing it for its art historical, formal and curatorial merit. This common tendency is one that is projected onto the Iranian artist from the outside world and assumes that, given the conservative nature of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the restrictions on civil liberties, artists must be the defiant exceptions to society. This misconception in turn, creates a false expectation that Iranian art only complains about its society and circumstances. This paradigm then denies artists inside Iran the opportunity to be active players in the international contemporary art community.

Heidari examines this paradigm critically through an invested account of the Tehran art scene. She draws many of her conclusions from original research conducted in Tehran in August 2014. She aims to put the common Western exhibition practices of Iranian Art in conversation with the vibrant and diverse voices that are at play in the Tehran art scene today. She will interrogates the pervasive practice of having a handful of Iranian artists, selected by the Western art scene,standing in for an entire community of cultural producers. Instead, by focusing her work on artists who have grown up entirely in post revolutionary Iran, she explores the effect of the real time social and political circumstances on their artistic practice. She draws on personal interviews, first person narratives and literature from Iran (artist websites, publications and catalogues).

View the full thesis here. 

When Motherhood Meets Social Protest: Fatima Through the Lens of Ayatollah Khomeini and Ali Shariati

Abby Linn ’15

In the second half of the twentieth century, Iran underwent rapid change. The Iranian Revolution brought about extensive societal reform that switched Iran from having a leader who valued Western influences, to one who was the definition of Islam and anti-imperialism. Although many Iranians participated in the revolution from a range of religious, socioeconomic, and ideological backgrounds, few of them had values that aligned with those of the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini, and other Islamic theorists like Ali Shariati, extensively used religious rhetoric in their appeals to Iranians. Although they rallied men and women alike, the prevalence of female imagery in the years around the revolution is fascinating. This thesis takes an in-depth look at the speeches of Ayatollah Khomeini and Ali Shariati as they encourage women to participate in the revolutionary cause through female imagery associated with historical Islamic figures, namely Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Mohammad. Through extensive appeals to Fatima and a strong focus on motherhood as the cornerstone of a moral Islamic society, Khomeini and Shariati engendered strong levels of commitment from Iranian women for a religious cause that limited their public presence in society and encouraged them to stay in the home.

View the full thesis here.

Arab Women, Red Lines:The Anti-Sexual Harassment Movement in Egypt

Sophia Sepulveda ’15

Since the Egyptian revolution of 2011, national and international reports noting the prevalence of sexual street harassment in Egypt have proliferated, establishing sexual harassment as one of Egypt’s greatest societal ills. Although sexual harassment is a global phenomenon, its existence in Egypt is particularly notable due to the high percentage of Egyptian women who have experienced some form of this type of violence in their lifetime. In this thesis, I trace the development of the phenomenon in Egypt, and emphasize the importance of formulating a national response appropriate to the Egyptian context, rather than implanting the international human rights regime’s formula and approach to the issue. I argue that this contextual response exists in the form of an Anti-Sexual Harassment (A-SH) movement, composed of Egyptian civil society groups and latent networks of female victims and their allies. This thesis examines prominent social movement theories for their capacity to explain the rise of this movement, and critiques them for their dependence on Western social movements as models of analysis, and subsequent assumptions of non-authoritarian state contexts. I conclude that the contextual and local focus of the A-SH movement has allowed it to achieve societal impact and to shift public understanding of sexual harassment. In identifying the impending opportunities and challenges presented by Egypt’s authoritarian regime and increasing foreign involvement, I emphasize the need for the movement to remain autonomous and contextual in focus.

View the full thesis here.

The Politics of Healthcare Reform in Turkey

Christina Kata ’14

Since the 1960s, various political parties and coalitions have attempted to reform healthcare access in Turkey. However, it wasn’t until the emergence of the AK Party in 2001 that broad healthcare reform was finally implemented. In my thesis, I explore four questions: how the sociopolitical and economic climate of Turkey during the 1920s-1990s stalled significant healthcare reforms; the factors that enabled the AK Party to succeed where previous governments had failed; the impact these reforms had on the healthcare indicators of the populace; and finally, why the AK Party felt that healthcare reform was a political priority, especially given the other concerns facing Turkey at the turn of the 21st century? I argue that, while the AK Party was able to enact healthcare reforms that had positive effects on the healthcare indicators of the populace, including a lower infant mortality rate and a higher life expectancy, it did so primarily to court votes from the working class segment of its political base, which was agitating for better healthcare services in rapidly expanding urban areas.

View the full thesis here.

A New Phase in Jewish and Muslim Maghrebi Cultural Separation: Moroccan and Tunisian Diasporas in France React to the “Arab Spring” 

Sarah L. Forman ’13

The “Arab Spring” brought significant change to governments and public consciousness in both Morocco and Tunisia after January 2011. It also had repercussions for Maghrebi citizens living outside their birth countries. Tunisian and Moroccan expatriates in France quickly found themselves with grater opportunity and motivation to become socially and politically involved in the democratizing shifts happening across the Mediterranean. Many Muslim Maghrebi immigrants became more actively connected to their birthplaces by voting, participating in social organizations, and increasing communication with communities back home. Jewish immigrants in France from the same countries, however, show no parallel increase in post-“Arab Spring” connections to the Maghreb and instead appear to grow even more distant. Based upon three months of fieldwork and interviews gathered in France, Morocco and Tunisia, this thesis addresses and contextualizes these differences between Jewish and Muslim Maghrebi immigrants’ behavior in France. In explaining the roots and consequences of expatriate Jews’ non-participation in the “Arab Spring,” the paper argues that Jewish Maghrebis in France are entering a new phase in a century-old process cultural alienation from North Africa and its people.

View the full thesis here.

Reimagining ‘Good Muslim, Bad Muslim’: Public Theologies of Citizenship and Belonging in the Republic of India

Meghan Koushik ’13

This thesis analyzes why, despite a high level of constitutional protections within the framework of the secular state, the Muslim community in India continues to face considerable levels of societal discrimination and a lack of access to economic opportunity. The thesis argues that Muslims have been branded as separate from broader definitions of Indian citizenship, through an examination of relevant public theologies and their substantive, spatial, spiritual and temporal dimensions. It examines the claim that Muslims, when castigated as distinct, and therefore unable to be accommodated within the secular framework of the Indian state, are relegated to a dichotomy of ‘good Muslim, bad Muslim’, wherein a Muslim must prove his loyalty to the nation over religious affiliation to access the right of citizenship and belonging to the Indian state. This thesis further examines the spiritual discourses of both Islam and Hinduism that contribute to this claim, the historical legacy that has perpetuated the idea of separateness between Hindus and Muslims, and finally, present-day governmental policies that have furthered the divide.

View the full thesis here.