Amélie Le Renard is a sociologist at CNRS (Centre Maurice Halbwachs, Paris). She is the author of A Society of Young Women. Opportunities of Place, Power and Reform in Saudi Arabia (Stanford University Press, 2014)
She will be an invited researcher at UC Berkeley’s Department for Women and Gender Studies, in September and October 2016.
Contact: amelie.lerenard (at) gmail.com
-> What triggered your interest in Gender Studies?
In the beginning of my research on Saudi women, I was critical of widespread discourses seeing Muslim women as necessarily oppressed, and the veil as a sign of oppression, especially in France, in the aftermath of 2004 law forbidding headscarves in public schools. My interest in gender studies arose when I began reading postcolonial gender studies that analyzed how the claims to “women’s rights” have been entangled in complex relations of power. Postcolonial gender studies on Middle Eastern societies have criticized one-dimensional approaches of Middle Eastern women, showing that living in authoritarian, postcolonial states, and, for some, in war situations, also constructs their gendered experience.
-> According to you, has the reflection on Gender Studies evolved over the past years, if we consider the publication of “Gender Trouble” by Judith Butler (1990) a reference point?
Of course, it has evolved importantly, and Gender Trouble is a central contribution. The idea of performativity helped me analyzing the transformation of gender norms, femininities and masculinities, among young urban Saudi women. At the same time, it is important to realize that gender studies are a huge, and extremely rich and lively, field of research. Personally, I am very interested in the ways in which Black feminists have been thinking and conceptualizing the articulations of gender, race and class, since the 1980s. So I would not choose one single reference point – or author.
-> The operation “Gender in Translation” as it has been conceived originally tries to put into perspective French and American approaches to Gender Studies. Does this distinction still seem relevant to you? Why?
I don’t think it is possible to define one single, national, approach to gender studies, neither in France nor in the US – the contrary would be worrying. Also, ideas are circulating and scholars working in gender studies in France read and discuss authors that are not based in France. What we can compare is resources: in the US, gender studies are institutionalized while in France, many of the scholars working in this field are in precarious positions. It is also very difficult to get works in gender studies published by presses that distribute books beyond confidential circles. When I submitted my book proposal on young urban Saudi women’s transforming lifestyles, a press in France answered: “Women are a too specific subject. We want a general book on Saudi Arabia.” The reception of my book proposal was very different in the US. Beyond my own experience, the lack of access to stable positions and to publishers engenders the invisibility of many works. Significantly, several PhDs articulating gender, race and class have been written in French universities, but their authors did not go on in the academia, and were never able to have their ideas published. These works remained confidential. It is a huge problem.
-> Could you define the specificity of your approach to Gender Studies?
As a sociologist of cities in the Arabian Peninsula, I have been very inspired by anthropological works that have studied Middle Eastern societies with postcolonial feminist approaches. In Saudi Arabia, I have been trying to understand the complexities of women’s experiences and their articulation with the 2000s governmental discourse of reform that was aimed to “fight terrorism”, but also promoted new subjectivities for Saudi citizens. I looked at how young, urban, educated women used this consensual discourse in their own purposes, and managed to expand their mobility and activities in a highly constrained context marked by the suppression of any collective action.
Lately, I have been working on a new project about Western residents in Dubai as a hegemonic group; my approach articulates gender, sexuality, class, race and nation. My work in such societies where huge proportions of the population are not national citizens (about one third in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and about 90% in Dubai) makes nation and nationality central to understand how hierarchies – including gender – are formed. However, the Arabian Peninsula is far from exceptional in this regard. Taking into account how the national/non-national divide, and the Western passport/non-Western passport divide, participate in multidimensional social hierarchies, seems important, especially in current times.
-> Does your research in the field of Gender Studies bear a civic and/or political engagement? Is this an important aspect for you?
Of course. Beyond academic work, gender studies and feminist thought transformed me. While I tend to separate my academic and militant activities, what I learn among militants nourishes my research and vice versa. My research is not directly connected to major political concerns outside the Arabian Peninsula (where my book was translated and circulated), but in France, for instance, presenting my research is a good starting point to discuss stereotypes circulating on Saudi women, and how these stereotypes are constructed.
-> As a scholar/artist/thinker/curator/…, what does the title “Gender in Translation” evoke for you?
Gender, as a social hierarchy and as a normative framework, is constructed differently in each social context. Translation is all the more productive when we keep this in mind – take into account the singularity of the context where such concept/idea was elaborated, even when the author presents their thought as universal. I wish translations were more multidirectional: we are deprived from so many interesting thoughts on gender-related issues because of language.