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Mai Ghoussoub & Emma Sinclair Webb (eds), 'Imagined Masculinities: Male Identities and Culture in the Modern Middle East'

Saqi Books, 2000. ISBN 0 86356 043. 294 pp

Over recent years, writings on gender in the Middle East have tended to focus on the status of women under Islam. The contributors to this volume, by contrast, explore the manner in which male identities are created and reproduced in different societies and settings within the Middle East.

What the contributors share is the basic assumption that masculinity is socially constructed, there is no fixed determinant of “male-ness”. What surprised me in reading some of the accounts of how masculinity is constructed in key situations is the intimate link with violence.

Thus, Julie Peteet examines how active resistance against the Israeli occupation generated status for young men during the Palestinian intifada. She notes that the Israelis, in an effort to undermine the prestige of the young men released from detention, began sexually abusing their prisoners during torture sessions – you can be proud of withstanding beatings, but you don't boast about being raped.

In another contribution Danny Kaplan examines how a gay Israeli adapted to life in an elite combat unit, thereby affirming the significance of military service as an initiation to and confirmation of Zionist masculinity. In so doing Kaplan shows that just because someone is gay it doesn't mean that they will resist the dominant culture in spheres other than sexuality.

Perhaps the most interesting contribution for Peace News readers is Emma Sinclair-Webb's exploration of the centrality of military service to the socialisation of men in Turkey. The military has played a dominant role in political life since the foundation of the modern state of Turkey in 1923.

One consequence of this is the widespread acceptance of the military's ideal of masculinity, and the absence of any culture of anti-militarism amongst dissident political and social groupings in Turkey. All this makes one realise just how remarkable are those who are struggling for the right to conscientious objection in Turkey. They are not just challenging the state but the whole militaristic culture and, in the process, the dominant images of the “true man”.

Reading this chapter I found myself thinking that resisters like Osman*, men who are prepared to say “No” to violence, represent an alternative image of masculinity, one that also involves courage and resistance to hardship, but for the sake of an inclusive vision of humanity rather than a narrow militaristic nationalism.

* Osman Murat Ulke is a Vice-Chair of War Resisters' International

Topics: Gender