Monday, March 16, 2009

Why is the washing machine in the kitchen? Contemplating gender roles in the Meditarranean

If you have ever spent time around the Mediterranean, you may have experienced the peculiar phenomenon of finding the washing machine in the kitchen. I've seen this in many apartments from Rome to Cairo. Some argue this reflects Mediterranean societies: putting the washing machine in the kitchen keeps women in their place.

The traditional view of Mediterranean societies, from Italy to Egypt, says men are in charge and women are subservient to their men. Men dominate the public sphere. They gather in cafes or in shisha (water-pipe) bars, discussing politics and football. Women, on the other hand, are relegated to the private sphere. They appear in public accompanied by a male relative or keep out of the way, perhaps congregating in homes or on side streets, and they discuss happenings in their communities.

But the traditional view taken by the social sciences is exceedingly Euro-centric and male-dominated. The social sciences today remain essentially what they were as disciplines 100 years ago, when they were created by Western male academics attempting to fit everything into terms they were familiar with. Stagnation and resistance to change within the disciplines was the result, according to Lisa Anderson, a specialist on politics in MENA. Considering this, the gender situation in the Mediterranean can be viewed very differently.

Women’s interest in subjects dealing with interpersonal relationships has been referred to as ‘gossip’ for decades. This gossip, however, is actually discussion of issues over which women have direct influence and can wield actual power. The ‘important’ discussion of politics and soccer, on the other hand, are topics over which men have no influence: they are removed from the place of action and have no power over what happens.

It is true that men typically dominate the public sphere and women the private, but the motivations behind this division may not be as clear as they seem. For example, in rural areas of Italy men can be seen sitting in their cars along country roads, reading a newspaper or otherwise idling their time away. Why? Their women, viewing them as nuisances, have kicked them out of the house until supper time.

A curious result of the division between public and private spheres is seen by Lila Abu-Lughod, author of Veiled Sentiments, who conducted an extensive case-study while living with a Bedouin tribe in the western Egyptian desert. She discovered that the women were always abreast of all happenings in the public sphere of men, usually thanks to sons and younger men of the family. Women have an extensive grasp of both the public and private spheres; Men, however, only have access to public knowledge. The women’s world is almost entirely closed to men. If, then, knowledge is power, the power balance in the Mediterranean may not be quite what the social sciences have traditionally deemed it to be.

The traditional views are not wholly without merit. It is true that gender roles in the societies around the Mediterranean are strictly divided. Change is difficult, as these roles are commonly accepted as preserving and protecting society. While mobility between the spheres is possible, particularly among the upper class, it is also true that in many areas the role of women is forcibly made subservient to men. Some may believe the suggestion that women actually have a more powerful role in Mediterranean society than traditionally thought to merely be wishful thinking. Yet at the same time, perhaps the question of why the washing machine is in the kitchen deserves a bit more thought.