Petitions, Demonstrations and Unrest: The Participation of Women in Protest Movements in Mandate Syria and Lebanon

Verantwortliche Dr. Nina Salouâ Studer
Trägerschaft Institut für Islamwissenschaft und Neuere Orientalische Phililogie
Betreuung Prof. Dr. Henning Sievert
Finanzierung Schweizer Nationalfonds

This project studies the participation of women in various protest movements that took place in the French Mandate in the Middle East, i.e. modern Syria and Lebanon, between 1920 and 1946. The goals of these movements were very diverse, ranging across the political, the social and the economic, from the specific to the very broad. The people or institutions these movements were protesting against during this period also widely varied. There were anti-colonial demonstrations, which targeted the whole of the French mandate government; there were protests against conditions and salaries in specific factories and boycotts of specific companies; there was the outraged helplessness of the bread riots, which was directed at both local merchants and the French government; there were “petition demonstrations”1 which were addressed to individual politicians or political institutions; and finally there were petitions and demonstrations protesting against local personalities and institutions.

In order to contextualise the participation of women in these protest movements, I propose to analyse three different forms of protest: protests that were orchestrated by and for women (such as the petitions by women’s clubs and the various women’s rights demonstrations during the 1930s); protests that were led by women or at least had a high percentage of women participants (such as, for example, the bread riots and workers’ strikes); and demonstrations and petitions that, allegedly, were purely male, such as, for example, proto-fascist riots and demonstrations by certain professions and the nationalist movement. This comparison of different types of protest movements (with regards to female participation) will allow me to formulate an answer to the principle questions of this project. How much diversity was there in protest movements, with regard to female participation? How did movements led by women or with a high participation of women differ from those with a low, or even with no, participation of women? Was there a marked difference between “female” and “male” protest movements, or should variances in protest rather be explained by a class-based approach, i.e. between “elite” and “non-elite”? The goal of this project is therefore to locate female participants of protest movements, to contrast these protest movements to those that explicitly or implicitly excluded women, and to define what social, political and economic factors influenced female participation. On a different level, this project also thematises the reasons for the invisibility (or the hiding) of female participation in protest movements and the selective perception of protests (and “the street”) as masculine in both the sources and the secondary literature.

In this project I will attempt to write a series of case studies of individual protest movements, a series of biographies of events, so to speak, which will hopefully act as a counter-narrative to the idea that protest movements were either purely or mainly masculine during the mandate period. These case studies are intended to highlight various aspects of female participation in the protest movements in this region and time period, and show when women wrote to the authorities, when they took to streets, and under what political, social and economic circumstances they did neither while men did.

1. The term “petition demonstrations” has been suggested by the American historian James Gelvin in his 1994 article on “The Social Origins of Popular Nationalism in Syria”. According to him, this term describes the tradition in the region of a group of protestors creating a list of wishes and grievances, and presenting that petition, often in a highly public way, to the highest available powers. Gelvin, James L. The Social Origins of Popular Nationalism in Syria: Evidence for a New Framework. In: International Journal of Middle East Studies. Vol. 26, No 4 (1994). 645-61. Here: 655.