French rule in Syria and Lebanon coincided with the rise of colonial resistance around the world and with profound social trauma after World War I. In this tightly argued study, Elizabeth Thompson shows how Syrians and Lebanese mobilized, like other colonized peoples, to claim the terms of citizenship enjoyed in the European metropole. The negotiations between the French and citizens of the Mandate set the terms of politics for decades after Syria and Lebanon achieved independence in 1946.
Colonial Citizens highlights gender as a central battlefield upon which the relative rights and obligations of states and citizens were established. The participants in this struggle included not only elite nationalists and French rulers, but also new mass movements of women, workers, youth, and Islamic populists. The author examines the "gendered battles" fought over France's paternalistic policies in health, education, labor, and the press. Two important and enduring political structures issued from these conflicts:
- First, a colonial welfare state emerged by World War II that recognized social rights of citizens to health, education, and labor protection.
- Second, tacit gender pacts were forged first by the French and then reaffirmed by the nationalist rulers of the independent states. These gender pacts represented a compromise among male political rivals, who agreed to exclude and marginalize female citizens in public life.
This study provides a major contribution to the social construction of gender in nationalist and postcolonial discourse. Returning workers, low-ranking religious figures, and most of all, women to the narrative history of the region--figures usually omitted--Colonial Citizens enhances our understanding of the interwar period in the Middle East, providing needed context for a better understanding of statebuilding, nationalism, Islam, and gender since World War II.
Elizabeth F. Thompson is a professor of history at the University of Virginia. She is the author of Justice Interrupted: The Struggle for Constitutional Government in the Middle East (Harvard, 2013), which profiles a dozen political movements against tyranny and inequality in the Middle East since 1839, culminating in the Arab uprisings of 2011. Her first book, Colonial Citizens: Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon (Columbia, 2000), won book prizes from the American Historical Association and the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. Prof. Thompson has also won research awards from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Social Science Research Council, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the Library of Congress. With Mustafa Aksakal, she is Middle East co-editor of the new 1914-1918 Online encyclopedia of the First World War and co-director of the National Endowment for Humanities Summer Seminar for Faculty, "World War I in the Middle East."
Colonial Citizens: The Thompson-Leacock Approach to the Levant
A flaw within the approach of any account of a culture lies within the fallibility of the juror. Elizabeth Thompson realized such a flaw within the historical accounts already available to her by her predecessors in the area of her study – the Levant. She found such accounts lacking as they did not represent the voice of the marginalized within the Arabian and Islamic culture, and it was Thompson’s hope that by writing this book, the reader would better understand that Arabic culture and Islam are not inherently gender biased. Instead Thompson argues that “gender pacts struck by the French and then reaffirmed by the independent nationalist governments may be understood as an attempt to mitigate the rivalry among the [male citizens] and assure loyalty to the state.”1 Thompson develops her argument by a historical recount of Syria and Lebanon with special emphasis between the years of the First and Second World War. Thompson believes these interwar years are more critical than other historians have formally given them credit for, and she believes that it was during these years that the “common political legacy,” of perpetuating, “Islamic laws that accentuate inequality between men’s and women’s personal status”2 was created. It is Thompson’s hope that through her research, she would “redress [the inherent] weakness in previous studies”3 by fully delving into the psyche of the marginalized in this area and explore the particular reforms created during the interwar period while France acted as a paternalistic ruler to guide these people to an eventual self-government. Thompson proposes that the interwar years were “seminal in laying the foundations of postcolonial states and citizenships,” and that the “experience of war, economic dislocation, and rapid change in urban social life had as profound an effect on politics as the particular strategies of [the] elite political actors”4. Of particular interest to the student would be the various revolts led by the marginalized against their new paternalistic government 5. These revolts inevitably failed, since a common binding agent besides oppression was unable to fuse the marginalized groups together. Such division between the marginalized therefore only “infused the civic order with a new style of political bargaining,”6 between the subalterns and helped perpetuate the growing inequalities of the system. Within the realm of Thompson’s work, the research methods used to create her argument are flawless. Utilizing foreign ministry records left by the French during their occupation, French and Arabic periodicals, military, legal and missionary archives from this period, as well as interviews with various indigents of the area she encapsulates the essence of this people into an innovative historical accounting. Overall, Thompson made a compelling argument for the necessary revision to historical approaches in the subject of Arabic and Islamic culture. This Leacockian7 approach to history was useful to those within the study of Middle Eastern and specifically Syrian and Lebanon studies, and colonial imperialism in general. Unfortunately I found Thompson’s approach a little lacking. A comparison between Syria and Lebanon to other countries in the Middle East which did not undergo a period of republicanism, or other countries which were able to break free of their ties to paternalism and create more lasting personal status reforms, would have proved both interesting and provided a greater understanding to the reader. Furthermore, a more elaborate account of elite nationalist movements would have added substantially to the historical account of this era. Additionally, I feel that the relative socialist undertones throughout the presentation of this historical account are rather short sighted although they do provide a thoughtful framework for the author’s argument. As it stands, Colonial Citizens is more than a historical recount of the role French imperialism in the Levant. It is a call to fellow historians to delve deeper into the interim periods of history, to delve deeper into the intricate lives of the citizens there and seek a greater understanding of such moments upon history. Rather than seeking to supplant previous historical works regarding the Levant, Thompson hopes to further accentuate the historical intricacy of how “states and their citizens are constructed under colonialism and then bequeathed to their postcolonial successors,” not as a “unilateral system of rule,” but as a, “constant negotiation of power relationships and identities.”8 Thompson’s work as a tool to reconceptualize the essence of colonial rule through understanding the role of paternalism upon gender and the struggle for a solid civic order is a deft masterpiece. The pace of the book progresses slowly due to the intricate nature of her argument, but as a whole I believe it to be a superior work of literature for this genre.
Notes: 1. Elizabeth Thompson, Colonial Citizens: Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege, and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 287. 2. Thompson, Colonial Citizens, 9. 3. Thompson, Colonial Citizens, 12. 4. Thompson, Colonial Citizens, 3. 5. Thompson, Colonial Citizens, 110. 6. Thompson, Colonial Citizens, 111. 7. This is pertaining to the work of anthropologist Eleanor Burke Leacock, who held that the subordination of women was a product of history and not a universal condition – a theory which she felt was over looked by male predecessors who failed to create accurate ethnographic accounts due to their personal biases as capitalist or imperial citizens. Furthermore it should be noted that Thompson and Leacock both attended Columbia University – an important factor when considering schools and the continuation of feminist ideology, especially since Thompson received her MIA only two years after Leacock’s death. 8. Thompson, Colonial Citizens, 1.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
An important, groundbreaking work, and Thompson should be congratulated for tackling such a loaded topic and in Arabic too(!) I could have used a little more gender and a lot less politicking, but I suppose that's the nature of the beast. Her point was well taken, however, that the matter of gender relations, particularly the power hierarchy existing therein, was always the source and endpoint of both cultural and political power struggles. Her argument that the colonial experience exacerbated and even, to some degree, caused the stark gender inequalities in Syria and Lebanon is a plausible and appealing claim, but I still came away feeling a lack of much hard evidence.
This book breaks down the division between the categories of “colonizer” and “colonized” in the French Mandates of Syria and Lebanon. In its place, Thompson emphasizes the fluidity of the relationship between all numbers of colonial and colonized classes, sects, genders and subalterns in the vortex of what she terms the "civic order" – the discursive “space” in which various factions of the colonized and the colonizer renegotiated their positions, rights, and responsibilities. Colonization was not a ‘one-way’ street, but rather a dialogue, or even a jockeying for position. Thompson feels that three conditions made Syria/Lebanon ripe for this kind of development: the ravages of the Great War, the post-war inception of inchoate independent states under European Mandate tutelage, and the imposition of European colonial rule. For Thompson, gender is the supreme variable in this study, both as an analytical tool, and as an object of study. The meaning of the former is obvious, but as a subject of study Thompson sees gender as having been a ‘battleground’ in the context of the Mandate system in Syria/Lebanon. Not only was it the arena in which the colonizer/colonized locked heads, but (as Fleischmann also observes) the colonizer colluded with and manipulated patriarchal forces among the colonized in order to maintain its own power. One of the key tensions running through this analysis is the contradiction between the French revolutionary ideals of republican fraternity and French colonial and Arab elite notions of gender paternalism.
The book is nothing if not thorough, and indeed seems a little interminable. Sections 4 and 5 of the book drag it out a bit too much.
One thing Thompson is wont to do is psychologize her subjects, which some may have a problem with. She seems to offer somewhat believable insights into the state of 'male psyche' at particular junctures in Syrian and Lebanese history, but these are ultimately subjective and perhaps even shaky theories. Nevertheless, they are plausible, and at the end of the day, I suppose all scholarship is really 'best guess'. That's all it is.
Superb history of Syria and Lebanon. Thompson explains how the French occupying force denied self-determination after WWI and used alliances with male religious elites to cement control over the mandates of Syria and Lebanon. Three protest movements coalesced in the form of women's rights, socialist and communist laborers, and Salafist Islamists (a populist group, compared to the conservative elites allied with the French). Thompson shows how gender permeated the colonial regimes. Women had trouble gaining political power; secular male nationalists and male Islamists alike felt threatened by women in the public sphere; the French subordinated women to men, with the assistance of the religious elders; and after WWII, the nationalists betrayed women's rights, siding instead with the Islamists. Syria became a typical despotic corporate state; Lebanon relied on a privatized model. Both states kept women out of politics to a great degree. Thompson also shows how the belief in a modern welfare state began under the French mandate, and how the desire for better social services caused citizens to topple the early governments of free Syria and Lebanon. Dense, but exhaustively researched, with fascinating insights into modern politics and the history of women in the Middle East.
This one was loaned to me by a friend who studies women's history. It did not disappoint.
Although I have done a bit of reading on colonialism, it's mostly been British and also not really 20th century mandates and things. And I do very little work on gender or paternalism or anything like that. But, I am very interested in the interwar years, and in the context of what's currently happening in Syria. So yeah, it took me some time, but I read it. Though I probably should have prepped with some general French mandate history, haha.
This review wasn't helpful to anyone at all. If you think you're interested in this book, you probably are. Only crazy people like us pick up books with this title.