The Private and the Public as Objects of Study
For the Arab, there is no such thing as an intrusion in public. Public means public.
Edward Hall, The Hidden Dimension
Life in the Middle East has been often viewed in terms of a clear dichotomy between the private world of the woman and the public world of the man, such that men, seen as dominant and powerful, monopolize the public domain, while women, viewed as subordinate and powerless, are secluded and confined to the private sphere. Women's segregation has often been seen as central to men's sense of honor, and seclusion has been analyzed as a mechanism to control women's sexuality, which is perceived by the society as powerful and potentially destructive (Mernissi 1987; MacLeod 1991; Hessini 1994).
The distinction between the private and the public has been viewed as a separation between “two different worlds” (Abu-Lughod 1986; Mernissi 1987). Mernissi (1987), for instance, argued that “space boundaries divide Muslim society into subuniverses: the universe of men (the umma, the world of religion and power) and the universe of women, the domestic world of sexuality and the family” (138). To cross the boundaries that separate the public from the private, women need to protect themselves and prevent any potential social disorder or (fitna) by wearing the veil. Women thus can “enter men's public space only by remaining shielded in their private space,” and the veil is seen as a “symbol of interiority” (Hessini 1994: 47) that renders the woman “invisible” in the street (Mernissi 1987: 143). Such studies, though they have much to offer to the study of the politics of sexuality, usually limit their discussion to
The dichotomy between the private and the public has been criticized by several scholars (Nelson 1974; Altorki 1986; Hegland 1991; Fraser 1992; Benhabib 1992). Feminists in particular have shown that the distinction between the private and the public “has been part of a discourse of domination that legitimizes women's oppression and exploitation in the private realm” (Benhabib 1992: 93). More theoretical studies have shown how the notion of “public” has changed over time (Sennett 1977; Calhoun 1992). Currently, as Fraser (1992) showed, public is used to mean “state-related,” “accessible to everyone,” “of concern to everyone,” and “pertaining to a common good or shared interest” (128). Private usually refers to private property or to “intimate domestic or personal life, including sexual life” (Fraser 1992: 128). There is a need, therefore, to continuously question who is defining what is “private” and what is “public” and how the distinctions between them shift over time and are being negotiated by gender and age groups.
My aim here is not to deny the gendered nature of the separation between the “public” and the “private.” Rather, I argue that by assuming a rigid dichotomy and fixity in the separation between “the world of men” (always equated with the public) and “the world of women” (always equated with the private), the analysis fails to account for the continuous struggle to define the boundaries between the private and the public and how their definitions are central to the reproduction of power relationships