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Women's Economic Rights and Cultural Difference: Defining Development for the Middle East

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - WoRD-DoME (Women's Economic Rights and Cultural Difference: Defining Development for the Middle East)

Reporting period: 2017-07-01 to 2018-09-30

This research addresses a gap in studies of gender and development. Although we know about the workings of power inequalities in development program implementation, we know less about agency formation and inequality in institutional processes. Although we highlight problems in development programs, we have less insight into how negotiations inside institutions produce them. We also know little about how assumptions about culture and cultural difference figure in these processes and their implications for questions of gender inequality.
This interdisciplinary research fills these gaps. It asks: 1. How do assumptions about culture and discourses of cultural difference interact with development agendas? 2. How do gender experts experience and strategize during these encounters? 3. What are the outcomes in terms of official programs and mandates? 4. What do these processes suggest for how gender and culture interact in development work? It has three objectives: 1) Exploring how discourses of cultural difference and women’s rights interact in development agendas. 2) Studying gender experts’ experience with the construction of notions of culture. 3) To develop new theory.
The project is also socially relevant in a world where conservative politics in different parts of the world can use arguments of cultural difference to justify political action against rights-based claims. Those who advocate for expanded rights can find themselves facing accusations of orientalism and western imperialism. This research advances a perspective that acknowledges cultural diversity, but also highlights questions about who defines culture and underlying power relations. The research contributes to broader discussions of how discourses of culture and rights interact in everyday politics.
During WP1, Altan-Olcay performed an overview of the relevant literature. She also passed the Graduate Institute of Ethics Review. WP2 envisaged the analysis of flagship reports of relevant institutions of governance for the last ten years. This was accomplished. In addition, gender-related reports of the same institutions and others (with respect to the places where potential interviewees worked) were analyzed. During WP3, Altan-Olcay conducted 40 interviews with gender experts in the international governance system. She also participated as an observer in public events in the multilateral system on gender and development and used these observations in the interviews and her writing.
During WP4, Altan Olcay carried out writing and dissemination activities. At the Graduate Institute, she gave two class presentations to students. She engaged with students and postdoctoral researchers, providing individual feedback on their work. In addition, she participated in seminars across the institute, contributing to the scholarly community at large. Altan-Olcay gave two invited talks, one at the Gender Centre and, the other, under the auspices of the Global Governance Centre. She has presented her work in the EISA, in a panel organized by Elisabeth Prügl on gender experts. She has submitted a panel proposal for the ISA (accepted) and another for the ECPG on gender experts and international governance (under review).
During WP4, Altan-Olcay has produced three articles. Two of these (entitled “Politics of Engagement” and “Making and Unmaking Culture”) are close to completion and will be sent to high-impact ISI journals. A third is on the technology of purposeful ambiguity in gender work. Altan-Olcay and Professor Prügl are also planning to write a co-authored paper. Lastly, the researcher is working on a short piece for a general audience on the theme of ‘engaging men in gender equality.’
Elisabeth Prügl’s guidance was of utmost importance in shaping the research and its outputs. Thanks to the Marie Curie IF Grant and the Gender Centre, Altan-Olcay has developed a presence in European networks and has expanded her research skills.
There are three directions in the state of the art. First, feminist critique has shown how feminist discourses can be diluted and coopted by the existing neoliberal paradigm in development governance. This important critique reveals the problems of essentializing and instrumentalizing women in development programs. Yet, it risks over-focus on public discourses and situates gender work in a binary fashion, separating those on the inside and the outside of institutions. In one article-in-progress, "Politics of Engagement," the objective is to move the discussion beyond the binary of cooptation inside versus activism outside. The article shows gender experts’ circulations among multiple organizations and maps their strategies around the often-discussed themes of instrumentalization and ambiguity. It reaches beyond the state of the art by delineating the complexity of gender expertise work and posits instrumentalization and ambiguity as both process and outcome, with different rationales and political potentials.
Scholarship also studies gender experts in international governance. Scholars, especially Altan-Olcay’s supervisor Elisabeth Prügl, approach gender expertise in terms of technologies of governance, highlighting power relations and contestations. Scholarship shows that gender experts negotiate with hegemonic ideologies, which can expand political possibilities and close them off. This important literature documents expert engagements with hegemonic discourses of neoliberalism. However, there is little discussion of the growing strength of discourses of cultural difference. A second article entitled “Making and Unmaking Culture” addresses this gap. It maps out gender experts’ encounters with claims of cultural difference and religious dictates. With each encounter studied, it investigates how gender expertise becomes part of stabilizing or destabilizing widely accepted understandings of what religion and cultural difference entail. The article moves beyond the state of the art by addressing this gap in the literature on gender experts and hegemonic ideologies, and by studying how the pull of both cultural relativism and orientalism can be resisted.
Finally, Altan-Olcay is writing a paper on technologies of gender expertise. Technologies of expertise literature focuses on the ways in which expert knowledge performs power by technicalizing issues of governance, which are actually highly politicized. This work of technicalization includes the production of concepts, tools and their dissemination. This article will move beyond the state of the art by studying political contestations before stakeholders accept a concept. It will move discussions further by highlighting the continuous political work needed to keep concepts stable.
During fieldwork, Altan-Olcay has also discovered new aspects of the study, not anticipated previously. One paper that she is currently formulating is on the implications of multiple temporal horizons of development work. A second paper is on interactions between humanitarian relief work and broader development paradigms. Altan-Olcay is also planning a multi-sited project based on the results of this research. Finally, she is transitioning back to her home university; and intends to use her research and the networks she has established for the benefit of the scholarly community at Koç University and beyond.