In 1975, the Lebanese Civil War broke out, sparking significant political, social, and cultural tensions and turmoil in Lebanon. Over the next fifteen years of the war, there’d be an estimated 120,000 fatalities, the internal displacement of approximately 76,000 people, and an exodus of almost one million. At the same time, the country was also undergoing modernization in its social systems; women’s roles in society were going through a radical transformation. As Nicole Khoury, a lecturer at the University of California explains in a 2018 article, there was “an influx of women into the workforce, an increase in women’s duties in the home and in society, and a shift in traditional Arab family structures as women became bread-winners and decision-makers.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, as part of the World Conference on Women in Mexico City, the United Nations had declared 1976 to 1985 the “Decade for Women,” sparking a move towards women’s issues in international politics and policy-making. This also happened in the middle of the Cold War, when the political climate was to a large part controlled by the geopolitical interests of the US on the one end and the USSR on the other, polarizing much of the world into two camps and their respective fields of influence. Both nations tried to exert their power through what was later termed a “cultural war,” that is, fostering political influence through cultural products.
It was in this context that the feminist academic periodical Al-Raida, translating to “The Woman Pioneer,” emerged out of Lebanon in 1976. Was Lebanon undergoing a cultural war at the same time as its civil one? And was feminism, and specifically Al-Raida, a pawn in all of that? In trying to find answers, I mostly unearthed more questions.
“Was Lebanon undergoing a cultural war at the same time as its civil one? And was feminism, and specifically Al-Raida, a pawn in all of that?”
Starting off as a quarterly newsletter and evolving into a bi-annual peer-reviewed academic journal by 2013, Al-Raida was founded by the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World (IWSAW)—now known as the Arab Institute for Women—located at the Lebanese American University (formerly Beirut University College). Continuing to this day, the journal has been publishing articles on various women’s issues in the Middle East. Beyond the journal, the Institute also organized outreach programs, seeking to educate Arab women locally and globally through writing, workshops, and conferences. The institute was initially funded by the Ford Foundation, as was Al-Raida, begging the question: Why is an American philanthropic foundation bankrolling Middle Eastern feminism? And why is it funding an academic journal in the first place?
“Why is an American philanthropic foundation bankrolling Middle Eastern feminism?”
The Ford Foundation was founded in 1936 by Edsel and Henry Ford, with the mission of advancing human welfare. This may all seem like an innocent and noble cause. Yet, it is well known today that, fueled by Cold War tactics, the Ford Foundation became one of the “big three” American philanthropic entities to help impose American ideas upon the world through funding and influencing publications, civic organizations, and higher education.
When it comes to Al-Raida, though, while many academics have questioned the effects of funding from the Ford Foundation, no one has so far been able to untangle the fraught tensions emerging from such an influence. And so we are left with many unanswered queries. How exactly did this funding influence the way feminism was portrayed in the Middle Eastern context? And was local content marginalized or reframed to align with a specific US agenda?
“How exactly did this funding influence the way feminism was portrayed in the Middle Eastern context?”
The journal was initially published in both English and Arabic. But for a certain unknown period of time, it was issued solely in English due to lack of funding and a higher demand from an English-language oriented readership. During the time of the civil war, the journal was distributed to many countries through the support of its powerful funding body. Only much later, thanks to a grant by another foundation, Open Society Institute, was the journal again made available in both languages. Later, in 2002, the journal was made available online in both English and Arabic. Publishing only in English meant that the journal wasn’t able to reach certain areas of more local audiences. What, then, are the politics of publishing on local feminist topics, when only English-speaking readers can take part in the conversation? What political interests also emerge with the centering of the English language in Arab scholarship? What were the actual interests behind building intellectual diplomacy centered on Arab women?
“What were the actual interests behind building intellectual diplomacy centered on Arab women?”
Al-Raida really might have just been a tool in a larger field of effort and interest. “I was asked by the Ford Foundation in Cairo to act as a consultant on women’s affairs,” writes Dr. Julinda Abu Nasr, the first director of the IWSAW and founder of Al-Raida, in an article in issue two, published in 1977.
Operating out of its regional office in Cairo, opened in 1957, the Ford Foundation has awarded more than $200 million to over 350 institutions in the Middle East and North Africa over the past five decades. Especially since the 1970s, it’s been honing its efforts in that region on urban and rural poverty, sexual and reproductive health, issues of law, and human rights—particularly those of women. Abu Nasr was repeatedly asked to represent the journal at conferences and workshops, both locally and internationally. What influence did the founder have on other women and their ideologies by being able to share her experiences and viewpoints? And how much were her ideas shaped by local contexts on the one hand and international powers on the other?
“How much were the ideas of the journal’s founder shaped by local contexts on the one hand and international powers on the other?”
About a decade before it funded the setting up of the IWSAW in Lebanon, the Ford Foundation granted $56,000 to American scholars to set up the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) in 1967. By then, this emerging scholarly field, dominated by tenured white male professors, had already been wrapped in controversy surrounding its funding, including allegations of having received money from Zionist organizations and the CIA. The MESA and its main affiliated scholars were soon also criticized by Arab-American scholars for the suppression of politically controversial topics, especially about Palestine, in the name of professional detachment. The educational institution at which IWSAW was set up was founded by two female American missionaries and was renamed Lebanese American University in 1994. A close tie to American scholarship interests is therefore undeniable. But how exactly did these ties perhaps influence what was published in Al-Raida and what wasn’t? In what way did the US possibly exert soft power to influence the social fabric of the Arab region and ultimately benefit its own interests?
“In what way did the US possibly exert soft power through Al-Raida to influence the social fabric of the Arab region and ultimately benefit its own interests?”
It’s unclear how much money Al-Raida received from Ford Foundation, and whether it is still receiving any funds from them today. In general, the journal’s source of income has varied greatly throughout its lifespan, and it has profited from yearly subscriptions. However, the initial boost and support from the Ford Foundation, and the points of contention that arise from that, shouldn’t be overlooked and brushed aside as mere, innocent philanthropy. Because with money always comes great influence and therefore a great many questions.
Elham Namvar (she/her) is a UAE-based designer and researcher. Departing from her previous practice in editorial, visual identity, and experiential design, her work now employs a multidisciplinary approach weaving together design, research, and critical thinking.