The year 2012 marked a first in Saudi Arabia's media history. The first feature film entirely shot in Saudi Arabia, where there are no cinemas, was released that year. It was written and directed by a woman: Haifaa Al-Mansour. Wadjda (2012) tells the story of a rebellious ten-year-old girl who wishes to buy a bicycle in a culture where women are not encouraged to cycle due to religious views that regard riding a bike as tantamount to losing one's virginity. The story focuses on the heroine's bid to enter a Qur'an-reading competition at her school in order to secure the money necessary to purchase the “forbidden” item. But within its own social and political context, the film itself is essentially forbidden: Al-Mansour had to shoot it while hiding in a van and giving directorial orders through a walkie-talkie, as women and men are not expected to work together in public because of gender segregation.
In an interview with the BBC, Al-Mansour discussed the importance of introducing change in Saudi society while acknowledging that with her film, she wanted “to allow people to embrace change at their own pace.”1 In the context of the film, change is embedded in the image of a bicycle, which represents independence, mobility, freedom, and imagination. At the end of the story, when we see Wadjda cycling to the border of town and stopping by the motorway, we feel assured that there are new worlds and possibilities she is now able to explore despite these borders. Wadjda thus also offers us the opportunity to rethink and revisit the writing of women's media histories as they unfold in the present.
The idea of change highlighted within the film might also be applied to scholarly interest in feminism, history, and media—especially when it comes to the Middle East. There is a need to change and unsettle media historiography by including not just women's stories generally, but stories of women of the Middle East. Although feminist scholarship has done much to write women back into media histories (as evidenced by, for example, the maturing body of work published in Feminist Media Histories and the expanding and impressive work produced by the Women Film Pioneers Project), this has frequently focused on Western examples and narratives.
Vivian Sobchack's reflections on changing conceptions of “history” are particularly relevant in thinking about how contemporary Middle Eastern media histories are written: “For an event ‘to become’ History, an ‘appropriate’ period of time for reflection upon it seemed necessary. This seems no longer the case. Today, history seems to happen right now—is transmitted, reflected upon, shown play-by-play, taken up as the stuff of multiple stories and significance, given all sorts of ‘coverage’ in the temporal dimension of the present as we live it. Correlatively, there seems a sense in which we believe we can go right out and ‘be’ in history.”2 Following Sobchack, the articles in this issue collectively demonstrate the possibilities of writing a history of the recent past.
Take, for example, K. Soraya Batmanghelichi and Leila Mouri's article about online feminism in Iran since 2009. They argue that the Internet has become the critical medium for Iranian feminist activism; they analyze social media use by Iranian rights-based platforms and theorize the ways in which women's rights are vocalized and made visible within the Iranian context. Batmanghelichi and Mouri claim that online platforms help to enhance feminist awareness while challenging women's current political and economic status in Iran.
Considerations of difference in religion, nationality, race, and ethnicity remain crucial to interrogating feminist media histories across diverse social and political contexts. Articles in this issue demonstrate how we might explore different sociohistorical communities (in Iran, Egypt, and Syria in particular) within a particular geographical region. The authors call upon a range of methods of analysis—using primary resources, including interviews, archival materials, and textual analysis—to historically contextualize a variety of topics (from Egyptian melodramas to online feminism in Iran) while contributing to the debates around gender politics, cultural identity, and Middle Eastern histories. Each piece focuses on a different media form: cinema, photography, art, online media. Meredith Slifkin examines Egyptian melodramas as a site where women's liberation was linked with national modernization in the wake of the 1952 Revolution. She argues that melodrama can help us understand how popular film culture organizes people politically and effectively.
The Western media's approach to the Arab world has historically been from a point of difference and opposition that has promoted misrepresentative and inaccurate knowledge about the diverse nations and cultures that make up the Middle East, as several recent studies have shown.3 Women, in particular and in innumerable ways, have been represented as veiled, oppressed, and urgently in need of rescue.4 Articles in this volume provide an important opportunity to better understand the lives of Middle Eastern women through a range of media forms and practices that break away from dominant Western discourses of the Middle Eastern “other” and shed light on the complexity of gender politics in different national and cultural contexts in the region. Anne Ciecko contributes to these debates in her discussion of the work of artist Mary Hallock-Greenewalt, who was born in Beirut and raised there by a Syrian mother and an American father. Examining Hallock-Greenewalt's unpublished and unfinished autobiography, as well as other archival documents (letters, diaries, photographs), Ciecko argues that the artist's abstract films, visual music, and proto-multimedia, produced in the United States in the early twentieth century, were deeply critical of the pathologizing of Arab and Middle Eastern identities. Ciecko suggests that Hallock-Greenewalt's family history and cultural heritage, as well as her perception of female consciousness, are embedded in her inventions and writings on the spectatorial impact of audiovisuality.
Other articles in this issue advance debates around feminist historiography by highlighting the tensions inherent in applying Western theories to non-Western subjects. A case in point is Sara Saljoughi's article. Saljoughi provides a thorough analysis of the 1977 Iranian film The Sealed Soil, a prerevolutionary feature directed by a woman, Marva Nabili, while arguing that Nabili's film inaugurates what she calls a politics of refusal: through its thematic register, at the level of formal film language, and by its creative use of the cinematic gaze. Saljoughi explores the nature of the tensions that arose from women's participation in film production at a historically critical moment in Iran, and for Iranian art cinema's global acclaim.
Paper proposals received for this special issue demonstrated a particularly strong interest in feminist media histories centered on Iran and Iranian women media producers. The selection of articles here represents this scholarly interest in the field: Bennet Schaber's essay examines Shirin Neshat's work as an artist and filmmaker, teasing out some of the issues related to the politics of dislocation while placing her work among that of other filmmakers, photographers, and new media activists in the Middle East. Also included in the issue is an oral history interview with the director Rakhshan Banietemad, one of the most noted Iranian filmmakers, who has been active as a writer and director in the Iranian film industry since 1980. In the interview, conducted by Kay Armatage and Zahra Khosroshahi, Banietemad reflects upon the ways her work excels in representing contemporary situations, often in relation to the changing roles of women in Iran, but also engaging a broad spectrum of social issues, including war, poverty, domestic abuse, and class mobility. Often the target of interference from religious censors, Banietemad's work invites critical conversations about gender politics and women's issues on the Iranian screen. The interview offers a rich insight into Iranian cinema and culture over more than two decades, while allowing the director to highlight the tensions inherent in filmic negotiations of identity and gender politics in Iran.
This special issue explores feminist media histories in the Middle East through an examination of different media forms, practices, and institutions. The articles advance theories around the region's media histories in relation to women and feminism, as they examine the circumstances under which media texts have been produced and circulated within and beyond the region. The issue is not comprehensive in its coverage of the Middle East; there simply isn't room. But the great interest generated by the call for papers signals the urgent need to dedicate more space in academic work for feminist media histories centered on the Middle East. Collectively, the articles here share a common feminist agenda despite focusing on different national and historical contexts and media forms. They provide examples of ways in which we can critically and historically reflect on the media cultures of countries in the Middle East. Whatever journey the reader takes through this issue, I hope that it is one structured by explorations, interconnections, and new discoveries through which feminist media histories of the Middle East are made more visible.