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Society and Culture in the Middle East and North Africa

Contested Classrooms: Education in North Africa, the Middle East, and the Gulf

International Workshop

The below event was held on Friday 24 May, 2013, 10.00-18.00
Small Committee Room, King’s College London, Strand Campus

sponsored by an Arts & Humanities Conference Grant for the Middle East & Mediterranean Studies programme

When students and graduates in North Africa, the Middle East, and the Gulf took to the streets in 2011-12, they not only called for political transformation, but also for socio-economic opportunities that would reinstate and safeguard their idea of a decent life. Both these sets of demands are underlined by a desire for a remodelled educational system and the (re)constitution of clear links between education, social integration, and cultural recognition. For some time, state-controlled schools and universities have been among the most contested institutions in the postcolonial and developing states of the region. Students, teachers, and parents have been negotiating more than the professional future of the next generation; they have disputed the parameters of national culture, the state’s demarcation of faith and moral values, and modes of authority suggested by curricula and pedagogical methods.

Entangled in lingering colonial hierarchies, nationalist agendas, and structural adjustment initiatives, formal education in the region is currently acknowledged as ailing by citizens, state actors, and international organizations alike. Development rhetoric (led by organizations such as the World Bank, the UNDP, and USAID) has produced, time and time again, statistically based managerial evaluations of educational systems in the region that have focused on educational infrastructure and equitable access to schooling. However, such diagnostics have routinely obscured the political environment and socio-cultural tensions that have shaped – and continue to undercut – education as well the impact of international intervention in the countries in question. In its turn, academia has primarily focused on religious education in order to address the relationship between modernity and piety, and to respond to Western foreign policy’s exaggerated suspicion towards institutions such as the kuttab, the madrasa, and religious universities (Eickelman 1978, Starrett 1998, Hefner and Qazim 2002 and others). As a result of this urgency, attention to the unfolding of educational processes in state-controlled classrooms has so far been scarce (with the exceptions of Kaplan 2005, Herrera and Torres 2006, and Adely 2012). Therefore, while development rhetoric has typically excluded political realities (national and international) from its elaboration on education, academia has sidelined formal schooling and its cultural, social, and economic effects on the lives of young people of the region. Both have only peripherally touched upon the experience and opinions of school participants. While it is undisputable that certain states have openly discouraged access to classrooms for sustained periods, the omission of the voices of school participants should go neither unnoticed nor unaddressed.

This collaborative project argues that schools in North Africa, the Middle East, and the Gulf are the sites for highly ambivalent engagements that offer us valuable insight into the contemporary role and meaning of education and knowledge. The experiences and evaluations of school participants give us access to the turbulent trajectories of state building and global market integration; they also help us situate the general sense of accumulated hurt that has been pushing young people towards legal and illegal migration and that has brought many of them to the boiling point during the Arab Uprisings. The project features the work of scholars who have recently conducted qualitative work (participant observation, interviews) inside public and private schools and were therefore able to explore education from the angle of lived experience. The empirical lens is, in fact, double: on the one hand, it addresses student and teacher experiences and, on the other, the experience of the researchers themselves inside and outside the school walls. It is through this double empiricism that the collection will interrogate the various ramifications of government policies and international development measures inside schools during the last 50 years. The analytical direction of the collection intersects and complicates development rhetoric and public discourse that has often assumed education to be an easily delineable domain somehow distinct from other socio-cultural and political dynamics. It also challenges educational theory’s ability to adequately account for the complexities of structured socialization across the globe, an ability that is compromised by its unshakable conviction about the centrality of the school to civilizational progress and redistributive justice.  


  • Student Aspirations and School Trajectories
  • Privatization and Neo-liberal Policies
  • Authoritarianism, Discipline, and the School
  • Nationalism and Formal Education
  • Gendered Experience of Formal Education
  • Rural/Urban Divides in Formal Education
  • State-Appropriated Religion in Formal Education
  • Language Policies


  • Charis Boutieri. King’s College London.
  • Craig Larkin. King’s College London.
  • Linda Herrera. University of Illinois.
  • Fida Adely. Georgetown University.
  • Rehenuma Asmi. Teachers’ College, Columbia University.
  • Maria Kastrinou. Durham University.
  • Hania Sobhy.Freie Universität.
  • Rania al-Nakib. Institute of Education. London.
  • Roozbeh Shirazi. University of Minnesota.
  • Kathleen Fincham. University of East Anglia.
  • Elizabeth Buckner and Rebecca McLain Hodges. Stanford University. 
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