“Women on the streets!: a genealogy of food riots in the Middle East between the 18th and 20th centuries“ (Till Grallert)

This project scrutinises the phenomenon of urban food riots in the Middle East between the mid-eighteenth and the mid-twentieth centuries as contentious performances that form and follow certain repertoires (C. Tilly). In doing so, the project addresses social relations—between genders and social strata; between agents and addressees of protests and their conceptions of the social relations tying them together; between contentious performances and the built environment facilitating some actions and obstructing certain other actions.

Despite being everything but quotidian and even though the sources’ elite-bias cannot possibly be overcome, when analysed as performances, food riots allow us to scrutinise the legitimacy of political power and political systems. This follows the well-established observation that food riots are never spontaneous acts of mindless mobs, but follow a limited and rather stable set of repertoires that are deeply rooted in prevailing social norms. Through the tactics adopted by the protesters, food riots reveal the sets of commonly held beliefs among large segments of the populace at any given time. As such, they provide an insight into the stability or volatility of urban regimes during the paradigmatic shift from an ancien régime to the modern nation state.

Explorative research established at least 45 distinguishable and rather equally distributed food riots between the mid-eighteenth and mid-twentieth centuries in Acre, Aleppo, Beirut, Damascus, Hama, Homs, and Jaffa. Even a superficial look at the empirical traces reveals that over the entire period under study, women figured prominently, if not predominantly, in food riots throughout the Middle East. Second, most of these riots raised inherently political demands on the ruling authorities and in the majority of cases protesters did not violently seize grain supplies or attack food suppliers. In line with observations in other regions of the globe, the project argues that food riots had the function to regularly remind the rulers of their duty to provide a fair living for the ruled rather than to grant immediate access to foodstuffs through looting. Accordingly, many food riots took place neither at the central Friday Mosques nor in the vicinity of grain stores. Instead the demonstrators marched to the seat of the ruling authorities and public places par excellence. Thus, the project aims at establishing a genealogy of 200 years of highly visible and audible female political participation in public places.

The project employs four major bodies of primary sources: edited chronologies, the Ottoman archives in Istanbul, German, British, French, and American consular archives, and, from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, local and regional newspapers as well as ego documents.


Author: Till Grallert