Follow us on


Defying stereotypes

Published : Jun 04, 2010 00:00 IST



YEMEN and Lebanon are parts of the Arab world that are usually trivialised and exoticised in the mainstream Western media as states crucial to the West read the United States in the war on terror. Therefore, whenever a bomb blast occurs in Sana'a or Beirut, their respective capitals, the West and its compliant media take notice, only to lose interest as soon as there are other more exotic occurrences.

Yemen is an ancient Arab country with a Biblical past, and has been long under the hammer of a personalistic dictatorship. Yet, interest in that country in the mainstream press in the West was only awakened when USS Cole was bombed in 2000, only for the country to be forgotten again in the welter of world events until the Nigerian Christmas bomber was apprehended in Detroit before he could bomb an American plane. Apparently, he had spent a few months training with fundamentalists in Yemen. The new interest in the country thus created led to commentary in the Western media that once again revived stereotypes about its women as burqa-clads earnestly waiting for liberation and the country itself as a haven of angry beards.

Likewise, Lebanon, whose history is not as continuous as Yemen's it was artificially and opportunistically carved out of Syria by the French colonisers to exert future leverage is routinely exoticised in the Western media as an outpost of European civilisation surrounded by savage Arab nations, with the former perpetually at war with the latter to salvage its Christian, European values. Throughout its torturous history, whenever Israel attacked and demolished half of it to achieve the Jewish state's strategic objectives, the Western media applauded the carnage sympathetically as necessary to rescue Lebanon's supposedly pro-Western trajectory.

Meanwhile, the emergence of Hizbollah in Lebanon as a national resistance movement and its subsequent parliamentary success was ignored or greeted with traditional hostility and contempt. Women in Lebanon as Lara Deeb acknowledges in her book are also routinely exoticised as either being too modern and beautiful (referring to the posh areas of Beirut) or being rigidly fundamentalist (in the case of the Shia women living in southern Lebanon or the other' Beirut).

There is admittedly a lot of significance in reviewing a work on Yemeni women like Anne Meneley's at a time when the country is being pilloried in the international media as a troubled land of beards and burqas. Anne Meneley's women are located in the coastal town of Zabid, and confined to the elite, upper-class ashraf families. They are mostly engaged in tournaments of value (citing Appadurai, page 5), which are attempts by elite Zabidi women to attain status in Yemeni society.

Curiously, just the fact of being ashraf is not enough to confer honourable status on these elite families. The ruling elite in many parts of the Muslim world historically claimed honourable status on the basis of the fact that they were descended from the Sa'adah (the family of the Prophet Muhammad). In Yemen too, the family of the Hamideddin imams claimed descent from the Sa'adah and used the status to justify their brutal rule in the north until the military revolution of 1962.

Despite the latter being a seminal event in modern Yemeni history, Anne Meneley does not dwell on it a lot. However, what she does not miss is the fact that this event led to the virtual abolition of the caste-like class system separating the subjects of her book from the poorer ajlaf classes (page 12). Also striking is the fact that Zabid's elite should refer to themselves as al-nas (the people, page 12), a strange inversion of the term as it is usually employed.

Be that as it may, the Zabidi elite have then to justify this honour of being socially respectable people, by putting up appearances. This is done through maintaining a hectic routine of visiting, not only those of their own status, but also those slightly below them. Extending hospitality is a way to accumulate honour in society vis-a-vis other similarly located families and is reflected in subsequent events and occasions, including charity, mourning, wedding and the environs of the house. The more these elite women socialise, the more their status and piety are recognised in society.

Interestingly, as Anne Meneley also acknowledges, such elite socialising takes place in a society riven by class and gender contradictions, often mediated through religion. For instance, such socialising takes place with the outer accoutrements of modesty modest attire and non-contact with unrelated men as set in the Quran, giving alms to the poor and hosting elaborate mawlids. What makes this elite socialising possible is wealth and the fact that it is a male-dominated society that dictates what women should and should not do. In this insulated, repressed elite bubble, Zabidi women might feel that they are actually achieving a lot, but in terms of women's emancipation and real freedom, it all amounts to virtually nothing. Anne Meneley says aptly: The capacity of women, even elite women, to shape their own destinies, however, is still constrained by the society which they help to reproduce (page 98).

For that reason alone, it might be instructive to observe what women of similar backgrounds were able to achieve in the south of the country. The latter's substantial achievements in women's emancipation and in combating patriarchy would give Zabidi women a pause to witness their own plight.

Other contradictions also abound in this privileged existence. While fellow elite women would be criticised for not spending time with poorer families, who are either reduced to emulating the rich or to sheer dependency, scorn and dishonour is reserved for the class known as the akhdam, the poorest stratum in Yemeni society, which are so dishonourable as not even to merit inclusion among the poor. The hierarchy built by the privileged Zabidi women is built as much on the oppression of this group as on the former's fabulous wealth.

Discussions on the akhdam'

Anne Meneley's discussions on the akhdam in the context of its position in society and with regard to the control of emotions form the more interesting part of the book. What is refreshing about the akhdam as is true of working classes everywhere is that its members are remarkably free of any pretensions to social status or propriety and thus have a more relaxed approach towards Islam.

The last chapter, on the Rise and Fall of Families, presents an interesting contrast between the dwindling fortunes of a feudal family, which, having exhausted its landholdings, has fallen on bad times and a nouveau-riche family. The contrast shows that the feudal class is on the wane and has to safeguard its privileges in order to maintain its standards. Not for it are the astute observations of the nobleman Tancredi, who, desperate to save the decaying Sicilian aristocracy in Lampedusa's classic novel Il Gattopardo, had reached the conclusion: If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.

What is needed here is not merely the replacing of one style of conspicuous consumption with another, but some form of humanity within this closed circle that acknowledges the presence and oppression of the akhdam and the real application of Islam's tenets to minimise the excessive consumption of the elite. A similar state of apathy led first to a reformist movement of the elite against one of their own the ruling imam in 1948, to be followed by a complete overthrow of the old order in 1962. Zabidi women, though beset by patriarchy, feudalism and their own wishes to maintain the status quo, are still quite removed from the rest of the country, where patriarchal practices of child marriage are now being challenged, with the support of the law courts.

In contrast to the socialisation and conspicuous consumption of Zabidi women, which opens the gates of piety for them, are the pious women of al-Dahiyya, one of the poorest suburbs of Beirut where the Shias are in a majority. Lara Deeb uses the well-known sociological construct theorised by Max Weber the notion of an enchanted modern to show that in contrast to what Weber observed in the Europe of his time, Shia women in south Beirut actually become more religious/pious with the rise of modernity. Lara Deeb thus turns her ethnographic lens to the most marginalised of Lebanon's various sects the Shias as well as the more marginalised gender within that denomination Shia women. This is an unlikely enterprise among scholars and academics who, pandering to the market, produce what is demanded: stereotypical images of the country and its inhabitants, the chief culprit being either the Shia population or the largest political movement of that sect in the country, Hizbollah. Nevertheless, the fear of being branded as, or as abetting, terrorists the U.S. State Department categorises Hizbollah as a terrorist organisation has not prevented Lara Deeb from delving deep into the Shia periphery and demolishing such ahistorical and decontextualised stereotypes.

What one finds useful in Lara Deeb's book is a chapter (chapter 2) on the recent history of Lebanon (Anne Meneley's book is more concerned with anthropological matters). This history is useful to recount in a treatise on anthropology because, according to Lara Deeb, all history is suspect. There is no agreement on a Lebanese national history textbook (page 68).

As such victors and losers change frequently. Lebanon's Shia community was not really visible, thanks to the National Pact before independence, which turned the country into a sectarian state, divided among feudal warlords of different religious persuasions. Shias got short shrift in the Pact, which rewarded Maronite Christians for being clients of the departing French and the Sunnis for being clients of Saudi Arabia.

As in most of the Arab world of the 1950s and 1960s, the Shias were initially drawn into leftist secular-nationalist or communist politics because of the attractive ideology of promising elevation and equality for the marginalised. With the death blow that was dealt to Nasserism in the catastrophic Arab-Israeli war of 1967, disillusioned Shias turned their attention elsewhere. It was not until the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 that Shias, armed with a triumphalist ideology and inspired by charismatic leaders such as Musa al-Sadr and Hasan Nasrallah, began to mobilise in large numbers.

The effects of this mobilisation are evident and visible in various forms of embodied piety (page 103) in al-Dahiyya, whether it is praying in public, or women not shaking hands with unrelated males or using the veil. Incidentally, the last two practices are constantly contested, whether it is the notion of ijtihad reinterpreting religion in the light of modern requirements or scepticism, shown by various young protagonists in conversation with Lara Deeb (the dialogue on page 100 on the real significance of fasting is instructive).

Unlike in the case of Zabidi women, pious women in al-Dahiyya are not restricted by a patriarchal order bent on carving separate public spheres for men and women.

The Shia religion is dominated by clerics who support science (page 28) and learned women are elevated to the status of mujtahids (page 94).

In the case of veiling, the worlds of Zabid and al-Dahiyya are similarly far apart. Unlike the elite women of Zabid, women in al-Dahiyya take part in community work, and their clerics support them. One woman, Hajjeh Zehra, explained the increased prominence of the hijab in al-Dahiyya as a protest against the objectification of women (page 114). Muslim women in societies as far apart as Egypt and France have chosen to identify with the hijab for religious rather than cultural reasons, especially in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks. Pious Shia women are able to do this comfortably because the religious tradition based on rituals is gradually being replaced by an authenticated version more grounded in knowledge and understanding (page 117). Embodied piety is complemented by discursive piety, which means that pious women place great stock in consulting official sources as well as consistently debating every facet of religion as everyday lived experience, whether it is about the existence of djinns (page 122) or the occurrences at the Battle of Karbala (page 123).

The best and most important example of visible, authenticated Shia Islam as practised daily in al-Dahiyya is Ashura. Over time, the more traditional Ashura mourning involving mass self-flagellation and the minimal presence of pious women has given way to a more disciplined gatherings with greater participation of women. Western policymakers, and their willing satraps in Beirut and the rest of West Asia, who deride this organised ritual of protest should read the powerful description in Lara Deeb's section on authenticated masira (pages 137-38). It is more a reflection of the history of the Shia community, drenched in the blood of martyrs, and a contemporary protest against their unjustified stereotyping than an assembly of would-be terrorists and suicide bombers.

In fact, U.S. policymakers continue to make an issue of the huge Ashura processions led by the fiery anti-occupation cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in occupied Iraq; they should know better.

The mourning gatherings have also undergone a change with the arrival of modernity. The traditional gatherings involve a greater emphasis on the emotionality of the qari'a and her audience rooted in an Arabic dialect that was sometimes chosen specifically for its ability to sound more like a lamentation. At the more modern and authenticated gatherings, lamentation over the mistakes and tragedies of the past bring forth new and relevant lessons for the present. Thus the Ashura has been transformed from a narrative emphasising mourning to one inspiring revolution (page 149).

Even the icons that have historically defined Ashura have been reinvented to serve the needs of the present. For pious Shia women, this pertains to the role of Sayyida Zainab from a defeatist mourner to an inspirer of the flag of revolt, which has much resonance when one looks at Shia women's role in public activism as well as gender jehad and the confrontation of the Shia resistance against Israel and the local pro-U.S. Lebanese oligarchy.

It is difficult to visualise how the hitherto popular secular parties such as the Lebanese Communist Party could have had such spectacular success at a comparative level with Shia mobilisation, having had no political or cultural icon to own but with a history of martyrdom and sacrifice to appropriate. The Sunnis, too, have no pious activist and revolutionary tradition to draw upon in the same tradition as Hussein and Zainab, with the possible exception of Abu Zar (who died exiled and marginalised but not martyred).

This, then, is the living authenticated Ashura (page 154), which has prevented the Shias as they exist in Lebanon from living an ossified existence, frozen in tradition. Instead, they have harnessed the glorious revolutionary past for contemporary, modern needs of public activism and piety. Lara Deeb also does well to remind her readers that martyrdom operations are carried out only against the Israeli occupiers and also that these operations are not the exclusive preserve of Shias. In fact, in Lebanon, suicide bombings were pioneered by communist and secular groups rather than Hizbollah, as the meticulous work by Robert Pape which Lara Deeb does not cite has convincingly shown.

Two ways in which pious Shia women come to terms with the public activism and piety exemplified by Sayyida Zainab are community commitment and gender jehad. Community commitment simply means that many well-to-do women mostly middle-class volunteer to help the destitute and poor in al-Dahiyya by providing them with their basic needs through jama'iyyas either associated with Hizbollah or functioning independently. These voluntary organisations have sprouted because the state, wracked by war and it own internal weaknesses and in thrall to the neoliberal dictates of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, has abdicated its role of providing basic necessities to its citizens. They cater to the needs of the poor, war widows and orphans.

Hajjeh Zahra's powerful testimony (pages 187-191) makes clear the transformation that young, secular women (and men) like herself made from being affiliated with secular-nationalist, leftist parties to religious parties like Hizbollah, in a trend mirrored in the rest of the Muslim world from Egypt to Pakistan. It is also important to understand that religious organisations such as Hizbollah are able to tap into the poor not just because of the impulses of humanitarianism, piety and politics discussed by Lara Deeb but because of the social services provided free of cost to the poor, even to those who exaggerate their poverty, something which both the state and the traditional left are unable to do at the moment.

Standing in for the state

One could argue, on the basis of Lara Deeb's discussion of the relationship between volunteers and their dependents, that over time such relationships create dependency (page 183) and prevent any form of agency to the poor themselves. Indeed, the work of such organisations resembles that of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in developing countries, replacing grassroots politics for donor handouts in a politically neutral space. However, in giving support to the poor, especially the martyrs' families, the volunteers of these organisations become part of the political resistance against Israeli aggression (pages 199-201). But it cannot be denied that this kind of politics cannot combat the neoliberal depredations visited upon the Lebanese poor, short of temporary relief.

Another downside is that religion and its visible accoutrements, such as the hijab, are often a determining basis for deciding membership of such volunteer organisations (page 206). Thus, it can be said to reinforce the appeal of religion in Lebanese society.

Gender jehad denotes the efforts of pious Shia women to reclaim their work spaces from men and in the process challenging patriarchy and male stereotypes about the former's ability to cooperate, be organised and to think rationally (page 213). More radically, it implies the ability to reinterpret religious texts that traditionally have been the preserve of male clerics. In doing so, they distinguish themselves from the so-called elite subhiyya' women. The elite, socialising women of Zabid would also be implicated among the latter, based on this criterion.

However, this notion of the enchanted modern is now being questioned by younger Shia women who see limits to its applicability in their private and public lives, given the often sharp divergences between the two. This ties in with the debate over the real role of religion in one's life: should it be reduced to mere ritual or does it imply a notion of spirituality and relevance?

Lara Deeb directs our attention to another interesting question at the end of the book: whether the public piety imperative has diminished since the liberation of south Lebanon in May 2000 (page 231). Then she goes on to recount that on her last visit to al-Dahiyya in 2001, she was allowed to enter an Islamic school without being required to wear an abaya and hijab.

However, Lara Deeb need not be confused over this: as long as young people in the Arab-Muslim world see no real alternative to the ravages inflicted by neoliberalism, religion will continue to provide an outlet for resistance and Nasrallah, Muqtada al-Sadr and Hamas will continue to be anointed as rock stars, irrespective of the fact that religious forces were once the preferred instruments of the West to get rid of the appeals of secular nationalism and communism in the Muslim world. It is the mixing of religion and politics by the state that has frequently led to sectarian bloodbaths in societies from Egypt and Algeria to Indonesia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, women in the Muslim world continue to defy stereotypes, not only in their own societies but also in those constructed about them by their counterparts in the West in the name of women's liberation whether it is a 10-year-old Yemeni child-bride forcing a court to annul her inhuman marriage to a man twice her age or the courageous stance of the Afghan parliamentarian Malalai Joya, who demands accountability from the corrupt warlords empowered by the Afghan government under U.S. tutelage.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 04, 2010.)



Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment